What does it mean to be independent in our modern world? I’m partial to President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms as they address the conceptual freedoms laid out in the Constitution, as well as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In a modern world though, FDR’s third freedom, the freedom from Want, affects the ability of everyone in their ability to achieve those other freedoms. After all, how can we be free of Fear, when so many people are wanting for basic necessities? How do we celebrate Independence Day in a country where so many are really not free, and so many others fear that a progressive shift in politics will limit their freedom?
When we talk about Independence Day there’s a strict historical narrative about former British subjects throwing off the shackles of monarchical rule and establishing a representative government. But that specific narrative, in the lens of history, is devoid of valuing independence for so much of our population. The phrase within our Declaration of Independence “…that all men are created equal” describes an idea that at the time most literally meant, white, land owning, non-indentured, men were to be held as equals. But even then that was an improvement from the nobility structure prevalent in Europe at the time, which prevented men from advancing beyond their born station in life.
The opening lines of that document states, “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…” I think it’s often overlooked that the preeminent document of American philosophy contains the word politics. We talk often today of removing politics from the discussion of government or policy, but it’s clear that even the Framers saw the reality that policy and leadership is subjective and prone to partisanship. We still argue the “intent” of early American policy when it comes to basic rights of citizens. How does that affect one’s Independence or Liberty?
In the heart of that first phrase is the term “one people,” which to me does show the true intent of the message of our Founding Fathers. As our country has progressed we’ve taken that phrase to heart and done what we could to hold it up as our real identity. We’ve worked to allow all PEOPLE equal representation under the law through voting rights for women and people of color. We’ve sought to be inclusive in public schooling and access to legal representation within our courts. Have we achieved a place where those truths are self-evident? Hardly. But are we in a place better than where we started? I’d say yes. Can we keep working toward progress? Absolutely.
Another facet of independence though is more nuanced within our modern lens. There’s something about the ability to be self-sufficient that has integrated itself into the concept of Liberty. There is a mighty call from many within the political right that see their ability to be unbothered by government, unbothered by anyone at all, as integral to their independence. It has something to do with the pop history of our country. The Daniel Boones, the Davey Crocketts, the John Waynes of yesteryear who held sway over their own dominion and had an entire continent at their disposal to make what they would from it.
But that concept is not honestly a shared history for many within our country. For every pioneer family that moved west under their own volition there was a family making that decision because they had no where else to go, and at least one other family who couldn’t move at all and remained where they were for whatever reason. There were black families tied to their small share cropping plots in the south. There were American Indians being forced from their land. There were folks from China indentured on railroad crews. There were immigrants from Europe filling up the slums of cities. The myth of the pioneering American feels innately tied to the American experience, but truly it is only a small part of the reality that we really share.
The (seemingly) infinite resources of the American frontier certainly provided a backdrop for that pioneering spirit to lean on. If you could procure enough supplies to make your way out west, find some land, sink a well and some foundations, grow your herd, protect your family, etcetera, I suppose you’d have made it. The reality is that vast numbers of people moved into burgeoning towns and again became part of a community. The myth of the lone pioneer family has always been limited by their proximity to their nearest community and access to supplies.
So can we only celebrate Independence if we are off on our own, axe and rifle in hand with no one around to hear us pontificate? That model breaks down within the Maslow model, for we know that a sense of community and human interaction is nearly as necessary as having food and shelter. But if you are able obtain those basic things, to live from day to day free from the fear of hunger or loneliness, then you can truly be free. And in that space we can really talk about what Independence Day should mean for modern Americans.
I live a place of privilege. My access to resources is hardly ever difficult. If I need food, I have money to buy it. If I need shelter, I have a nice home. If I need companionship, I have a host of friends in my community that can aid me in any need I may have. Do I still have wants and desires that are beyond my grasp? Of course I do. But I don’t feel impeded by the systems in place and that I work within, in the slightest. I feel very independent in my place in the world. I am able to live as freely as any person in history could have ever dared to dream. And from that place it is my duty to help create a world where my neighbor can live as freely as me. That is was Independence is, the Freedom to help others.
Too many Americans do not have access to basic resources. Too many of our fellow citizens are truly hungry at some point during their week. Too many people don’t have adequate housing. Too many people don’t have access to the Internet, to modern jobs and decent or even adequate education. And so when progressives like me talk about improving things, and we talk about it being systematic changes that come from within governmental shifts, we say this because it’s hard for us to celebrate an Independence Day knowing that there are many of our neighbors who still want for the basic necessities of life.
I could go on. But what I want to leave you with on this most American of holidays is this. Lacking resources, lacking the ability to live at all is what limits freedom. Liberty exists when you are unencumbered by the basic limits of human needs and able to express yourself more fully into other avenues of life. Your liberties are not infringed when systems change to make things more equal for your neighbors. Those are your privileges that are changing. And you are not entitled to privilege.
We are a fortunate people. We are still a land of opportunity, but we must be diligent in our efforts to afford those opportunities to all. That is called justice, and, after all, do we not pledge allegiance to a flag with the promise of Liberty AND Justice for all?
Lucas Herndon is the Communications Manager for Progress Now New Mexico. He is a lifelong resident of Doña Ana County. He loves exploring the natural resources of New Mexico and surrounding areas with friends and helping to support his community through the arts, business, and the outdoors. He enjoys spending time with his daughter, girlfriend, and their dogs at home and out in the amazing public lands around New Mexico.