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The Celebration of a Progressive Holiday

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On this holiday celebrating the courage of America's brave revolutionary founders, all Americans can celebrate. But progressives should take special pride in this holiday, for it was the ultimate achievement of progressive values that brought us this day.

As I discuss in my book, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be, the Tories who opposed American independence were the conservatives of their day. They revered tradition, and proudly followed orders from the king and the aristocracy in London. They hated and feared the idea of democracy, and thought the idea of equality was laughable. As Tory Samuel Seabury, the first Bishop of the American Episcopal Church, argued:

If I must be enslaved, let it be by a king at least, and not a parcel of upstart lawless committeemen. If I must be devoured, let me be devoured by the jaws of a lion, and not gnawed to death by rats and vermin.

In a letter to the editor of a British newspaper, another American Tory argued that the colonists had shown:

...an extravagant zeal for liberty without considering...that nothing is as essential as a due obedience to the government they live under.

The Tories valued tradition over justice, feared the unintended consequences of change, and hated the idea of being "gnawed to death by [the] rats and vermin" of democracy.

Our progressive revolutionary founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine argued that we should "make the world new again." Paine's pamphlet Common Sense lit a fire under the American people, reaching working class and poor people as well as the elites, and fundamentally changed the debate. Before Common Sense was published, most Americans were debating how they could best claim their rights as Englishmen. Afterwards, the debate was about revolution itself.

And make no mistake: the ideas we take for granted today were truly radical in 1776. Before our revolution, every country on earth was ruled by some kind of king and aristocracy. Ideas like democracy and equality were shocking and terrifying to the conservatives of the day. Even among the brave leaders who came together in Philadelphia, their list of grievances with the king and Parliament were pretty basic. But in Jefferson's stunning opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, he blew away thousands of years of assumptions about government -- the divine right of kings, citizens owing obedience to whatever government they lived under, adherence to tradition, rule by aristocracy. And he set the stage for an American debate about the progressive values of equality and justice that have inspired our debates ever since.

Listen to the words again with fresh ears. Think about how radical they were then, and how their values should inform our modern debates:

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 pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.

Those ideas are progressive ideas. Those values are progressive values. So as we are fighting today's battles -- to expand our definition of equality to all of our people, to protect our rights as free citizens, to make sure all of the children growing up in a great country have a legitimate chance at their own pursuit of happiness -- let's remember and embrace that history.

Happy Independence Day.