When countries celebrate their national days, they tend to commemorate an event. It might be a great military victory, the ratification of a constitution, a successful revolution, or the birthday of a national hero.
And indeed, our celebration of the Fourth of July marks the day in 1776 that a few brave men in Philadelphia declared their 13 colonies free from Great Britain through the Declaration of Independence.
But in a deeper, far more enduring way, we celebrate the sentiments expressed in that document: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Written by Thomas Jefferson, these words have animated the best instincts of the American people for 234 years.
They have inspired us to become more inclusive, more tolerant, more understanding, and more egalitarian. They have led us to question our assumptions and confront our biases on race, religion, and gender. They have made us a better people and a stronger nation. They remain our lodestar, the place we look for guidance and direction.
When they were written, however, our infant country’s future was precarious.
The American government had little money, few soldiers, no allies, and the support of only a third of the population. Great Britain, with its huge navy and potent army, accused the signers of treason and vowed to suppress their rebellion.
As Benjamin Franklin said to the assembled group upon signing the Declaration of Independence, “Gentlemen, we must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
In the event, they hung together and prevailed. In the ensuing 12 years, they won their independence on the battlefield with help from France and loans from Holland and Spain.
They then tried to govern themselves under a loose confederation but failed. So they again met in assembly, drafted the Constitution, and formed the government we have today, over 220 years later.
Throughout those centuries the Constitution has guaranteed U.S. citizens their freedoms of religion, assembly, speech, and press. It has fostered the rule of law and protected the separation of powers.
Despite wars and economic crises, it has ensured that Americans go to the polls every two years to elect their representatives in Congress and every four years to elect their president.
When we look at many other countries where constitutions are written and discarded, ignored and abused, or altered to suit the whims of the powerful, we come more to realize our good fortune.
When we see judges, the very agents charged with the interpretation and application of the law, bend to the personal ambitions of politicians, we give thanks for our honest and competent magistrates.
Few countries have enjoyed our political stability and fewer still our centuries of democracy.
This, then, is the legacy of our Founding Fathers.
One of them, among the most prominent, was John Adams, who understood the significance of their achievement. In a letter to his beloved wife Abigail, he wrote about the signing of the Declaration of Independence and how it would be remembered.
Adams wrote: “It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parades, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfire and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
And so it has. I wish all my fellow Americans a happy Independence Day and urge them to celebrate it with sports, fireworks, and the ringing of bells, as Adams prescribed.
At the same time, spare a thought for our good fortune and 234 years of free elections, rule of law, individual rights, and separation of powers.
These benefits are not the norm. They are precious. And we have them.
Robert J. Callahan is U.S. Ambassador toNicaragua.