The Fourth of July, Independence Day, is a good time not only for hot dogs and fireworks, but to reflect for a moment on what makes this country unique, the qualities that enabled it to become in some ways the most successful country in history, and to contemplate the extent to which those qualities still animate Americans.
It has been said that the United States is the only country founded on an idea, or a set of ideas, rather than on ethnic or racial similarities, kinship, conquest or the simple fact of a relatively homogeneous group of people living in the same geographic region for centuries. Those ideas are summed up in the Declaration of Independence, the document whose signing and promulgation we celebrate. In some ways it can lay claim to being the most revolutionary public document in human history.
Aspects of the idea that people are not just vassals of the powers that be, interchangeable cogs in the great machinery of society presided over by leaders who had by and large established themselves through conquest and pillage, had been growing for centuries before 1776. But the circumstances surrounding the decision of the Colonists to separate from Great Britain offered the opportunity to summarize emerging principles in a uniquely eloquent manner.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” the Declaration proclaims, “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.” By “created equal,” of course, the founders were not so na