The Declaration’s Legacy of Liberty

johnadamsOn July 2, 1776 the Second Continental Congress of the Thirteen Colonies approved a resolution of independence from Great Britain.  John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that he believed that day would be “commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty.”

As history would have it, Adams was two days early.  The Founders were not content with a mere resolution in the throes of the American Revolution.  They recognized the need to make the moral case for independence, and the leaders of the colonies did so two days later on July 4, 1776.

As we celebrate that declaration 237 years later, most Americans pay more attention to holiday travel plans, barbeque and fireworks than the importance of the Declaration of Independence.  Many of us never stop to question why America’s Founders would risk their lives and fortunes for something as abstract as liberty.  Why would they voluntarily dissolve their bond with the most powerful nation in the World for the fleeting chance at a new experiment in self-governance?

Fundamentally, the Founders articulated two complaints against the British government in the text of the Declaration of Independence: The British Crown no longer operated with the consent of the colonists, and the government had departed from its purpose of protecting the preexisting “unalienable” rights of the people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was arguably the last great employment of the ideas found in the Declaration of Independence. Americans recognized unconstitutional injustices based on race and altered their government by demanding equal protection under the law. Since that time, the power, reach, and size of the government have largely grown unchecked.  In a little more than a year, we have seen the government gloss over political targeting within the IRS, the NSA sweeping in tremendous amounts of data about American citizens, and even the Supreme Court rewriting a law in order to find it constitutional.

Our Founders would likely recognize us as their ideological descendants, but their perspective would be unflattering.  They might view the majority of us as “more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than [willing] to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

The bigger question is whether we actually believe that it is our right to alter or abolish a government that is destructive to the ends of our lives, our liberty, and our pursuit of happiness.

The notion that all is as it should be when it comes to America’s government is willful ignorance.  Respected polls suggest 78 percent of Americans disapprove of their Congress’s performance.  Around half the nation disapproves of President Obama’s leadership and 69 percent of the country ranks the Supreme Court’s performance as either fair or poor.


Our rights have, in many respects, become beholden to a government that was initially tasked with protecting them.


Regardless of ideology, government run amok is a problem for every American because our inaction permits it to continue. Almost every level of government continues to autonomously expand into all aspects of our daily lives.  Our rights have, in many respects, become beholden to a government that was initially tasked with protecting them.

We have repeatedly been promised the world by our political leaders if only we would part with slightly more of our earnings, submit to yet another regulation designed with our best interest in mind, or fund a masterfully-designed government program.  Those promises have been broken time and again, and we know it.

For many of us, the dissonance with the Founders’ mindset occurs because we have forgotten that our interest is liberty.  Strong communities, families, jobs, and economies are products of that interest, but they will not replace it. Politicians may promise more security and more provision, but those assurances are hollow opiates if they cost us the liberty that imbues our actions and choices with meaning.

That is why our Founders were willing to sacrifice their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to secure it. The chance to have real liberty was more important than anything else they could possess.

John Adams concluded his letter to Abigail with a startling moment of clarity.  He wrote, “I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means.”

As we reflect on that toil, blood, and treasure that ultimately birthed the world’s greatest experiment in democracy, we must ask ourselves what sacrifices we are willing to make to secure the blessings of liberty for future generations.


Cameron Smith is policy director and general counsel for the Alabama Policy Institute, an independent, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families. If you would like to speak with the author, he may be reached 205.870.9900, at camerons@alabamapolicy.org or on Twitter @DCameronSmith.

Note: This column is a copyrighted feature distributed free of charge by the Alabama Policy Institute (API). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author(s) and API are properly cited.