When we commemorate the birthday of the United States of America, we don’t just celebrate a place, a set of governmental institutions, and a shared history that binds together people with differing backgrounds, faiths, and aspirations. We celebrate a revolutionary act.
As John Adams put it in an 1818 letter, the war that secured America’s independence was an effect, not a cause, of the American Revolution. “The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people,” he wrote.
During the turmoil of the 1760s and early 1770s, Americans began to discard the pseudo-religious concept that God had ordained kings and queens to rule over them. They also discarded the secular “habitual sentiments of allegiance and loyalty” that bound them to the crown, viewing the king’s trespasses against their liberty to have dissolved their reciprocal obligations to him.
These were revolutionary concepts in the 18th century. Indeed, America remains a revolutionary society today. But that need not make it unstable, unwieldy, or unattached to tradition. Our revolution of the mind didn’t reject the facts of human nature, the constraints of human life, or the intricacies and responsibilities of human community. It was fundamentally different than the subsequent Continental revolutions that produced guillotines and gas chambers.
Our revolutionary principle — inconsistently applied at first, imperfectly practiced today — was that all human beings are created equal in the eyes of God and the laws of man. It never meant that all human beings were, or could ever be, equal in all respects. It meant only that each of us has the natural right to liberty.
That is, we all enjoy the right to decide what we will do, with whom, to what end, as long as our actions don’t encroach on others’ right to do the same. And it means that when the latter proviso applies — when collective, coercive action is necessary — we all get a say in how such governmental power is exercised by expressing our views and casting our ballots.
Few human societies before 1776 exalted the principle of equal liberty above the interests of powerful monarchs and cabals. More have done so since, however imperfectly, with the delightful result that humanity is happier, healthier, wealthier, and freer than ever before in the history of our species. That’s a revolution worth celebrating.
It could easily have failed. As Adams explained in his letter, the North American colonies “had grown up under constitutions of government so different, there was so great a variety of religions, they were composed of so many different nations, their customs, manners, and habits had so little resemblance, and their intercourse had been so rare, and their knowledge of each other so imperfect, that to unite them in the same principles in theory and the same system of action, was certainly a very difficult enterprise.”
That’s what makes the events of 1776 so momentous. “The complete accomplishment of it, in so short a time and by such simple means, was perhaps a singular example in the history of mankind,” Adams said. “Thirteen clocks were made to strike together — a perfection of mechanism, which no artist had ever before effected.”
Alas, just as there were no guarantees the American Revolution would succeed more than two centuries ago, there are no guarantees of its continued success. Our governmental institutions were designed to check and balance power, to limit its excesses, to protect our freedom against foes foreign and domestic — including our own foibles and temptations. They’ve worked fairly well. But they don’t work seamlessly. Clocks that strike together at first will, over time, get out of sync.
The framers of North Carolina’s constitution understood well that the system isn’t fully self-regulating. In Article I, Section 35, it states, “A frequent recurrence to fundamental principles is absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty.” Each of us has a role to play in winding, adjusting, and repairing the clockwork of constitutional government. It’s the gift we should all give our country on its birthday.