I was 18 and a college freshman. It was a Tuesday night in October. My 1970 Chevy Impala felt wide open in the fifty-degree air and the smell of freshly fallen leaves. I drove through Forest Park feeling the rhythm of the yellow street lights as I moved between light and dark. "Memory" from Cats came on the radio. I lit a Camel (no filter). I was free.
In America, we often think of independence as a collective thing. That's bassackwards, isn't it?
Independence is individual.
July 4th is Independence Day--the day we celebrate breaking free from Britain. We broke from a nation, as a nation. The collective celebration makes sense.
But we did not break free because of some philosophy about groups of people; our philosophy, embodied in the Declaration of Independence, is about the rights of individual human beings.
We do need other people. We are social animals. But we are free to associate, to work with, to help or ignore those we choose. No human being has the just authority to force any of us to associate with any other.
Independence is about people.
We broke from England to experiment with governments of our own choosing.
Independence means that I have all I need to live my life as I see best, limited only by my intrusions into others' lives.
On Independence Day weekend, think about that. Take five minutes to meditate on the word "independence" and its personal promise to you, not to the collective.
Independence is earned.
Then take a moment and think about the threats to our independence. They abound. Our families can stifle us. The corporations we work for bind us. The debts we take on chain us. And governments at all levels shackle our bodies, hearts, and minds.
In 1838, a young French aristocrat toured the United States and wrote about his impressions. Toward the end of this two-volume collection, Tocqueville wrote about despotism in America, should it ever return. It's a sobering, staggering premonition. Here's a tiny sample:
Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
Happy 4th of July. And congratulations on your independence . . . if you can keep it.