POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

On Independence Day Remember the History of American Freedom and Equality

by David Trumbull

June 30, 2006

At ten o'clock on the morning of Tuesday, July 4, the Declaration of Independence will be read out to the assembled people from the balcony of the Old State House just as it first was in Boston, 230 years ago on July 18, 1776. Yes, back in the Revolutionary (before E-Mail) Period it could take two weeks to get a document from Philadelphia to Boston.

The memorable words of the Declaration:

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

punctuate one scene in a sweeping drama of history going back thousands of years.

Liberty and equality before law can be traced back to the Great Charter of England (A.D. 1215) which declared:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.

And that medieval declaration of rights echoes an earlier act in the drama of freedom. In the Institutes of the Roman Emperor Justinian (A.D. 535) we read:

The precepts of the law are these: to live honestly, to injure no one, and to give every man his due. Freedom, from which men are called free, is a man's natural power of doing what he pleases, so far as he is not prevented by force or law: Slavery is an institution of the law of nations, against nature subjecting one man to the dominion of another.

A thousand years earlier, Pericles (439 B.C.) said of Democratic Athens:

Our constitution favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all.

And our founding fathers, who threw off allegiance to King George, must have agreed with the words of the Hebrew prophet Samuel who, half a millennium before Pericles warned the people that asked of him a king.

This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots. And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your olive yards, even the best of them. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you --1 Samuel chapter 8.

As you enjoy the long weekend and all the events planned for Boston Harborfest, take some time out to reflect on the meaning of American Independence and our legacy of freedom. God bless America!