The following editorial first appeared in the July 4, 1932, issue of the Minneapolis Tribune.
More than a century and a half ago today the continental congress approved a document which declared the united colonies to be “free and independent states” and absolved them “from all allegiance to the British crown.” It was a revolutionary piece of literature, the first voice of a rising spirit of revolt among the great nations of the world. Its bold language flung defiance in the face of the greatest empire of its day and for generations to come it remained the manifesto for the cause of political and personal liberty.
But though its language was assertive, though it was conceived in a spirt of righteous, and not entirely unjustified, indignation, it was only the sign for battle. Of itself the Declaration of Independence established nothing, as far as the practical ends which the colonies were seeking were concerned. The freedom which they demanded had to be won on the field of battle. The declaration defined the cause and established a promise to those who enlisted under its banners. It is for this reason that this document has been held to be of such importance in our national life that even today, 156 years after its enunciation, we feel called upon to celebrate its proclamation. It is the spirit which spoke through that declaration which we seek to honor on the Fourth of July.
It was well enough for the Declaration of Independence to assert that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were inalienable rights not to be denied any individual. Or that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and their happiness.” It was not enough to declare these noble principles to the world; the American colonies had to engage in a long and costly war to establish their right to lay claim to them.
Once having freed themselves and vindicated their declaration, the colonies discovered that it required more than a revolution and eloquent declaration of principles to give them that measure of freedom and happiness which they had promised themselves. They had yet to build for themselves a mechanism of government that would vindicate the promise which the declaration held forth. That process was to become the occasion of a conflict no less momentous, as far as the subsequent history of the new nation was concerned, before a beginning was made upon meeting the ideal which the declaration had set before the world.
The redemption of that ideal was a slow process and, as is always the case in establishing a practical expression of an ideal, that process has never been complete. The colonists had yet to learn, as in fact practically each generation of mankind must apparently learn, that discarding the mechanism of one form of government and establishing another does not, out of itself alone, accomplish a wholly compensatory reform in the national life and well-being.
The democratic republic, which had its roots in the Declaration of Independence, was not a perfect institution. The republic whose 156th birthday we celebrate today is by no means perfect, although changing years have altered it. In the upheavals which have marked the twentieth century, the democratic form of government has demonstrated its obvious weaknesses and it is today the subject of bitter criticism from men in all walks of life. As a result democracy is today threatened, the world over, by Fascism on one hand and Sovietism on the other. If it is to survive, it must find itself and suit its powers to meet the problems of a dynamic world. Even our concept of individual liberty is being altered in the face of a growing demand for collectivistic action.
In the Declaration of Independence, and in the organic document of government which grew out of it, the United States possesses a foundation for its popular government that has remained unshaken because the principles which they express square with enduring realities. If we meet the problems of government and of our national well-being in the spirit of those fundamental documents, and build for the future out of the political continuity which is our heritage from the past, we have nothing to fear. That is the challenge of the Declaration of Independence in a twentieth century America.