It’s difficult to say what most Americans commemorate or celebrate on Independence Day nowadays. Many appear to focus on some vague notion of “America.” Others even take to jingoism equating the United States government with the very notion of “freedom.”
Lost in all of this is the fact that the Declaration of Independence — the document we’re supposed to remember today — is a document that promotes secession, rebellion, and what the British at the time regarded as treason.
On the other hand, those who do recall the radical nature of the Declaration often tend to romanticize the American Revolution in a way that is neither instructive nor helpful today.
So, what should we remember about Independence Day, and what can it teach us? For starters, here are three things about the history and context of this holiday that should continue to inform us today and into the future.
One: If You Can’t Secede, You’re Not Really Free
The very first sentence of the Declaration of Independence lays it out. Sometimes, “it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…”
The document then goes on to list in detail why 1776’s specific act of secession was justified and necessary for preserving the rights of the colonists.
By the 19th century, this philosophy of self-determination would become a foundational element of the ideology now known internationally as liberalism — or “classical liberalism” in the United States.
Not surprisingly, we find this idea in the later writings of liberals such as Ludwig von Mises who, writing in Vienna in 1927, concluded:
It must always be possible to shift the boundaries of the state if the will of the inhabitants of an area to attach themselves to a state other than the one to which they presently belong has made itself clearly known…
[W]henever the inhabitants of a particular territory … make it known … that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time … their wishes are to be respected and complied with.
Mises, like Jefferson, understood that without this right of self-determination, there is no freedom.
Nevertheless, modern opponents of self-determination and secession will claim that secession cannot be tolerated because it is not “legal.”
This is scarcely relevant. After all, the colonial uprising against the King was not “legal,” and it hardly matters whether political victors consider any breakaway secession movements legal. Times and societies change, and nothing is forever or written in stone.
For Mises, secession must be tolerated for pragmatic reasons. It is “the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars.” But For Jefferson, as for his fellow secessionists, it was a moral imperative, whether “treasonous” or not.
Two: Independence Day Is Not a Military Holiday
For obvious reasons, government institutions have little motivation to emphasize the Declaration of Independence or the philosophy it represents. This would amount to the government undermining itself. Consequently, many have attempted to turn the Fourth of July into a holiday that embraces vague notions of celebrating “America.”
These ahistorical interpretations notwithstanding, Independence Day recalls resistance and a withdrawal of fealty to a hostile political power. We should not twist it into a celebration of our current rulers in Washington, the federal government, or the troops that work for and represent the federal government.
It should be a celebration against government and a reminder that Americans can once again walk away from tyranny, even if force of arms is required.
This does not defame or insult the American troops, but rather reminds us that we are a civilian nation and the government (and its troops) is supposed to be our servant rather than our master. Slavish displays of patriotism and loyalty to the state are inimical to the real meaning of the holiday.
Three: Armed Revolt Is a Serious and Rare Event
Among those who do wish to commemorate the true resistance offered by the revolutionaries, there is a different error: thinking that armed resistance is always right around the corner.
In some corners of America, it’s become almost commonplace to hear claims that surely the Second American Revolution will come with just a few more outrages committed against life, liberty, or property. All it will take is a few more no-knock raids committed against peaceful families sleeping in their beds. Or perhaps the government need only seize a few more guns before the American people “wake up.” Or perhaps once someone reveals the extent to which the US government spies on us all — as Edward Snowden has already done — then Americans will simply refuse to tolerate it any more.
In truth, armed resistance tends to only materialize in the midst of poverty or foreign invasion. Not surprisingly, over the past century, despite decades of immense growth in government power, rising taxes, and stifling government regulations, virtually no Americans have been taking up arms against the American state.
Some of this may stem from admirable prudence. After all, the American Revolution was an exceptionally bloody conflict, and such conflicts should not be started lightly. As noted by the Library of Congress, “[t]he Revolution … was, after the Civil War, the costliest conflict in American history in terms of the proportion of the population killed in service. It was three times more lethal than World War II.” The poverty, property destruction, and loss of life was immense given the tiny size of the American population at the time.
Most Americans are unaware of these specifics, but most people instinctively know that armed conflict can bring with it a very high price.
This doesn’t mean armed resistance is impossible, of course. It’s simply worth recognizing that so long as Americans enjoy some of the world’s highest standards of living few will be motivated to take up arms.
Ideas Always Matter
It is also helpful to remember that armed conflict can be especially disastrous when motivated by the wrong ideas and the wrong ideologies. Who can say with confidence that if the US government were wiped away today, that it would not be replaced with something even worse? Under such circumstances, we must never abandon the important work of laying the foundations first for a revolution in ideas. Without a true respect for the freedoms outlined in the Declaration of Independence, political resistance is of little value. Moreover, in a society where true freedom is valued — and where a majority embraces liberal ideals — violence will prove to be totally unnecessary. And this would be the best outcome of all.