The Fourth of July. Flags, fireworks, and burgers on the grill. Today Americans from all walks of life will head to the park or to the beach with coolers of cold beverages to celebrate the . . . ?
Constitution? Mayflower Compact? Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
Sadly, many Americans do not know that what we celebrate today is the 235th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Quick: What was the purpose of this founding document?
A) To establish the new government of the United States;
B) To proclaim that the colonies would no longer let England control them;
C) To give all free men in America the right to vote; or
D) To declare the right of free speech in the American colonies.
The correct answer, of course, is B. But if you answered incorrectly, you are not alone. According to recently released data from the National Association of Educational Progress (known as “the Nation’s Report Card”), two-thirds of American fourth-graders and almost three-quarters of American eighth-graders can’t identify the Declaration’s purpose. (Find the complete report at: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard.)
Even many adults lack a basic understanding of our founding documents and sometimes confuse the various texts.
Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and current Republican presidential candidate, recently made news when he incorrectly attributed one of the Declaration’s most famous phrases (“life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”) to the Constitution.
“Declaration, Constitution, same thing,” say my kids.
But they are not the same, and the differences are important.
The Constitution, as every grade school student should know, is the supreme law of the land. It establishes a national government of limited and divided power and defines the relationship of that government to the states and to the people.
The Declaration of Independence, on the other hand, has no force of law. It was written — some 11 years before the Constitution — to justify and explain the Continental Congress’ decision to break ties with England.
But the Declaration is more than just a proclamation of freedom and a list of grievances against the Crown. It is our country’s statement of purpose. It articulates a moral basis for self-governance that remains, as William J. Bennett has noted, “the greatest, most consequential statement of political philosophy of all time.”
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.
The language is inspirational. It is aspirational. And although it is not law, it speaks of universal truths: that all people are created equal; that our basic human rights derive from God, not government; that government exists for the purpose of protecting our God-given rights; and that government is the instrument of the people — not the other way around.
It is these ideals that have inspired democratic movements and equal rights advocates around the world for more than 200 years. And it is these ideals that we must remember and pass on to the next generation of Americans.