Contrary to popular myth, the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were not great Americans. Instead, they were great Englishmen. In fact, they were as much English citizens as Americans today are American citizens. It's easy to forget that the revolutionaries in 1776 were people who took up arms against their own government.
So how is it that these men are considered patriots? Well, the truth is that their government didn't consider them patriots at all. Their government considered them to be bad guys—traitors, all of whom deserved to be hanged for treason.
Most of us consider the signers of the Declaration of Independence to be patriots because of their courage in taking a stand against the wrongdoing and tyranny of their own government, even risking their lives in the process.
Yet not even the patriotism and courage of these English citizens constitutes the foremost significance of the Fourth of July, any more than the military victory over their government's forces at Yorktown does.
Instead, the real significance of the Fourth of July lies in the expression of what is undoubtedly the most revolutionary political declaration in history: that man's rights are inherent, God-given, and natural and, thus, do not come from government.
Throughout history, people have believed that their rights come from government. Such being the case, people haven't objected whenever government officials infringed upon their rights. Since rights were considered to be government-bestowed privileges, the thinking went, why shouldn't government officials have the power to regulate or suspend such privileges at will?
The Declaration of Independence upended that age-old notion of rights. All men—not just Americans—have been endowed by God and nature, not government, with fundamental and unalienable rights. Governments are called into existence by the people—and exist at their pleasure—for one purpose: to protect the exercise of these inherent rights.
What happens if a government that people have established becomes a destroyer, rather than a protector, of their rights? The Declaration provides the answer: It is the right of the people to alter or even abolish their government and establish a new government whose purpose is the protection, not the destruction, of people's rights and freedoms.
The Constitution and the Bill of Rights must be construed in light of that revolutionary statement of rights in the Declaration of Independence. The American people used the Constitution to bring the federal government into existence but also, simultaneously, they used that document to limit the government's powers to those expressly enumerated in the Constitution. With the Constitution, people limited the powers of their own government in a formal, structured way, with the aim of protecting their rights and freedoms from being infringed upon by that same government.
Why did Americans deem it desirable and necessary to limit the powers of the federal government? Because they feared the possibility that their new government would become like their former government, against which they had had to take up arms. While they recognized the necessity for government—as a means to protect their rights—they also recognized that the federal government was the greatest threat to their rights. By severely limiting the powers of the federal government to those enumerated within the Constitution, the Framers intended to encase the federal government within a straitjacket.
Even that was not sufficient for the American people, however. As a condition for approving the Constitution, they demanded passage of the Bill of Rights, which emphasized two deeply held beliefs:
On the Fourth of July we celebrate the patriotism and courage of those English revolutionaries who were willing to pledge their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor in defense of the most revolutionary declaration of rights in history—that man's rights come from God and nature, not from government.
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This story was published on July 3, 2008.