Ever since European explorers discovered the New World, the lands and people that form our country have seemed unique, as if there's something in the ground that makes those who walk on it truly American. In reality, it's that our country fosters certain values and character within its shores.
On this day 241 years ago, our Founding Fathers, who had those American values and character, severed ties with Great Britain, cutting the "political bands which have connected them to one another," as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence.
The war for independence is aptly called the Revolutionary War, but it was revolutionary only in the sense that we revolted against the "establishment of tyranny." It was not a revolution of rapidly changing ideals in our country, as other revolutions have been.
Take, for example, the French Revolution that occurred shortly after ours. It was marked by deep, widespread and wrenching social and political upheaval. Even the calendar wasn't immune. Weeks became 10 days long, and each month consisted of three 10-day weeks. Every day became 10 hours long, with each hour lasting 100 minutes, and each minute was 100 seconds (seconds were slightly shorter than our conventional seconds). This pointless non-improvement of the calendar and passage of time was an expression of a violent passion to uproot and destroy all that had gone before (finding an echo in later revolutions when, for example, Pol Pot decided that Cambodia must return to year zero).
Similarly, the French Revolution produced its "terror," which had no parallel in America. Tens of thousands were executed, price controls were imposed that caused food shortages, Christianity was deprecated and priests lynched. And, of course, France proceeded swiftly into imperial wars of conquest against European neighbors.
In contrast, American independence and the revolution that put it in place were necessary not because the revolutionaries and their leaders wanted everything to change. The revolution here was about upholding timeless ideals. America itself was a new idea, but the unalienable rights we fought for of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are those with which we have been endowed by our Creator since the dawn of time.
Just ask Jefferson himself.
"This was the object of the Declaration of Independence," he wrote in a letter to Henry Lee in May 1825. "Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take."
In that vein, the "revolution" was conservative and indeed conforms to Edmund Burke's original use of the word with its common meaning of something revolving. A full revolution returns affairs to an original condition.
It wasn't about being original in the sense of being new; it was about telling the world who we are as Americans. "Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion," Jefferson added.
Jefferson's timeless document showed that being American isn't about where one lives or what one looks like. It's about living a life committed to liberty and self-governance that protects liberty.
In an 1826 letter to Roger Weightman, Jefferson wrote, "Our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made." Today, 241 years after the Declaration of Independence was first signed, American citizens continue to approve the choice the Founding Fathers made.
"Let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights and an undiminished devotion to them," Jefferson wrote. May we never forget that on this great and joyous anniversary of our independence. And may we remember it, too, on every other day of the year.