When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
It is with these seventy-one words that a document, the likes of which had never been seen before, begins. The document was the Declaration of Independence, and the likes of it had never been seen before because what was happening on this land had never been done before on this scale -- a grand experiment, if you will. To be sure, the idea of breaking off and breaking out on your own was not first conceived by those who came to what was to be called the United States of America to settle. Smaller factions of cavemen breaking off from larger factions of cavemen occurred. The Exodus narrative in the Bible is also an example of this, as is the Protestant Reformation the result of a breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church.
The settling here in America and the establishing of a new country, and even formally declaring independence in an official document, was broader in its size and scope. These and other likewise examples were exercises of establishing a level of autonomy, of achieving freedom. We often hear the phrase "Freedom is never free" usually in terms of war. The same can be true in terms of effort in general. That is to say, freedom is never free from effort...the greater the desired freedom, the greater the amount of effort required. By extension, responsibility is part and parcel of freedom.
In her 1960 book You Learn by Living, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, "Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility." How true! How often do people, maybe even ourselves, think of freedom as simply doing what you want to do when you want to do it and nothing more than that. Freedom and responsibility are, in my mind, inseparable.
Think of when you were a kid -- and hopefully old enough to know about and remember going out to play -- and your parents said for you to stay out of a neighbor's yard or to be back home by suppertime. You may have seen those as some sort of a restriction -- and your parents knew that it was a restriction for your own good -- but it was instilling in you a sense of responsibility. You could have the freedom to go and play, but you had to also be responsible to respect others' property or to be home at a decent time for a specific reason. In fact, if you weren't responsible, you likely lost some of your freedom for a while. Your parents, if they were like mine, didn't give you freedom without responsibility because freedom includes responsibility; it is not carte blanche. Not enough of us see it that way...too many of us look at others who do see it that way as odd.
If you have never done so, or haven't in a while, read the Declaration of Independence sometime. You'll find a list of grievances against, and wrongdoings of, King George III, statements contrasting government in good standing and government in bad standing, statements regarding no desire for confrontation with Great Britain (although I'm sure they expected it), and stating their independence from their former homeland.
What you will not find is anything even remotely suggesting: "Hey, we're outta that place, so let's go crazy in this place!" This wasn't a school recess; they knew work, lots of work, lie ahead. In seeking freedom, the forefathers of America declared their independence from Great Britain, not their independence from responsibility.
While those of us today, separated by centuries from those tumultuous birthing days of this country, do not have to worry about declaring our independence from Great Britain (or any other country, for that matter), we seem to have lost our way. As I stated earlier, too many of us see freedom as separate from responsibility. We want to be left alone with no one to tell us right from wrong, no one to hold us accountable. Since when did being responsible become so wrong?
Tell those who first came here that being responsible is wrong; tell those who immigrated to this country for centuries afterward to become part of this country that being responsible is wrong; tell those who built up this country from the ground up that being responsible is wrong; tell good parents that being responsible is wrong; tell someone working two jobs to pay his/her way through college that being responsible is wrong...and see what kind of responses you get.
Convince all of those people of those same things...and let's see where we'd be today.
While we celebrate today this nation's 236-year-old independence, let us pause after the parties and parades and think about how this country was built through, among other things, being responsible time and time again, and never shirking that responsibility. To that legacy we owe our thanks. To that legacy we are called to give nothing less than our best efforts by being not just free persons, but free and responsible persons.