Ask 10 average Americans where the phrase "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" appears, and half of them couldn't tell you. But as we celebrate 223 years of independence, it's worth asking why, and what can be done about that.
America more than any other nation is based on an idea. We aren't racially, ethnically, religiously or geographically defined like other nations. Rather, America was born and lives in the tradition of liberty and law.
And no words in the English language better express the American project than the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable 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."
Americans must learn these truths if we are to excel as a nation and a people. Yet few Americans know the words. For many they are a distant echo of the past barely heard and dimly understood.
But some courageous state lawmakers are fighting to restore America's founding principles by reaching out to the next generation. Unfortunately, they are meeting fierce political opposition.
Take New Jersey. State Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, a Republican, sponsored a bill that would require public school students there to recite those sentences from the Declaration, along with the Pledge of Allegiance.
Why? Carroll worries that kids don't have a good sense of why America is special. "The language of this little passage . . . sets forth in one little paragraph the entire basis for the American government," he explained.
The bill passed the assembly but now languishes in the state senate. The reason: Garden State liberals object to words like "men," "Creator," and "right to life." They say the men who founded the country are bad role models for kids, and that their ideas are old hat.
Typical is the claim of Assemblywoman Nia Gill, who said that "at the time these words were written only white men, and only white men with property, were perceived to be the benficiaries of these words."
This is absurd and false. In New Jersey, for instance, women and even blacks were voting by the late 1700s.
But Gill's view is the conventional wisdom. And New Jersey isn't the only state where this sort of battle is being fought.
In California, a '96 law requires high school students to read the Declaration, the Constitution and other important founding-era documents. Again, Democrats hammered the bill. One assemblyman said it "contradicts freedom (and) by its nature is calculated to teach fascism, not democracy."
Nevada State Sen. Mark James authored a similar bill after visiting schools in his Las Vegas district. He found that most of the students couldn't answer the simplest questions on a U.S. citizenship test. James's bill also passed, but only after a contentious 2-1/2 hour debate longer than any legislative debate in recent memory.
Why are the words and ideals of the Declaration so hated? Carroll thinks it's because liberals see America as "an ongoing horror show" of racist and sexist oppression.
That may be part of it. A better explanation may be that the principles of liberty and equality the founders enshrined in the Declaration stand in direct opposition to the modern liberal agenda.
The Founders were clear: Human beings are born with rights, which come before government. The role of government is limited to protecting those rights, not making up new ones, such as Franklin Roosevelt's "freedom from fear."
Seen that way, it's easy to understand why so many liberal politicians oppose teaching these ideas to children. They may actually grow up believing in limited government, equality under the law, and no taxation without representation.
The Declaration sets forth a truth "applicable to all men and all times," in Lincoln's words that stands in the way of tyranny. It also sets a standard of freedom and equality. Americans haven't always met that standard. But it is the standard every American must learn and know if we wish to remain a free people. It is the standard we ought to honor and celebrate this Independence Day.