06/17/2014 05:05 pm ET Updated Aug 17, 2014

Responsible Freedom

Americans are today focused on individual liberty, defined most often as freedom from something--taxation, government oversight, violence in our communities, economic hardship, etc. But for the founding generation liberty was less about freedom from things and more about the freedom to participate in self-government. If there is anything we can learn from our revolutionary generation in these weeks leading up to the Fourth of July, it could be--it should be--to focus less on our personal freedom "wants" and invest more time in civic responsibility.

On June 12, 1776 at the Capitol in Williamsburg, Virginia, the Fifth Virginia Convention adopted George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights. It was the first bill of rights created by the soon-to-be-independent states of America, and it laid out principles of self-government that have resonated across generations. It did not declare "freedom from" anything. Instead, it articulated precepts by which a responsible people could govern themselves.

The Declaration of Rights begins by stating the simple but profound tenet that rights and privileges are vested in the individual. It refuted the long-held philosophy of the divine right of kings, which deemed that God vested all authority in monarchs and those rulers doled out rights and privileges to their subjects. Instead, Virginians stated, rights were vested in the individual, who in turn granted rights and privileges to a government which is accountable to rule in the people's best interest. Article two stated the principle explicitly: "That all power is vested in . . . the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants. . . ." The purpose of government is to ensure the "common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community." The act of implementing these enlightenment ideals in the creation of Virginia's new government was truly revolutionary.

The Declaration of Rights outlined principles of responsible government and a responsible people. In this new order, there was to be no inherited aristocracy and no special privileges assigned to any individual. The power of the state should be divided into separate branches of government able to check any abuses of power. Those who serve in government should return often to "private station" to participate in and experience "the burden of the people." Representatives should be selected by "frequent, certain, and regular elections." Those elections "ought to be free," and all those "having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with, and attachment to, the community, have the right of suffrage." This remarkable, ground-breaking document continued by asserting that the rule of law is paramount and the individual cannot be deprived of that assurance without due process. No one, as we would say today, is above the law. The authors established that civilian authority should always rule over the military. And they understood that the free flow and communication of information was essential: therefore, they guaranteed the freedom of the press.

Nowhere, however, was the Virginia Declaration of Rights more explicit about the responsibility of government than in section 15: "That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles." Here was an injunction to the people--a command--that to sustain self-government, each individual must learn, cultivate, and practice the qualities of responsible citizens in a republic.

At Colonial Williamsburg we teach the story of this remarkable founding generation--a generation of Americans creating their own distinctive form of self-government. Did they complete their work? No. Did their efforts secure the benefits of self-government for all Americans? No. They did not create a perfect world of which we are only the beneficiaries. They did, however, provide us a legacy of service and responsibility. As we remember the generation of Americans--the generation of 1776--who served the Fifth Virginia Convention, the Continental Congress, and a host of other local and colonial assemblies, remember that we honor them not by chanting slogans and insisting on our freedom "from" this thing or that. We honor them when we shoulder the responsibility of our citizenship.