MythBlast | Independence and Hanging Together
In the United States, July 4th is a national holiday celebrating the Second Continental Congress’s approval of The Declaration of Independence, a document created to explain congress’s decision on July 2, 1776 to formally separate from British rule and form an independent nation comprised of the original 13 colonies. John Adams believed it would be the July 2nd date that would be celebrated in American memory “…from this time forward forever more.” But in the American creation myth, the founding fathers signed the declaration on July 4th, even though most Historians believe the Declaration of Independence was signed much later, perhaps even a month later, on August 2nd.
Initially, when fighting began in 1775, Americans were fighting only for their rights as British subjects, and all out war with Great Britain was not an option anyone relished. Yet, in another year the Revolution was under way, and congressional action resulting in the issuance of the Declaration of Independence had been taken. The war was costly, both in blood and treasure; casualty rates were second only to the Civil War. Americans banded together to fight a capriciously tyrannical monarchy, and “mutually pledge[d] to each other,” as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration, “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” There are few documents, especially government documents, that transcend their functions as forms, records, certificates, authorizations, or mere reports, and actually live. The Declaration of Independence is one such living document; it seems sentient and discursive, at times angry, disappointed, insulted, anxious, and above all, determined; determined to honor its enduring pledge of justice, safety, happiness, and prudence to its citizens, encouraging Americans to live a meaningful life. In return, the pledge from each of us to give our best and our all to every person engaged in this bold, risky, and ultimately fragile experiment breathes life into that most remarkable of documents, resuscitated by every new generation of Americans.
I think nothing is better than mythology at emphasizing the glaring discrepancy between individual perceptions and desires and the harsh inflexibility of external reality, and certainly countries may be similarly understood. A state is reasonably clear and objectively defined—it’s a necessary organizing principle—but a nation is a mythological, imaginal notion, a nation is a living myth. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, a pronouncement of individual freedom, is the first attempt at shaping and advancing the founding mythology of America, and we can see the discrepancies between aspiration and reality, individuality and plurality, when a little more than a decade later, the U.S. Constitution emphasizes the words “We the people,” and “a more perfect union.” Perhaps the best measure of independence is the recognition that I am interdependent; I am more free when I work to ensure that those immortal words—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—apply to each and every American.
Hungry for more? Campbell works powerful ideas on independence and personal growth in his exploration of myth and personal transformation, Pathways to Bliss.
Bradley Olson, Ph.D.
Bradley Olson, Ph.D., is the editor of the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s MythBlast series. Dr. Olson is a Depth Psychologist in private practice in Flagstaff, Arizona; his work with clients is heavily influenced by his interest in Jungian Analytical Psychology, literature, and Mythological Studies.