Forty-one years ago America observed her bicentennial, and the country lavishly celebrated 200 years of liberty. A common question posed during that bicentennial year of 1976 was “is the Spirit of ’76 still alive?” That question was a way of asking if our country remained committed to the noble ideals of our founding. I was not born in 1976, but I find myself asking that same question about my country as we prepare to celebrate our nation’s 241st birthday on Tuesday.
In order to determine if the “Spirit of ’76” is still alive and well in America, we must first define that Spirit. The revolutionary spirit of America begins with the belief, as John F. Kennedy stated in his inaugural address, that “the rights of man come not from the generosity of the State, but from the hand of God.” This fundamental belief that our rights come from God is critical to our constitutional system of limited government and guaranteed rights. Our rights can only be inalienable if they are given to us by a power greater than government.
The second tenet of the “Spirit of ’76” supports the first principle of inalienable rights; it is the belief that we are not under the sovereignty of a ruler, but of the rule of law. Our allegiance is pledged not to king or prince, but to the constitution and the rule of law it ensures. This concept was well articulated by Thomas Paine in his revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense:
“Let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarcy, that in America the law is King. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other.”
The rule of law matters, because it affirms the American ideal that even those in power must obey an authority higher than themselves.
Finally, the “Spirit of ’76” entails the concept of personal responsibility as a core tenet of self-government. Only through personal morality and private virtue can we retain the cultural conditions necessary to maintain a free state. This is a call to all Americans to personal civic engagement. Every citizen must engage in the work of building a better society through hard work, family commitments, and through civic organizations.
On this 241st anniversary of American independence, I believe that this Spirit is still alive, but under assault. Millions of Americans still believe in these principles of liberty, and they still enact them in their daily lives. Many, though, do not accept these tenets as the keys to our freedom. We who have the “Spirit of ’76” must work to share our principles with our fellow citizens so that we are, forever and always, “One Nation Under God.”
Happy Independence Day.