Most of us are descendants of people who have come to America from some other place. Many endured great hardships to do so, leaving everything familiar behind, taking with them only the clothes on their backs, a few meager belongings and their hopes and dreams.
You have to wonder – what is so compelling?
Patrick Henry said it was the greatest of all earthly blessings – liberty, which John Adams defined “as to be the power to do as we would be done by.”
In paraphrasing the Golden Rule to define liberty, Adams makes a fundamental point. Ours is the first society to define itself in terms of both spirituality and human liberty.
De Tocqueville said it this way:
“The American character is the result of two distinct elements, which in other places have been in frequent hostility, but which in America have been admirably incorporated and combined with one another. I allude to the spirit of religion and the spirit of Liberty. Religion never more surely establishes its empire than when it reigns in the hearts of men unsupported by aught beside its native strength. Liberty regards religion as its companion in all its battles and its triumphs – as the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its claims. It considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom.”
The same understanding led Thomas Jefferson to say, “If there ever was a holy war, it was the one that saved our liberties and gave us independence,” and justified Benjamin Franklin’s claim, “Our cause is the cause of all mankind.”
Liberty is not just an idea, an abstract principle. Liberty is power – the power to do specific things, the power of acting. Therein lies much of the secret of America’s success. The more liberty a nation can claim, the more powerful it becomes.
“Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in us,” President Lincoln said. “Our defense is in the spirit which primed liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism at your door.”
The spirit of liberty is the key. Judge Learned Hand said it this way:
“The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other man and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interest alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him, who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten: that there is a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.”
It is that spirit we celebrate today. Happy Independence Day!