July 4 marks the 243rd anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Many of us celebrate this event with fireworks, picnics, large and small get-togethers, and a day off work. My hope is that our grandchildren and their grandchildren will develop a deeper sense of the significance of what happened on July 4, 1776 so that they can carry on living freedom for generations to come.
There has been a struggle for thousands of years and that same struggle will continue to exist for thousands more. This epic struggle is between the individual’s quest for life, liberty and happiness, and the quest of others to use power and control to dominate people.
The Declaration of Independence rejected centuries of governance that made people the servants of monarchs and other elites in favor of a system in which government was the servant of the people with these words:
“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.‐‐That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Many look to the transgressions in our own history and the hypocrisy of some of the founders as reasons to reject the founder’s aspirations for equal access to life, liberty and happiness through self-government and inalienable rights. One cannot ignore the fact that forces remained then, and continue to remain now, that promote unjust power and control.
However, those transgressions are examples of how we failed freedom, not on how freedom has failed us. Whether they liked it or not, our founders planted the seeds that led to the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, and other efforts to quash tyranny and oppression at home and around the globe.
We embodied the concepts of the Declaration of Independence when the Constitution became the heart of our country and the Declaration of Independence its soul. We turned government on its head by protecting inalienable rights with separation of powers, checks and balances, state’s rights in balance with federal power, the rule of law, and government serving at the consent of the people. Our nation’s founders looked at the wisdom of the ages and devised a vision for a brilliant social and political structure that had the best chance of securing personal liberty by restraining power.
The concepts in the Declaration of Independence not only inspired “We the People” as the first words of the U.S. Constitution, it also inspired Washington State’s founders to provide the following in the first paragraph in its own Constitution:
“All political power is inherent in the people, and governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and are established to protect and maintain individual rights.”
Our state’s founders also looked at our failures as a nation to live up to the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence in the first 100 years and included this provision as part of our “Declaration of Rights”:
“A frequent recurrence to fundamental principles is essential to the security of individual right and the perpetuity of free government.”
So, what are those fundamental principles?
Our ability to be free depends upon our ability to govern ourselves. Freedom comes from individual grace, not government power. What history has shown is that freedom flourishes when we gravitate to the best in human nature. However, history has also shown that life, liberty, and happiness are fleeting when we sink to the worst in human nature.
We have become so interested in getting our way that we have lost our way. We have become opponents instead of fellow citizens because we turn to government to pick winners and losers. This means that the goal has now become to adopt the edicts of “our side” through the use of power and control.
Our government bodies are intended to provide laws and programs that we need, not laws and programs that we want. Power, the antithesis of freedom, becomes the most precious commodity when we try to use government to get our way and/or to make sure that the other side does not get their way.
We can overcome our failings if we follow two simple precepts:
1. Love the freedom of others as much or more than you love your own;
2. It is more important to do right than it is to be right.
Let us help each other get what we crave for ourselves; life, liberty, and happiness. More important, let’s make sure that our grandchildren can seek life, liberty, and happiness on the foundation of freedom we and our predecessors have laid for them.
Will our grandchildren be forced to “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” for the cause of individual freedom in the same measure that our founders did? Or, will we as trustees of freedom live out the words of the Gettysburg Address to be, “…dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Dave Larson is the presiding judge of the Federal Way Municipal Court.