What the Fourth of July Was Not

Victor Davis Hanson
American Greatness

Our national Fourth of July holiday—currently the nation’s 247th since the first in 1776—marks the birth of the United States.

The iconic Declaration of Independence was published on the 4th and largely written by Thomas Jefferson. Its core sentence would become among the most famous words in American history:

“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.”

Those aspirations at the outset pledged the new American nation to hold to its promises “that all men are created equal.”

In other words, so-called white males established a foundational document whose inherent logic was that the millions of Americans not yet born—who would not necessarily look like them, or share their ancestry—would become their political equals.

Most nation founders do not envision the future of their country in terms that might not privilege those of their own tribe.

In contrast, today it would be difficult for a foreign national to become a full-fledged Chinese, Mexican, or Iranian citizen, with full equal rights, who either did not look like, or embrace a religion different from, the majority population.

What followed from the Declaration was a constant demand from many quarters for America to live up to its own exalted words.

Eighty-five years later, that promise culminated in a horrific Civil War that cost 700,000 American lives to remove the stain of slavery, and to honor the promise of the Fourth.

“All men are created equal” further entailed another century of protest and reform, until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s finally enshrined into law equality of opportunity statutes.

But note what the Declaration was not.

There was no full embrace of all the later French Revolutionary slogans of Liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Instead, the Declaration promised that all men should start out equally through guaranteed protections to live their lives as they please and ensure their liberty.

The new government made, then, no claims that all Americans must be egalitarian. There was no promise that Americans must be equal in all aspect of their lives—or else.

Such mandated sameness might threaten the idea of  “liberty,” and the ability of each citizen to pursue one’s own version of happiness.

Nor did the Declaration pledge a common “fraternity.” Americans were under no compulsion to embrace some collective brotherhood  or shared orthodox political sentiments.

So Americans would not be ensured an equality of result—or what we may know now as “equity.”

Unlike other revolutionary governments, the founders of America never promised to create utopian “new men” who would become alike in all aspects of their being.

The foundational date of our “new order” was canonized as 1776. Yet note it was not some pretentious Jacobin “Year 1”—as if everything in the past was to be erased.

Unlike revolutionary France’s 1789 “Declaration of the Rights of Man,” the American Declaration was far more modest in its confidence in what government could or should achieve.

Jefferson inserted no such French wording about government power concerning “social distinctions” or “disturbing the public order” or “in proportion to their means.”

Other republics birthed parliamentary systems.

They usually spawned multiple splinter parties. They were characterized by sudden creations and collapses of ruling governments, depending on volatile public mood swings.

Often backroom deals were common to appoint new presidents and prime ministers—or dismiss them.

Instead, our Constitution, in classical fashion, established a bicameral Congress, an executive president and a supreme court.

Their quite different powers were all checked and balanced by one another.

Then their prerogatives were further limited by a federal system of individual states’ rights to form their own laws not entailed by the Constitution.

Regularly scheduled elections, a formal Bill of Rights, a two-party system, and a single continuous Constitution naturally followed.

Few consensual governments have ever emulated the more difficult American model—and thus so far never achieved a 247-year continuity of a single republican system.

Certainly, Americans went through a variety of crises that challenged the viability of the Declaration—the Civil War, the Great Depression, two World Wars, the culture war of the 1960s, and the current woke revolution of the 2020s.

Terrible laws of discrimination were and are still sometimes passed contrary to both the Constitution and the Declaration.

But so far, the sparse wording of the Declaration has prevailed.

America’s Constitution was not hijacked by the likes of a French Napoleon.

There has been no Nazi take-over of our democracy as in 1930s Germany.

We have not been plagued by dozens of brief ad-hoc coalition governments akin to Italy’s volatility.

So on this Fourth let us cherish the Fourth of July for what it promised—and what it thankfully did not.


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27 thoughts on “What the Fourth of July Was Not”

  1. Larry D McCarroll

    The Founding Father’s wisdom of “Less is Best”
    Thank you David for the eloquent reminder.

  2. Stephen Craven

    Well done, Thank you for that beautifully written article.
    Through True Life Experience the men who crafted the Declaration of Independence were so aware of what needed to be in there, and not in there.
    If our schools across the country would teach this
    Our country would certainly benefit greatly.

    1. It helped that they were up on the Greek and Latin classics, the Bible and BCP, the French and Scottish Enlightenments, and had been practicing representative self government for over 150 years.

    2. One way to teach the Declaration of Independence would be to have it memorized and make it a graduation requirement. Children would begin to memorize it in kindergarten and have thirteen years to master it by their senior year. Those who recite it perfectly would be attractive candidates for universities and employers.

      Also, all public school teachers should be required to recite the Declaration near perferctly in order to be eligible to apply for a teaching job and maintain their employment.

      And finally, all politicians should be required to recite it from memory in order to be eligible for office and should be tested yearly to retain their elected office.

      1. I’m all for the memorizing, but practices like this did nothing to help the Qing Dynasty compete with foreign powers or retain the political loyalty of the people. Think of all the kids who memorize Bible verses but don’t maintain their parents’ Christianity once they attain their majority.

  3. Hi Victor.
    This may not be relevant to the current article. However, on today’s podcast with Jack Fowler, you stated you couldn’t believe that Comey was saying things like he couldn’t vote for a conservative or Republican, because they might “weaponize“ the DOJ, CIE, FBI. Etc.

    That is not surprising to me at all. It is exactly what I would expect from James Comey. He’s doing anything he can to keep the future reality from being viewed as justice. He’s trying to paint the future Arrival of real Justice as a “weaponization“ of the DOJ, rather than the true application of justice, under the rule of law and the constitution. It is merely a political spin from one of the most talented political spinners in the history of our country. To me, it actually reveals his absolute fear and horror of the skeletons, which exist in all the closets of the deep state being brought to light by the likes of Jim Jordan, and, God for bid, President Trump, number 47.


  4. When in high school in the late ’60’s I remember reading in the Washington Evening Star subscribed by my Dad that Italy was on its latest number change of governments since WWII. For 247 years our system has been consistent despite the “factions” of which Washington warned us. Thanks to “Divine Providence” and the Founders for this edifice.

  5. Can anyone imagine what will happen if the Democratic party were to gain 2008 type majorities in Congress and have control of the presidency?

    And who do we have in opposition that could prevent this from happening?

    A divided and feckless Republican party.

    We’re already seeing signs of totalitarianism. Just look at the Southern border and ask yourself how is it possible that 6 – 7 million illegal aliens can flaunt the law en masse AND be aided abetted by the executive branch of the Federal government.

    Does anyone truly believe Joe and Hunter will be brought to justice when we can’t even fucking prosecute James Comey and the whole sorry cast of characters involved in the Russia collusion hoax?

    It didn’t take long for Hitler and his henchmen to seize absolute power within a constitutional republic that was modeled after our own.

    We better pray to God this 4th that totalitarianism doesn’t happen to us.

    1. Craig Brookins

      I personally believe that the “F” word should be reserved for critical and emotional emphasis. I have no problem with your usage in your narrative – especially with reference to comey.

  6. Steve Astrachan

    Dear Professor Hanson,

    Thank you so much. If I may add: the greatest critic of the Declaration that I have ever read about was John C. Calhoun of South Carolina because he understood that it would highlight the contradiction of a free land with slavery and thereby undermine the “Peculiar institution.” Since one of the greatest admirers of the Declaration that I have ever read about was Abraham Lincoln, Mr. Calhoun might have been on to something.

  7. Mary Lou Arkfeld

    As always, thank you Victor! Such a “young” country in terms of ETERNITY…
    God has had a hand in our successes; we should give thanks daily for the
    brilliant and courageous men of 247 years ago.

  8. All men are created equal also means there is no king and (similarly) implied no ruling class, bi-coastal liberal elites, unelected bureaucrats and deep state apparatchiks “in charge” of the rest of us!

  9. Thank you for being a wise and patient teacher VDH. We truly appreciate your words.
    The Founders were able to leverage the wisdom of their time in forming a democracy. They deployed a system of checks and balances. As Christians they understood the sinful nature of man and had no delusions about it. Everyone is corruptible. There is no innocent person, among us. The goal therefore was to create a system that would not allow a good person not to go bad. On a grander scale however, they expected that Christianity would create a virtuous population, capable of self-rule and economic freedom (through capitalism).
    Democracy – Christianity – Capitalism three legs to the stool, of the West. They balance one another and promote the common good. Thank God for the Founders.

  10. I pledged allegiance to a nation with liberty & justice for all. But the price of liberty – eternal vigilance – is a debt too long underpaid here. And what Tom Jefferson said about justice is clearly in play today: “The system of justice will either protect citizens from tyranny or be one means by which tyranny is exercised over them.”
    Every moment in the history of our country’s survival has called for patriots of integrity.
    Today they are far outnumbered by self-serving mercenaries.

  11. What the 4th of July is Not is fireworks in the neighborhood so loud you get tachycardia!
    Love the article Mr. Hanson. I watch you all the time on YouTube and my son is even listening. We get you😁
    KJ Jones

  12. Liked the analysis of our constitutional and actual history, in regard to sorting out what it does and does not mean, well? That may depend on who you are or are not, as our so called two party system seems to be revealing. May we choose well never relinquishing our passion for life, liberty and our pursuits of happiness 😊

  13. August Greitens

    Dr. Hanson’s closing words are so important:
    “So on this Fourth let us cherish the Fourth of July for what it promised—and what it thankfully did not.”

  14. VDH
    Real wisdom sir in your essay. If you asked Dem party members whether our rights come from God or the government, I bet most would say government. And when faced with the truth, most would say our rights should come from the government. What then would they say if asked could the government takes these rights away? And then we would hear the rationale for what the administration is doing and also trying to do which is shred the bill of rights. Best peter huessy

  15. Gary Anderson

    World historian Arnold Toynbee (A STUDY OF HISTORY, 12 Vols.) once put it this way:

    “The American Revolution was a truly glorious revolution”. And it was so for two reasons:
    1) “the basic issues it raised were spiritual, not material”; and 2) “it was a revolution for
    the whole human race.” AMERICA AND THE WORLD REVOLUTION (1962), page 150.

  16. K.T. Jurgensen

    I absolutely enjoyed reading this Victor, and as a 58 year old…I have NEVER felt such trepidation about the future of our Republic.
    This madness cannot continue!

  17. Thank you, Professor Hanson

    I’ve met many racists and tribalists in my time but this Great “Country” was never racist or tribalist.

    From Rick Atkinson’s THE BRITISH ARE COMING

    [That at least a third of the delegates who would sign the Declaration were slave owners -Jefferson alone had two hundred – was a moral catastrophe that could never be reconciled with the avowed principles of equality and “unalienable rights,” at least not in the eighteenth century. But as Edmond S. Morgan would write, “The creed of equality did not give men equality, but invited them to claim it, invited them, not to know their place and keep it, but to seek and demand a better place.”]

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