A Primer on the Fourth of July

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  1. What is celebrated on the Fourth of July?

Two things. The formal reason for our celebration is the establishment of our nation in the Declaration of Independence, coupled with the successful completion of the war, coupled in turn with the adoption of our Constitution, which secured that independence. The second reason has to do with the foundational principle underneath all such celebrations, which is the concept of limited government.

  1. Is the Fourth of July a Christian religious holiday?

No, it is not formally a religious holiday. But it is a holiday that can be used to determine if the basic Christian holidays are being understood and commemorated as they ought to be.

  1. How is that?

The meaning of the basic Christian holidays is that Jesus is Lord. The meaning of the Fourth of July is that Caesar is not Lord. Christmas means that Jesus the Messiah was laid in a manger. The Fourth of July means that Woodrow Wilson was never laid in a manger. Easter means that Jesus rose from the dead. The Fourth of July means that LBJ did not rise from the dead.

  1. So then, the Fourth of July is not a celebration of the birth of Caesar?

No. It is a celebration of Caesar’s death.

  1. So the Fourth of July is not a celebration of the exercise of political authority?

No. It is a celebration of limitations placed on political authority.

  1. Who is this Caesar?

There is a Caesar within every sinful heart, looking for a way to wield ungodly power over others. This impulse is especially pronounced in every politician, in every man entrusted with any power at all, in whatever nation he may be a part of.

  1. So the enemy that was conquered was not Great Britain?

No, not at all. That was the occasion for that particular war, the War for Independence, but the Founders located the enemy in the human heart. The enemy that was defeated (in that generation) was the universal human impulse toward despotism. After the war was successfully prosecuted, the Constitution was written, not to fend off Great Britain, but to prevent Americans from doing exactly the same thing that Parliament had done before.

  1. You spoke of limited government. What is that?

Limited government is based on the idea that man cannot be entrusted with being his own god. In order for individual men to have any secured liberties at all, those rights must be bestowed from outside the world of politics. If the state gives or grants us our rights, then the state has the authority to take them away. If the state had nothing to do with the giving of these rights, then the state has no authority to remove them.

  1. So then, the political doctrine of human rights expresses a high theology?

Yes. Men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Inalienable means that they cannot be “alienated” from us by majority vote, by a constitutional amendment, by an executive order, or by the will of Congress. If God grants us our rights, then only God can take them away.

  1. So then, a belief in a Creator God is permitted in our political system?

No. It is not merely permitted. It is essential to our political system. If Darwin was correct, our inalienable liberties are nonsensical, and our form of government is an anachronistic and unscientific throwback.

  1. What device did the Founders use to keep this idea of limited government from eroding?

They used the device of separation of powers, otherwise known as checks and balances. As James Madison once put it, you must give the government sufficient authority to enable it to govern the people, while at the same time setting things up in such a way that will oblige it to govern itself.

  1. This refers to the three separate branches of government at the federal level, correct?

It includes that, but it is a common mistake to limit it to that. Separation of powers includes a divided federal government–divided into the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. But it also includes the structure of federalism, which reserves a great deal of political power to the people or to the states. This was established by making the Constitution a document of enumerated powers. In addition, it established other firewalls against despotism, such as the Electoral College.

  1. What is meant by enumerated powers?

It means that if a power is not specifically spelled out for the federal government in the Constitution, then use of that power is prohibited to them. It is reserved to the people or the states. But this restriction is widely ignored in our time.

  1. What kind of political power is outlawed by the Constitution?

By setting up a federal system, with built-in checks and balances, the Founders in effect outlawed the kind of power that used to be known as the royal prerogative. It is the kind of power that has crept back in through modern regulatory agencies—administrative law, in other words.

  1. Are you saying that the regulations promulgated by the big federal agencies are unlawful?

Yes. They are unlawful and should be resisted as such by the courts, the states, and the people.

  1. What would this look like?

It would look like throwing some tea into the harbor.

  1. What is the foundational form of all governmental liberty?

The ultimate bulwark against tyrannical governments is the virtue of the people. There can be no free governments without self-government. This is why John Adams said that our Constitution presupposes a moral and a religious people. He said that it was wholly unfit for any other. Only a virtuous people will be able to withstand the threats and blandishments of those in power, who are always greedy for more.

  1. Have we successfully preserved the form of government the Founders left to us?

No, we have not. Some firewalls remain, but things have eroded badly. Americans under King George III enjoyed more constitutionally protected liberties than we do today. This does not mean that things were good back then, but in many ways we have failed to preserve the logic and genius of the system we were given. But that does not mean it is beyond recovery.

  1. Should all of this dampen our celebration of the Fourth?

Not at all. But you should celebrate intelligently, and you should make sure to teach your children what the entire point of it is. If they don’t know the point, then there is no point.

  1. How should we celebrate this holiday?

Fireworks are good. And make sure to set off at least a few illegal fireworks. Sparklers for the little ones are great, but they don’t exactly spell out insurrection and high defiance.

  1. Is there anything else?

Yes. If you set off illegals, be extraordinarily safe with them. If you blow your fingers off, it won’t teach Caesar anything.