Fireworks, parades and picnics are a great way to celebrate, but certainly aren’t what we celebrate. It’s not the fourth day of July that brings out Old Glory, it’s what happened on that day in 1776 and the many days to follow.
It’s a celebration of independence, and of liberty. Our founding fathers defied a king, swearing their lives, fortunes and honor to the task of firmly establishing liberty and independence on these shores.
So it is also a celebration of an experiment the likes of which the world had never seen: self-government. It is self-government that fuels our independence and protects our liberty.
In the early 1840s a young historian named Mellen Chamberlain sought out one of last surviving participants in the Battle of Concord to ask him about that experience. The minuteman’s name was Levi Preston, who was 91 at the time.
(Mr. Chamberlain later recorded the interview in his work, “John Adams, the Statesman of the American Revolution.”)
Chamberlain asked Preston why he had fought the British. The answers weren’t what the historian expected, for Preston did not speak of the oppressive British rule, the stamp tax, the tea tax or the writings of philosopher John Locke.
“Well, then,” Chamberlain asked, “why did you fight?”
“Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: We always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to and they meant that we shouldn’t.”
It was this concept of self-government, so natural to Levi Preston and his contemporaries, that changed the world. It is at the practical root of American exceptionalism. It’s why our nation has thrived, even as other, older and more established nations withered and died. America is exceptional because we, the people, govern ourselves. Levi Preston and his generation had the moral courage to do what they knew to be right: reject an offer of tyranny so that self-government could thrive.
We do not elect almighty leaders, but public servants. We don’t tolerate unlimited government or make allowance for the divine right of politicians. We govern ourselves, thank you very much.
Yet self-government is fragile; it only exists to the extent we continue to participate in it. If self-government is to continue, if liberty is to flourish, if we are to remain independent, we must be informed, engaged and active citizens.
It is that heritage we should celebrate not just on July 4th, but every day!
Originally published July 1, 2013.