This upcoming Sunday, July 4, 2021, we will celebrate our nation’s birth 245 years ago. Many will enjoy a public holiday on Monday, July 5. It is right that we take the time to recognize this day and, for those able, to take a day off to celebrate with family and friends.
While you may celebrate this day with fireworks and barbecues, I would suggest that you take a few minutes to read the Declaration of Independence.
Our nation declared its independence from a tyrannical king with this document. Most of it is a list of grievances that, over time, has lost some meaning to us. In current times, we can hardly imagine a king suspending our state legislatures or a king depriving us of a right to a jury trial. The very fact that these seem like absurd concepts is reason enough to be thankful and to celebrate our nation’s founding.
We should also revisit more familiar portions of the document to remind ourselves of their significance. We can hardly grasp an understanding of our current laws and statutes without an appreciation of these underpinnings.
In the second paragraph there exists some ardent text that, to this day, catches my attention when read. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
If you read the preamble of the Constitution of the United States, you immediately sense the influence of the Declaration of Independence with these soaring words: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
“Freedom is not free” is a common expression that has, perhaps, become somewhat diluted with time. Only a month ago, on Memorial Day, we honored those who gave their lives in defense of our nation and in defense of the ideals expressed in these foundational documents. But courage is not only found on battlefields.
The signatories to the declaration understood the risk they took in placing their names on this document, and many paid a heavy price for doing so. That act of courage resonates with me to this day. Freedom is not free!
In recent years, there has been a continual reexamination of the lives of our nation’s founders. The facts that have been uncovered are not always flattering — and in some cases are outright offensive. The simple truth is that they put forth ideals that were beyond their own individual achievement but that were not beyond our collective effort.
Setting goals or objectives that are easily attainable provides no challenge to the human experience. It is in setting markers beyond what anyone believes possible that we attain greatness as individuals, as a community and as a nation.
Although we achieved our independence from a tyrannical king, it did not mean we had achieved the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence. To the contrary; our new nation maintained a system of tyranny over enslaved people for nearly 100 years.
This year we are fortunate to celebrate Independence Day on the heels of the establishment of a new national holiday, Juneteenth, which commemorates the end to a tyrannical practice of enslavement. The holiday recognizes that the “unalienable right” of liberty was not attained by enslaved African Americans until nearly 90 years after our nation’s birth.
Juneteenth draws its name from June 19, 1865, when a Union Army general issued a proclamation declaring freedom for all slaves in Texas. Ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which officially abolished slavery, occurred later in 1865. But even after these events, our nation struggled and continues to struggle with the ideals found in the Declaration of Independence.
Certainly, our work is not done. It will not be done by a small percentage of political leaders. Rather, it is work that must be done by each of us.
We often hear about military service as an example of service to county. Routinely we are encouraged to vote in elections to demonstrate this service. In last month’s Court Report, Alonzo Garcia wrote about jury service as a further demonstration. There are other ways, too.
Your voice, your experiences, your talents and your ideas are important — share them. Critical thinking and decision making requires an honest vetting of all opinions whether in agreement or dissent, majority or minority, popular or unpopular. We have the option to participate in this great democracy or to sit on the sidelines.
Inform yourself, share your thoughts, listen to contrary opinions, challenge your preconceptions and then act. That is freedom!
Have a happy and very safe Independence Day. If you get the opportunity, I propose some holiday reading: archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript, archives.gov/news/articles/juneteenth-original-document
(Magistrate Judge John R. Chavez is the magistrate in Belen. He is a native of Valencia County and is a retired U.S. Army colonel.)