America’s Founders: The Greatest Generation

I’ll admit, I am generally skeptical of state-sponsored holidays. There’s a tendency, no matter the official occasion, for them to turn into glorifications of all the supposed accomplishments and virtues of government. But I have a special place in my heart for July 4th. No other holiday – indeed, no other event in American history – represents political liberty the way that the Fourth does.

The founding generation was full of remarkable people and the Declaration of Independence was that generation’s defining moment. It would take another six years of war to militarily uphold the Declaration’s principles. It would take another 13 years and two constitutions to fully form the federal government.

But on July 4th, 1776, a decade’s worth of events culminated in the grand statement of American liberty, that men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” And that, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government.”

What were these abuses? They included:

  • Erecting a multitude of new offices, and sending swarms of officers to harass the people and eat out their substance
  • Keeping standing armies in peacetime, without the consent of their legislatures
  • Subjecting them to a jurisdiction foreign to and unacknowledged by their laws
  • Quartering large bodies of armed troops among them
  • Protecting those troops, by a mock trial, from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the people
  • Cutting off their trade with all parts of the world
  • Imposing taxes on them without their consent
  • Depriving them, in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury

In looking over the Declaration’s causes for the colonies’ separation from England, what is interesting is not how unique their experiences were, but how similar some of their own complaints were to those of modern Americans about our own government.

Yet modern Americans don’t talk like the founding generation. We don’t often use the language of rights and, when we do, we speak of rights that don’t exist. We complain about government oppression, but there is no serious consideration of secession. The solution of the founders – separating from the government that oppresses you – flies directly in the face of the principles that almost all modern Americans espouse.

Whereas the founders declared themselves to be “free and independent states,” modern Americans profess eternal allegiance to one nation, indivisible. Unsurprisingly, not only has political liberty all but disappeared in this environment, but the pursuit of it has almost entirely vanished.

While I love what July 4th represents, it is disheartening to see its meaning not just forgotten, but inverted. People will observe a day of secession and independence by celebrating a centralized government that is many times more oppressive than the one their forefathers separated from.

The founders were truly America’s greatest generation, which is not to say that they were perfect or perfectly consistent. But they showed a courage in the face of oppression that we today could only hope to exhibit. In an era in which we’re constantly told that divided we fall, July 4th offers us the opportunity to remember that it was in dividing that we stood the tallest.