It is easy for Americans who celebrated Independence Day to view the occasion as a look back to our illustrious history as a nation. After all, the Declaration of Independence and our basic framework of government, the Constitution, are both more than two centuries old.
But the story of what happened then, as the United States of America was being established, is more than a few pages about an event long ago. The work of our country’s founders is as much a part of the present — and our future — as it is history.
We celebrate Independence Day as our nation’s birthday. More than that, the Declaration of Independence is a sort of charter by which we Americans live. It specifies acts of government we will not tolerate. Later, the founders used the Constitution to detail safeguards for the freedoms we demanded officially on July 4, 1776.
Those who cherish those freedoms understand well that our basic documents and ideas of government are timeless. They understand that we view the Constitution merely as a vague guide only at our great peril.
Its safeguards were intended to be concrete and not subject to change at the temporary whims of presidents, members of Congress, the Supreme Court and special interest groups.
Those who would alter our protections as free people often claim the founders simply could not have conceived of the modern world in which we live.
That is true — but only to some extent.
For example, they wrote the First Amendment long before modern methods of communication, including television and the Internet, existed. Strict freedom of the press as mandated by the founders simply isn’t practical today, say those who would limit it.
But “the media” was not really so different two centuries ago. In fact, in some ways, the give and take of ideas was more spirited than it is today. It was not uncommon then, or later in our history, for published criticism of public officials to be so harsh and, in some cases, unfounded that duels were fought.
When the founders made the decision to separate from Great Britain, they did so with full knowledge of the ramifications of their action. When they wrote the Constitution, they thought carefully about whether it would provide a lasting basis for our liberty.
They did not have the benefit of predicting the future. They did, however, look far back into the past — thousands of years — to examine attempts to establish “perfect” governments and to determine what went wrong with them. And the founders, perhaps the greatest collection of intellects ever assembled in America, thought long and hard about whether their work would stand the test of time.
They were right in nearly all they did.
On July 4th, we do not simply commemorate the Declaration of Independence. We celebrate it and, by extension, the Constitution for what they were: farseeing actions by American leaders who gave us a framework of government that still safeguards our freedoms but that, in turn, deserves and needs our continuing protection.