The Meaning of July 4th,
Part Two

Last year at this time, I wrote that we are, bit by bit, losing the meaning of July 4th. This holiday used to celebrate a Declaration of Independence from a tyrannical British government that had tried to subjugate Americans. But here’s a little test to see how much of that meaning we’ve kept. Ask yourself two questions.

1. When you think of a July 4th parade, what are three kinds of groups you expect to see marching in that parade?

2. Name three things that the British government did to Americans that Americans protested in the July 4th Declaration of Independence.

My guess is that in your answer to (1), you listed some display of the U.S. military, local government officials, or both. Some of the military display is entirely appropriate. The U.S. military under George Washington managed to defeat a hostile government that was trying to subjugate Americans. I’ll address the local government officials anon. My guess is that most of you weren’t able to answer (2). I’m not setting myself apart from you. I wasn’t able to, either, without consulting the Declaration of Independence, something I’ve read from start to finish at least five times in my life. Let me quote some of the most important here:

“He [King George III] has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

“He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

“He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

“He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation: […]

“For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

“For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.”

And even if you knew three of those, I’d bet most people around you don’t. Why? I don’t blame people for not knowing. I blame the propaganda machine for distracting us.

It happens on two levels. First, in most July 4th parades I am familiar with, local government officials give themselves a prominent place in the parade. Yet it is local government officials who often impose on us their petty rules that restrict our freedom. Such rules include telling us whether we can cut down trees on our property, whether we can add a bathroom to our own house, and whether people can set up distribution outlets for medical marijuana, to name three current issues in my area. This sounds a lot like George III setting up “a multitude of new offices” to “harass the people.”

Some of America’s early leaders understood the danger our own governments posed. President James Madison once stated, “I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” Notice that he mentioned those in power in our own government, not heads of other governments. And even latter-day leaders such as President Ronald Reagan understood the danger of government intrusion. In fact, in his Thanksgiving 1981 interview with Barbara Walters, at the height of the Cold War, Reagan went so far as to say that the major threat to freedom came not from the Soviets, but from governments in the United States.

The second reason we forget the original meaning of July 4th is that the official celebrations, and even many of the unofficial ones, focus on the U.S. military and emphasize that it defends our freedom. It’s true that the military, by its very presence, defends our freedom. Anyone thinking of attacking the U.S. with a conventional military force knows that he will not get far against the most powerful military in the world. But it’s also true that the U.S. military attacks people in other countries, even when those people have not credibly threatened the United States. So, for example, the U.S. military invaded Panama when it could not plausibly be claimed – and our military leader, President George H. W. Bush, did not even try to claim – that Gen. Noriega threatened Americans’ freedom. Or take the first Gulf War. It was about getting one ruthless dictator, Saddam Hussein, out of another dictatorship, Kuwait, which Hussein had invaded. That may have been a worthy goal, but it had nothing to do with Americans’ freedom. And sometimes the U.S. military engages in activities that reduce our freedom. The U.S. Navy, for example, is involved in fighting the drug war. It forcibly stops ships and boats hauling illegal drugs. In doing so, it disrupts commerce, thus reducing economic freedom.

None of this is to say that there is not a proper place for honoring the U.S. military, past and present, on July 4th. But it’s a matter of proportion: If we honor the military for defending our freedom, then shouldn’t we also honor people who fight against our own governments’ violations of our liberties? So, for starters, we should honor the folks at the Marijuana Policy Project, who campaign tirelessly to get the government to back off the drug war and to stop using our tax money to propagandize in favor of the drug war. We should honor the Institute of Justice, a public-interest law firm that goes after petty governments that are trying to prevent people from making a living or trying to steal their property. We should honor the American Civil Liberties Union when it’s trying to rein in government surveillance of peaceful citizens. We should honor the National Taxpayers Union, which publicizes and argues against higher taxes. We should honor the still-unidentified American patriots who, in 1971, broke into the FBI’s Media, Pa., office and found, and released to the press, evidence of the FBI’s numerous attempts to suppress dissent about the Vietnam War. In doing so, these latter heroes risked going to prison for a long, long time.

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.

I would love to get July 4th back. Let’s remember that on July 4th we should celebrate our independence from government, such as it is, and we should honor those, both in the military and not in the military, who defend our freedom.

© 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