The Meaning of July 4th

Bit by bit, the meaning of July 4th has been lost. It now involves far too much celebration of the U.S. military and far too much deference to governments. I am a big fan, in many ways, of the U.S. military. As a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, I have taught military officers for the last 22 years. I have come to admire, respect, and, frankly, love hundreds of the U.S. officers I’ve taught. But the current emphasis on praising the U.S. military is out of all proportion to the military’s role.

July 4th has been traditionally thought of as a celebration of our independence from an oppressive government. It’s true that the original U.S. military helped gain that independence and that, without them, the United States might still be a British colony. So let’s give the military its due. But the goal the U.S. military fought for a quarter of a millennium ago bears little resemblance to the goals it fights for today. Chalmers Johnson, in his book The Sorrows of Empire, cites (on page 154) a Department of Defense study statistic that the U.S. government has 725 foreign bases in 38 countries. Virtually none of the countries these bases are near threaten Americans’ freedom in any serious way.

Take Iraq. Please. Even though President Bush talks about how the U.S. military is fighting for Iraqi freedom and democracy (often seeming unaware that freedom and democracy are not the same thing), even he is less and less willing to make the case that the U.S. military is fighting in Iraq to preserve American freedom. And no wonder. That case is hard to make.

Think about what freedom is. It includes freedom of speech and the press, the freedom to exchange goods and services with others, the freedom to move around without being stopped by government officials, the right to keep what we produce, and the freedom to choose whom we associate with, to name just a few. Oh, yes, and the freedom not to be imprisoned unless charged with a crime, the so-called right of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus is a precondition for the other freedoms. If the government could imprison us without charging us with a crime, then all the other freedoms would be meaningless. The government wouldn’t have to pass any laws restricting the other freedoms; it could simply jail anyone it wished for any reason at any time.

Now ask yourself: Did Saddam Hussein threaten any of these freedoms? No. How about Ho Chi Minh, the head of the North Vietnamese government during the Vietnam war? No. That is not to say that your freedoms weren’t and aren’t being threatened – but who is threatening them? Look closer to home: Washington, D.C., the state bureaucracy, and your local city hall.

A New York judge said, in 1866, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” But he understated the case. Even when the legislature is out of session, presidents and petty bureaucrats typically are eating away at our freedom. President Bush, for example, claims the right to tap our phone calls if they’re made to certain countries and has claimed the right to hold even U.S. citizens in prison without charging them with a crime. This latter means that he has tried to undercut the above-mentioned habeas corpus. State governments regularly violate freedom of association by telling employers whom they must hire and what rules they must follow before they fire. In my town of Pacific Grove, Calif., the local government tells me how thin the branches on my tree can be before I have “permission” to cut them.

These are the daily assaults on our freedom, and there is little our military can do to stop these assaults. It could organize a coup, but who wants that? Military governments have often been more oppressive than the civilian governments they replace.

We often hear officials tell us to celebrate July 4th by showing up at the parades that these government officials organize. If, instead, we celebrate by, say, having a barbecue or going to a movie or lighting off large firecrackers, the most rabid of these officials accuse us of not being patriotic enough and, in the case of the firecrackers, even try to get us arrested. But the most patriotic thing we can do on this sacred day is to celebrate the real spirit of July 4th. And that means not only celebrating the overthrow of the British, but also ignoring the oppressive life-arrangers in our current governments.

© Copyright 2006 by David R. Henderson. For permission to reprint, please contact

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at