Today is the day we celebrate the special thing America is. Or what a special thing it would be, if we knew what we were celebrating.
America is worthy of celebration. But the reason why is all but lost amid all the flags and military showmanship.
Independence Day is unique among holidays because it is not a day that marks the birthday of a particular person, or the day of a particular battle.
July Fourth is not the day we won our independence. It isn’t even the day we declared it. That, technically, was two days earlier. And it wasn’t the day we ratified the Constitution or inaugurated our first president.
July Fourth is the day the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. Today’s holiday honors not a man, not a battle, not even, really, a country. It honors ideas, the ideas contained in the Declaration.
The American holiday is not the day we declared our independence, the day we won it, or the day we put it to use. It is the day we explained it.
What other holiday can say the same? It is as if the primary holiday of Christianity were not Christmas or Easter, but the day of the Sermon on the Mount.
Selecting the anniversary of a philosophical statement as our national holiday says volumes about America and its promise. It says that America is not an accidental creation of rivers or mountains. It is not a mob that shares only a common language or religion, or allegiance to one ruler or his descendants.
America is a nation based on thought, the thought that people both need government to protect them and need to be protected from government.
Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration calls for revolution, but not for anarchy. It turned the world upside down by declaring that the people may choose their own rulers. But it left no doubt that those rulers are expected to rule, not at the whim of the ruled, but for their benefit.
While many of the Declaration’s complaints against the English king speak to the evil laws he passed, many others — in fact the first ones listed — note the laws the king did not pass, the steps he failed to take to protect his people, the dangerous vacuum of power caused by his mishandling of the prize of his empire.
The authors of America did not look at government and liberty and choose one over the other. They were much wiser than that.
The authors of America knew that while government can be the enemy of liberty, liberty is not possible without a government to guarantee it. If liberty is the law, then liberty, like all other laws, must be enforced.
Independence Day is not about flags, fireworks, military hardware, past presidents or any other icons or graven images. It is about the importance of individual liberty and the recognition that the protection of that liberty is the primary duty of government.
It is a delicate balance the Declaration trusts us to keep, and we have not always kept it. Our government has abused its power, at times by doing too much, as often by doing too little.
But we, also, have abused this holiday. We have taken a day that should honor the heights to which the mind of mankind can aspire and turned it into a day of mindless reverence for the trappings of nationhood, trappings that do not separate us in any way from any other nation, free or slave.
Waving flags, applauding war machinery and exploding fireworks do poor honor to the ideas left to us 244 years ago today.
Those who would truly honor America will read the statement that attended its birth and take it to heart.
George Pyle is editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.
A version of this column first appeared in The Salina (Kan.) Journal on July 4, 1991.