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Words from our founding fathers this Independence Day | COMMENTARY

Some are looking to the words of the country's founding fathers this Independence Day.
Some are looking to the words of the country's founding fathers this Independence Day. (Yeong-Ung Yang/The New York Times)

As we approach the celebration of the country’s independence, we should reflect on the words of those who helped create our country. The Declaration of Independence was unique to humanity as both a statement of our independence and a declaration of what it meant to be human.

Marquis de Lafayette projected, “The happiness of America is intimately connected with the happiness of all mankind; she is destined to become the safe and venerable asylum of virtue, of honesty, of tolerance, and quality and of peaceful liberty.”

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John Adams said, “Government is instituted for the common good … and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men …” This was a revolutionary idea to which we continue to aspire. As today, Adams observed: “The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people … . As Victor Hugo would later say, “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

The colonists were protesting discriminatory policies from what they considered an authoritarian government. “A traitor is everyone who does not agree with me.” These words were uttered by King George III and were incompatible with the ideas enumerated in the Declaration.

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Protest is an American tradition. Franklin wrote, “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” General Lafayette said, “When the government violates the people’s rights, insurrection is, for the people and for each portion of the people, the most sacred of the rights and the most indispensable of duties.”

Our founders warned us of the dangers to the democracy they built. Jefferson predicted, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield …” And Sam Adams forewarned a decline in democratic values, “A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy …”

President Washington warned, “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.” David Hume, an 18th century philosopher whose ideas greatly influenced our Declaration of Independence wrote, “The heights of popularity and patriotism are still the beaten road to power and tyranny …” There is a long list of tyrants who have used patriotism as a means of singular power. Lafayette predicted, “If the liberties of the American people are ever destroyed, they will fall by the hands of the clergy.” The founders were all too aware of the divisiveness of religion.

Our founders identified an enormous obstacle to democracy. “Those that can give up essential liberty to gain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Franklin might question those who feel the stock market is more important than upholding The Constitution. Sam Adams felt, “If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. "

Edmund Burke warned, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Democracy is predicated on citizen participation. Our founders would be disheartened by low voter turnouts.

Our founders left us with how to keep our democracy. John Jay, signer of the declaration stated, “I consider knowledge to be the soul of a republic.” Benjamin Rush, another signer of the declaration, agreed with Jay, “Freedom can exist only in the society of knowledge.” An educated populace is crucial to a democratic government. Thomas Jefferson was a key proponent of education as a safeguard to tyranny. “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people … they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

In the February 2018 issue of Science magazine, Dr. Susan Hockfield, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science wrote, “Lamentably, we also live in a new heyday of anti-science activism. Fake news and “alternative facts abound. Climate-change deniers occupy political office and determine environmental policy.” Alexander Hamilton warned, “The liberty of the press consists, in my idea, in publishing the truth …”

The founders of our country saw not only their time but were preparing our future. Adams said “You will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve YOUR freedom. I hope you will make a good use of it.” Many contemporary issues existed in 1775. As today, they initially took to the streets, but their protests were followed with something better.

On this July 4, we need to listen to the voices of the wise people who created our country as contemporaries.

Edward Kitlowski (ekit@verizon.net) is a retired teacher and education advocate who lives in Baltimore.

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