A great Independence Day guest column from longtime FR friend Michael Ferrall…
THE MEANING OF THE 4Th OF JULY
By Michael Ferrall Ph.D.
As we celebrate the 4th of July with fireworks, backyard picnics or a day at the beach, it is also important to re-examine the meaning and the effects of what began on July 4th 1776 and why we celebrate this day.
Yes, the 4th of July represents a historical celebration of the colonial citizen’s revolt against rule by the English monarchy; and, a celebration of the “founding” of the United States by the subsequent drafting and implementation of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Indeed these were profound events. But they represent an even more fundamental evolution of the nature of human society; namely, the evolution of Western Civilization and the rise of “Classical Liberalism.” (Not to be confused with modern, or current, “liberalism”).
The Declaration of Independence, the revolution itself, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the creation of the United States represents a momentous historical shift in the nature of human life and in the level of political and economic freedoms available to humans on this planet.
“Classical Liberalism” embodies the rise of representative democracy and capitalism. As Thomas Jefferson was writing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Adam Smith’s book, “The Wealth of Nations,” was being published in England.
The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights represent the culmination and implementation of over 200 years of evolving political thought in the western world. “The Wealth of Nations”, likewise, represents a modernized perspective on economic law: that is, property rights and the fundamental relationship of property ownership to personal freedom.
In the 2000 plus years prior to 1776 (with the exception perhaps of B.C. periods of ancient Greece and the Roman Republic) human beings across the earth had no political or economic freedoms at all. In this world political and economic power was controlled from the “top down” by an assortment of Kings, Queens, Emperors, Lords of the Manor and the like. The common person was expected to serve those who had power. A typical person or family had little control or protections over their lives. Slavery and various forms of servitude were common everywhere.
Classical Liberalism– based on the philosophical notion of individualism – turned this old un-free western world upside down. The concept of individualism suggests, and even requires, that individuals can and should control their own political and economic destiny.
Representative democracy says that Kings and Queens are not only bad, they are not necessary. Instead, individual citizens can control the government from the “bottom up” through elections, and government powers will be limited and specific. Under capitalism property ownership makes individuals free and independent. Free markets allow the buying and selling of goods and services, and results in an ever increasing level of economic well being for everyone.
Other philosophers like John Locke (“The Second Treatise on Civil Government”), Charles Montesquieu (“The Spirit of Laws”), James Madison and Alexander Hamilton (“The Federalist Papers”) explained the nature and meaning of representative democracy and its relationship to capitalism.
Representative democracy was to be a moderating alternative to the extremes of monarchy, where the king has absolute control, and anarchy, where the absence of law and order was the problem.
In the American system the federal government was given limited areas of authority – national security and economic stability. To further limit government power the constitution employed the principles of “federalism”, “separation of powers” and “checks and balances”.
Individual liberties were enhanced further with the addition of the Bill of Rights which protected citizen’s religious beliefs and practices; freedom of speech, press, and assembly; and the right of due process in protecting life, liberty and property.
In the capitalist economic world, competition would encourage creativity, inventiveness and hard work which would benefit businesses, workers and consumers alike. Individuals could educate themselves, develop job skills and choose an occupation. They were free to start a business, sell their labor, and accumulate property and personal assets; all which would be protected by contract and property right laws established by government.
While representative democracy and capitalism greatly expanded political and economic liberty for the common citizen these liberties were only one part of the “social contract.” Along with these liberties citizens had responsibilities to fulfill. They were, for example, expected to vote and obey the laws; and economically, they were obligated to sustain themselves and their family, and not be a burden to others.
Yes, we have had significant changes to this early system over time, both good and bad. Voting rights for example, have been extended to all citizens age 18 and over; and, the U.S. along with Great Britain and France, in the mid 1800’s, used their political systems to ban slavery within their countries.
However, on the negative side, with the rise of the “welfare state” government power has grown far beyond that originally intended, often limiting economic liberties; and non-elected judges and bureaucrats have greatly expanded their lawmaking power at the expense of voters and elected legislators. Also, there are authoritarian and Marxist types among us who constantly attack the basic elements of democracy and capitalism. Fortunately, strong defenders of the basic principles of Classical Liberalism still exist who oppose them.
As political and economic freedom has expanded with the unfolding of Classical Liberalism, the world as well as Western Civilization, has been profoundly impacted. No culture in the history of the earth has created a level, or degree, of personal liberties equivalent to those put into place by the “founding fathers” over 200 years ago. We should be forever thanking them. We should also hope that the rest of the world would some day realize how much their lives would benefit by accepting the same philosophy.
About the author:
Dr. Ferrall has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in law, government and public policy at Cal. State University Fullerton and at Cal State University Long Beach. He lives in Mission Viejo.