"Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it." -- John Quincy Adams
Freedom is not the default position of humankind; otherwise more would be free. In much of the world, dictatorship, religious persecution and the suppression of women are the norm.
Freedom has a price. Its currency is the blood of those who paid the bill. They can be found at Arlington, Normandy and scores of other places of rest where Americans died so that others might live in freedom.
If a nation is unwilling to pay the price for freedom, freedom dies. As Ronald Reagan observed, "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free."
Threats to freedom come not just from foreign powers or domestic terrorists. Subtler enemies can enslave us. These come from a focus on self: my rights, my pleasures, my money, to the exclusion of what benefits the whole, or as the Founders put it, "promotes the general welfare."
Who in our increasingly fractured country speaks of the general welfare? We are now mostly subsumed into groups. Identity politics is replacing our national identity. We are hyphenated Americans, divided by language, gender, race, class and orientation.
Few are willing to stand up and point the way to what should unify us by embracing what is objectively right and good. Any political leader who attempts to define right and good can be subjected to an attack ad and stereotyping.
We are hastily exchanging real freedom for license, which is unfettered morality and as dangerous as setting sail without a rudder.
At best, freedom ought to be about doing good for one's self and especially for others. Sacrifice does not always require one to give up something. It can also lead to an investment in the life of another person, which collectively contributes to the health of the nation. It goes beyond paying taxes. It is, as John F. Kennedy noted, asking what you can do for your country.
What does that mean? At the least it should reflect the words from one of our great patriotic hymns: "Who more than self their country loved."
Find one poor person who wants help and liberate them from poverty. If you are pro-life, volunteer at a women's pregnancy help center to save babies and help women, freeing them from the difficult circumstances that cause many to seek an abortion.
If you think government is too big, become more responsible for yourself and rely less on Washington. This means living within your means and investing wisely. It's called self-reliance, which is one's own declaration of independence.
That which constrains us from being seduced by our lower nature is what guarantees our freedom. For some it is Scripture. For all Americans it should be the Constitution. In 1878, British statesman William Gladstone called the U.S. Constitution "the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man."
That document flowed from the Declaration of Independence, which presumed the existence of "our Creator," the ultimate source of freedom and our rights. Abandoning these threatens freedom.
On this, the 237th birthday of America, we would do well to remember the meaning of freedom and why it must be renewed by every generation if it is to endure.
CAL THOMAS, a Washington Examiner columnist, is nationally syndicated by Tribune Media.