Welcome. Thank you for attending this year’s Independence Day Celebration. And I would like to thank our sponsors for making this event possible.
All of you know that July 4 represents the birth of the United States as an independent country. But what exactly happened on that day?
It wasn’t the day when the Continental Congress declared independence; they did that on July 2. It wasn’t the day when we started the American Revolution, or the day when the British surrendered to George Washington. It is the day when the Continental Congress approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence, written largely by Thomas Jefferson.
It reads in part:
“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; that to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed; and whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…”
Simple words, but powerful. Those statements were anything but self-evident back then; and even today people are fighting and dying to uphold their unalienable rights.
We sometimes forget that the United States became a state before it was a nation. Most countries that declare independence were nations before becoming states. As a country of immigrants, we have had to invent the Nation – not based on race or religion or language. In our effort to define our nationality, we have relied on ideas and ideals. The Declaration of Independence embodies them.
A few days ago I was in Riga to participate in the US-EU Transatlantic Legislators Dialogue. I sat with the parliamentarians of the EU, Latvia and the United States in the Saeima, Latvia’s national assembly. And I recalled how in January 1991 Latvians from all walks of life manned the barricades around that building, braving freezing temperatures and potential death at the hands of the Soviet Army to prevent a Communist coup.
My family was with me in Riga. My children are lucky to be growing up considering the Declaration’s truths to be “self-evident.” I took them to the Museum of National Occupation so that they could see how Latvia was traded like a piece of real estate between totalitarian regimes.
Vladimir Putin has called the breakup of the Soviet Union – responsible for the suffering of the Latvians, and many millions more — one of the greatest geopolitical catastrophes of the 20th century. His vision could not be further removed from Thomas Jefferson’s.
As the President Obama likes to say, the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice – thanks to people who are inspired by the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.
I met such people, dissidents who braved constant harassment, when I studied at Leningrad State University in 1982.
I met members of the Solidarity Movement when I studied at the Jagiellonian University of Krakow in the summer of 1983. I was able to interview Lech Walesa, then under house arrest. Soon after my arrival in Brussels last year I had the pleasure of meeting his son, Jaroslaw Walesa, a member of the European Parliament, and to send him that interview.
On my first trip to Czechoslovakia in 1987 I smuggled reading material to a member of the human rights group Charter 77, a former journalist who had been jailed and was then working as a janitor. The man was Jiri Dienstbier and a few years later he became the first non-Communist foreign minister of that country in four decades.
The arc of history bends toward justice, but it is indeed long.
The brave men and women on Maidan Square rose up to remind their leaders that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed.” The Ukrainians who are fighting for their inalienable rights are no less deserving than the Latvians or the Poles or the Czechs.
The hunger for the Declaration’s inalienable rights is by no means confined to Europe. A few months ago I had the pleasure of meeting Lilian Tintori, wife of the imprisoned Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. He has been subjected to many months of solitary confinement and other inhumane treatment. His crime? The audacity to call for free and fair elections in his country.
Even in our own streets – in Charleston and in Lyon these last weeks, as before in Brussels, Paris and Copenhagen – our ideals are under attack by the messengers of hate.
Though written 239 years ago, the Declaration is more relevant than ever. It speaks to core values we still struggle to achieve. And it reminds us that we must continue to live up to these values, and to protect them at all cost.
That’s why July 4 is worth celebrating.