- - Monday, July 4, 2016


Chances are, you heard at least a passing word of praise for the Declaration of Independence as you celebrated the Fourth of July. But why, exactly, does it endure?

If the Declaration had simply announced the independence of certain disaffected British colonials, it would be long forgotten. What made it revolutionary was that these rebels appealed to a universal higher standard of justice on which they promised to base their government.

This is what Abraham Lincoln meant when he extolled Thomas Jefferson as “the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.”

Long before he became president, Lincoln focused on what he considered the sacredness of our country’s commitment to a higher law. As he put it in a speech in Chicago in 1858:

“We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp.

“If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy.

“We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshipped.”

In other words, the American Dream is more than a good job, a nice house, a loving spouse, great kids, and a hefty 401(k) account. Those blessings have been purchased with the sacrifices of our ancestors. In return for these opportunities, we have obligations.

For one, we have to treat others as we would have them treat us. In our society, the Golden Rule should be the ultimate bottom line. To that end, we must commit ourselves to protect the God-given dignity and freedom of every individual.

We must uphold institutions that nourish personal and public virtues, among them such pillars of the decent life as the family, the neighborhood houses of worship, the local school and library, the volunteer fire department, and the local baseball teams.

America is only as strong as the citizens from whom her legitimacy derives. We are a great nation because American citizens look first to themselves when faced with hardship.

We recognize a bound duty to look after our family, friends, and neighbors, providing them security in times of trouble. We understand the importance of contributing to our own community by taking part in school board meetings, Little League games, and Fourth of July parades.

If this vision of America is to endure, we must make sure that our government behaves in accordance with American traditions and values. We cannot allow a nation conceived in true liberty under higher law to tolerate limitless government power. It is a self-betrayal that corrupts not just our leaders but ourselves, the voters who elect profligate leaders with a carelessness beyond belief.

We must realize that nothing is more intrinsically un-American than a system in which bureaucrats and school administrators, not parents, make decisions about a child’s education; one in which government handouts create generational dependencies; or one in which retirement comes not on our own terms, but rather those dictated by politicians thousands of miles away.

For our part as Americans, the great challenge is to participate actively in the ongoing experiment, breathe new life into the Founders’ constitutional vision, and, above all, provide Americans with practical solutions based on the power of our ideas — ideas that have molded America and can now put her back on the right track.

But only if citizens will have the courage to act. It’s up to us.

• Ed Feulner is founder of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).

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