In 1826, shortly before he died, a ninety-one-year-old John Adams was asked to deliver a toast to honor a local July 4th celebration as well as the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Unable to attend in person due to failing health, Adams sent just two words to the organizing committee to be read on his behalf: “Independence Forever!”
I can think of no two words that better explain the meaning of America and its highest aspirations.
Adams’s two words mean a great deal to me, and now more so than ever. Tomorrow I will celebrate my first ever July 4th as an American citizen!
I became an American on July 14, 2020. Because of the anti-independence COVID-19 lockdowns, I did not have the opportunity to enjoy the standard swearing-in ceremony with dozens of other immigrants. There was no whoopin’ and hollerin’, and no hugging, flag waving, and photographs. Instead, my swearing-in took place in a small and dingy room in some nondescript government building attended by only one other person, the inducting officer from the U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
On that day I was asked to repeat these words:
I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.
Everything was going along swimmingly as I took the Oath of Allegiance until I was prompted to say these words: “that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” As if out of nowhere, a Tsunami of raw emotions—emotions that had built up over the course of a lifetime—rushed to my throat and my eyes filled with tears. I stopped. The words wouldn’t come, and I couldn’t go on. The officer looked at me with a knowing smile. He’d seen it before. It seemed as though minutes passed before I could gather myself and continue to the end.
And now, a year later, I prepare to celebrate my first July 4th as a proud citizen of the United States of America. It will be a glorious day, but I also recognize—as we all should—that Independence Day in 2021 is now contested. There are some in this country who wish to cancel our past, tear down statues and memorials, and declare July 4th a day of national mourning—a day in which we declare our independence from America’s evil past. The goal of the new Vandals is to cure us of what the Khmer Rouge called “memory sickness.”
I’m not having it; not for a second.
I for one will not permit that to happen—not in my house on my day. I take seriously—very seriously—the pledge I took one year ago that “I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The oath I took on that day is a promissory note to my fellow citizens that you can take to the bank.
During these troubling times, it is critical that Americans understand, defend and restore the principles on which this country was founded. It may be even more important that we not only recall the ideas of 1776 but also the actions of the Patriots who defended those ideas.
To that end, let us consider the opening sentence of the Declaration of Independence, which states,
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
What could it possibly mean to say that independence—which meant war, destruction, and death—was necessary? Surely the Americans had a choice!
To understand why American Revolutionaries thought it was necessary to separate from King and country, we must examine a phrase they used often during the 1760s and 1770s: the “spirit of liberty.” To modern Americans, the notion of a “spirit of liberty” might seem like little more than flowery rhetoric. To eighteenth-century Americans, however, it meant something real and important.
The word “spirit” as used in the phrase signifies both an idea and an action. The phrase “spirit of liberty” implied an action in defense of a principle; it was characterized by certain virtues in the defense of liberty.
American Patriots defined the “spirit of liberty” as a sentiment, a mindset, a disposition, and a virtue. As a sentiment, it loves freedom and hates slavery; as a mindset, it is watchful, suspicious, and skeptical; as a disposition, it is restless, protective, and vigilant; and as a virtue, it is defined by integrity, fortitude, courage, and patriotism. Taken all together, the “spirit of liberty” is a sense of life defined by independence in the fullest sense of the term.
The spirit of American liberty served as a kind of moral and psychological tripwire that was first triggered by the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 and kept active with the passage of every piece of British legislation aimed at the Americans in the decade before 1776. During these years, American Whigs developed objective standards by which to measure the justice and injustice of British legislation. These standards, when combined with the “spirit of liberty,” provided the Americans with an early-warning system that alerted them to the growth of arbitrary power.
By the early 1760s, this emerging moral awareness was taking root in the political consciousness of most Anglo-Americans. Thus their contest with Great Britain was not to create new freedoms de novo, but to restore freedoms lost. The American “spirit of liberty” meant discovering and resisting the forces of despotism before such forces could sink roots in the New World. It was common for colonial Americans to view power as restless and sleepless, which meant they must be ever alert to its machinations. The colonists frequently invoked Machiavelli’s famous dictum, “Obsta princiipis” [i.e., to resist the first beginnings].
The keepers of America’s vestal flame recognized that political power is an omnipresent force in all societies, which is why the liberty-loving temper of the people must be ignited, nurtured, and kept on alert. No infringement of their rights could be seen as too small to protest or resist. Built into the Americans’ grammar of liberty was the notion that tyranny always begins with some seemingly small and insignificant violation of rights that goes unnoticed at first but which sets a precedent for further violations.
Rekindling and stoking the spirit of American liberty became a central theme repeated over and over again in the writings of leading American Patriots. Even British observers of American affairs, such as Edmund Burke, took note of, and attributed causal force to, the colonists’ “spirit of liberty.” In his 1775 speech on conciliation with the colonies, Burke was moved to explain that the single most important factor in understanding the Americans’ resistance to British legislation was their “Temper and Character.” By studying the colonists’ moral character, Burke thought he had located the deepest source of their behavior over the course of the previous decade. In the American temper and character, he wrote,
a love of Freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole: and as an ardent is always a jealous affection, your Colonies become suspicious, restive, and untractable, whenever they see the least attempt to wrest from them by force, or shuffle from them by chicane, what they think the only advantage worth living for. This fierce spirit of Liberty is stronger in the English Colonies probably than in any other people of the earth.
The Americans’ “spirit of liberty,” according to Burke, provided the primary, causal explanation for why they reacted to the Stamp, Declaratory, Townshend, Tea, Coercive, and Prohibitory Acts in such a fearless, determined, and principled way. In response to these unjust laws and an advancing British Deep State, the colonists’ moral principles motivated them to act in a certain way (i.e., with vigilance, integrity, and courage). Failure to do so meant a concession to tyranny, which could only result in oppression and then enslavement.
The Declaration of Independence announced to the world that the Americans could not and would not renounce their most deeply held convictions. It also said that the Americans must act on their chosen values. They are impelled by moral necessity, according to the Declaration, to “alter their former Systems of Government.”
American Revolutionaries permitted themselves no breach between their principles and their practice. They practiced what they preached: they saw no alternative given their principles and their devotion to them. The words written by John Adams to a friend during some of the darkest days of the Revolution serve as a kind of motto to describe who Adams and his fellow Revolutionaries were as men and as patriots: “Fiat Justitia ruat Coelum [i.e., Let justice be done though the heavens should fall].”
Having made their case against despotism and for freedom, it should be clear now why revolution was necessary for the Americans, why they would not compromise, why it was their duty to act, and why they were impelled to dissolve the political bands that had connected them to Great Britain. Based on their commitment to certain principles, they had no other option. They had to act because of who and what they were, because of the choices they had already made, because of the values they held, because of the moral law they chose to live by, because of the kind of society they chose to live in, and because George III and the British Parliament threatened to rob them of all that.
The Declaration of Independence required action, the kind of action that leads in the short term to hardship, penury, and possibly even death, but in the long term to the blessings of a free society.
The Declaration also tells us a good deal about the men who signed it and led the Revolution. They declared to the world their right to self-government and they backed it up with their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. They demonstrated to the world that ideas and actions can and must be unified.
The virtue of integrity was the linchpin that united theory and practice in the Revolutionaries’ moral universe. They held their moral principles as absolutes, and they attempted to practice them without compromise or contradiction. They chose to act in ways they thought right and just, regardless of the immediate consequences, precisely because they understood the value of acting in their long-term self-interest.
Despite the many challenges thrown at them by fate, American Patriots met their problems head on and remained loyal to their principles. They attempted to lead an integrated moral life. If integrity is the principle of being principled, then the Revolutionary generation of 1776 embodied that virtue in spades.
At every stage of the Revolutionary crisis, the Americans held their principles in focus, the ways in which those principles were being violated, and the means by which they should protest and fight to defend them. They refused to sanction British actions. They did not evade, rationalize, turn the other cheek, or shirk their commitment or responsibility to their highest values. Instead, they responded in thought and deed to the repeated violations of their rights by organizing boycotts, protesting and resisting usurpations, writing letters, petitions and remonstrances, liberating boxes of tea, and eventually going to war.
American Revolutionaries were rebels with a cause. Despite the vicissitudes that befell them—the hardships of war, the blood and toil, the starvation, the imprisonment and torture, the destruction of home and property, the loss of family and loved ones, and finally death itself—American Revolutionaries refused to compromise, or to surrender their lives, their fortunes, or their sacred honor.
The moral universe they inhabited might seem like a foreign place to 21st-century Americans, but we forget its moral lessons at our peril. Their revolution is surely one of history’s greatest monuments to human virtue. It is ours to remember, celebrate, and restore.