By now everyone has heard the heartbreaking story of 10-month-old Charlie Gard, the baby with a rare disease that causes muscle weakness and brain damage. Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, where he has been since October 2016, recommended taking him off the ventilator; his parents refused, and a court battle ensued.
The parents ultimately lost. On June 27, the European Court of Human Rights refused to intervene, so the lower-court decisions stand: Charlie will be taken off the ventilator when the hospital decides to do so. His parents, who had raised enough money to bring him to the United States for treatment, have no say regarding their son.
For all their talk of a free society, in England, as throughout Europe, people belong to the state. Not so in America! In America people belong to themselves and it is the state that belongs to the people. Even if we have on the Left people who believe, as the Europeans, that government knows best, we in America are protected—thus far anyway—by our precedents, by the history of how we have interpreted our Founding principles.
The Declaration Exists to Keep Us True to America
On July 4, 1776, men from all 13 initial colonies had gathered together in Congress. It’s true many were learned, thinkers, and statesmen, but ultimately still just men like us. Some were religious, and some were not. They looked at their lives in the colonies, back on human history, and to man’s relationships to government, other men, and a Creator God.
Being human, just like us, they had their faults and disagreements. But the glue that bound them together, a bond Providence joined and sealed, was their vision of the dignity of the human person. The dignity of man required a certain form of government so man could thrive not only for himself, but for the good of all those around him—for the common good.
This common vision and their desire to act upon it was written down in the Declaration of Independence, a document sent to King George the tyrant, from whom the colonies were separating themselves. But it was not only for him. It was written for all the world to read and understand, and most importantly, it was written so that we, their posterity, will always have the philosophical and political grounding we need to keep our country true to its original vision; to protect it from tyrannies great and small, from within and without—and, if need be, to protect it even from ourselves. The Declaration of Independence is supposed to keep us grounded, and alert to the corrupting forces of power.
The ideas undergirding the Declaration of Independence are astonishing: people have a fundamental natural right to separate themselves from their rulers if those rulers besmirch the dignity with which the Creator has endowed them. “But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them [the people] under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.” They go on to give the world the long list of abuses they suffered under King George.
Man at His Best Uses Freedom Well
Yuval Levin writes in “The Fractured Republic,” “In 1776, a committee of the Continental Congress assigned to design an official seal for the United States settled on the Latin phrase ‘E pluribus unum,’ meaning ‘Out of many, one,’ as a motto. It referred both to the unity of several newly independent states, and to the coming together of a population that even in the late eighteenth century was remarkably diverse and disparate.”
America then and now is diverse and disparate. Its identity was never based on a common language, nor a common religion, nor common ancestry or heritage. America’s hallmark, its overarching identity, lies in that it is a nation that created the space for people to pursue the cultural mandate, not only a tangible space as in the earth beneath the feet, but a space in the mind and heart of any person who wanted to come to these lands and work hard, create, and multiply.
In one of his prayers, Thomas Aquinas writes that the infinite Creator “apportioned the elements of the world most wisely.” This wise apportioning, this ordering of nature and man, our Founders understood well. Although the outworking of the Declaration and eventually the Constitution have been imperfect, America has had an exceptional vision since its founding: The human soul hungers for freedom and man is at his best when he makes good use of this freedom.
In 1976, the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla—later Pope John Paul II—came to Philadelphia for the International Eucharistic Congress. In his address, “The Eucharist and Man’s Hunger for Freedom,” he acknowledges the God-given desire for a well-ordered freedom: “Freedom has been given to man in order to love, to love true good: to love God above all, to love man as his neighbour and brother.”
He goes on: “This year is the bicentennial of the day when the hunger for freedom ripened in the American society and revealed itself in liberation and the Declaration of Independence of the United States… At the same time while the United States of America were gaining independence, we [speaking of his homeland, Poland] were losing it for a period of more than a hundred years.”
Tyranny is never far. It is always at the door ready to enslave individuals and nations. That is what the Declaration of Independence tells the whole world. The war against tyranny never ends, and we must always be on guard. As tyrannies great and small, from within and without, increasingly encroach upon us, we Americans must renew our commitment to the Declaration of Independence.
We must read it to our children. It is their heritage. This is their land, and we must equip them so they can protect and defend it. So that this experiment may not fail.