Illumination on the Fourth of July

Fireworks in Santa Barbara

Fireworks in Santa Barbara

The following is from Westmont Provost Mark Sargent.

Happy Fourth of July from all of us at Westmont College.We gratefully honor the national holiday although with no plans on campus for “illuminations,” as John Adams called fireworks.

Adams himself often grumbled that the illuminations (as well as the “parades” and “bonfires”) were devoted to the Fourth. He always thought Independence Day should be July 2—the date when the Second Continental Congress passed the resolution severing ties with England. Soon after the vote, Adams told his wife Abigail “the second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival . . . as the day of deliverance.”

The day of deliverance, though, now belongs to Adams’ rival Thomas Jefferson. In late June of 1776, Jefferson rented rooms from a bricklayer away from the center of Philadelphia. There, he batted away flies from the nearby horse stable as he crafted the case for independence that Congress would need if it voted to secede. The symbolic first day of the nation is actually a literary event—not the July 2 referendum on separation, but the final wordsmithing on Jefferson’s draft two days later.

After adding its last touches on the Declaration of Independence,Congress ordered the text “engrossed on parchment” and printed for public postings and readings. A hasty dash that evening to the press of John Dunlap, an Irish immigrant, produced 200 copies overnight. Twenty-six of these “Dunlap Broadsides” still survive.

Jefferson himself made no claims for “originality of principle or sentiment” and called the Declaration an“expression of the American mind.” That mind (or at least the minds of the wealthy men in Congress) was deeply influenced by Enlightenment theories of government, especially the treatises of John Locke and the 1689 English Declaration of Rights. Like many of his American allies, Jefferson also thought Parliament had so consistently neglected the colonies that the British had effectively declared independence themselves—the original Brexit, as it were.

Some historians, though, downplay the Declaration’s political philosophy and consider it primarily a legal briefagainst the king. To be honest, few of us can recite the Declaration’s specific grievances against George III, yet we remember the eloquence of the preamble. We speak of “self-evident” truths (“sacred & undeniable” in Jefferson’s original draft) and invoke the “consent of the governed.”We refer to natural law (the “laws of Nature and Nature’s God”) and claim “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The Declaration is far from a perfect document; in the end, Congress deferred to its own slaveholders and deleted Jefferson’s critique of the British slave trade. But the Enlightenment rhetoric of the preamble now reverberates far beyond the scope of the colonies’ interests or their quarrels with the throne. Lincoln found in it an inspiration for healing and justice after Gettysburg, and millions of Americans have embraced the preamble to enlarge our vision of equality for women and people of all races and national origins.

In all seasons, the process of governing requires earnest debate, though today the tendency to begin and end political discourse simply by listing grievances is as strong as ever. What’s missing is often the quest to find language that dignifies the human spirit and draws us toward higher ends and the common good. The preamble to the Declaration has often served that purpose.

That goal is also central to the mission of the Christian liberal arts. Drawing on our faith and our interdisciplinary spirit, we continually seek language that values the sacred in our lives and responsibilities. Advanced education should equip us to reconcile divisions, protect the vulnerable, and expand knowledge. The pursuit of happiness should not be simply self-interest, but a commitment to use our liberty to promote human flourishing. The 242nd anniversary of the nation’s literary cornerstone can help us remember that civic life should be about illumination, and not just fireworks.