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On July 4, the Founders didn't create America; America created the Founders

The principles of the Declaration of Independence were already fiercely held in the hearts and minds of everyday Americans before July 4, 1776.

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The ideas and beliefs expressed in the Declaration cannot solely be attributed to the buzz of independence among American colonists, either. They are ideas that had been debated for years in the colonies that came from some of the great English advocates of freedom like John Locke and Cato’s letters. As Ms. Maier recently told some of my colleagues at Sam Adams Alliance, “Jefferson just took those and summarized them in a very effective rhetorical mode.”

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It is true that Jefferson, with assistance from John Adams and Franklin, captured these ideas with historic clarity. But he was writing for America, not to America. In 1825 he said of the Declaration, “Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”

So what does this all mean? It certainly does not mean that the Declaration is any less important, or that the Founders were any less visionary a group of men. American liberty was a creation of the American people, who crossed the Atlantic and were determined not to have European tyranny follow them across the ocean. The Declaration announced the fact of American liberty and the news of American independence to the world. The Founders did not create America; America created the Founders.

This history is especially poignant today, where there is another big political fight over the nature of government in America. Whatever you think of legislation like bailouts, the so-called stimulus, and our new health care law, these laws were passed over the objections of a majority of the American people. We can scarcely say that our representatives today are “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” as the Declaration prescribes. In fact, a recent Rasmussen poll showed that only 21 percent of Americans believe that the federal government is living up to this clause.

As we celebrate the Declaration of Independence this Fourth of July, we should honor the brilliant leadership of our founding fathers. But more importantly, we should remember that these great men were called to their places by a broad, free population, eager to defend their liberty.

Eric O’Keefe is Chairman of Sam Adams Alliance, a Chicago-based non-profit that supports citizen activism and responsible government.


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