“I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on steady advance… In short, the flames kindled on the 4th of July 1776 have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism. On the contrary they will consume these engines, and all who work them.”
It was the fitful stirrings of revolution throughout Europe that moved Thomas Jefferson to write these words in 1821. At age 78, the author of America’s Declaration of Independence viewed political struggle from the sobering vantage point of an elder statesman. He had already witnessed revolutionary ideals give way to brutal excesses in France. In 1821, he foresaw the likelihood of revolution’s failure against reactionary forces in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece (rightly so, since all but Greece’s revolt did indeed fail).
Yet the passage of time had, if anything, only deepened Jefferson’s appreciation for the global significance of America’s hard-won independence. It was not a scorecard of revolution’s successes and failures that mattered, so much as the global shift in consciousness that had begun. Throughout the world, people were bravely asserting their fundamental rights to govern themselves and pursue better lives. Humankind’s struggle against the forces of tyranny was spreading; the cause of liberty would not always immediately prevail, but it was gaining ground.
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that Jefferson’s impassioned prose of 1776 would inspire countless other declarations throughout the world. In breaking from the Spanish crown in 1811, Venezuela’s members of congress proclaimed “that its united Provinces are, and ought to be, from this day, by act and right, Free, Sovereign, and Independent States.” In 1847, Liberia recognized in its declaration “certain natural and inalienable rights: among these are life, liberty, and the right to acquire, possess, enjoy and defend property.” Czechoslovakian and Polish insurgents of the last century likewise invoked America’s Declaration in their opposition of Soviet rule, as did the Chinese students who, in 1989, courageously confronted Communist tanks in Tiananmen Square. And on—and on—the legacy has continued. As historian and Colonial Williamsburg senior trustee Gordon Wood has rightly noted, our Declaration “has become one of the most influential
documents in world history.”
And what of America’s history—and for that matter, its present? On this 240th anniversary of our Nation’s birth, we find ourselves in the midst of a particularly caustic presidential election season that has laid bare the economic, political and cultural rifts dividing us. It’s my sincere hope that each of us can find time on this historic day both to celebrate and to reflect on our shared legacy of liberty, which forever altered the course of human events. May it renew our commitment to one another, regardless of our differences, and to continuing the never-ending work begun by our Founders—as they eventually phrased it—to form a more perfect Union.
In so doing, we do our part as citizens to ensure that America remains a positive example of hope, not least for ourselves, but also for others. As President Ronald Reagan said in 1983 during his Independence Day radio address: “All over the world, millions and millions of people still live under tyranny. Their leaders claim that they’re the wave of the future, that history is on their side. And yet, their people look to us for hope…. these people see America as the experiment that works.”
My best wishes to each of you and your families for a safe and happy Independence Day. May it be a peaceful and restorative time for us all.
Elisabeth and Mitchell Reiss