As the nation's founding document, the Declaration of Independence produced a number of immortal phrases: "When in the course of human events;" "all men are created equal;" "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
But one phrase that tends to be overlooked in popular celebrations is the most important: "To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men."
Each year, July 4th offers Americans an opportunity not only to celebrate but to reflect upon the nation's founding — particularly the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress.
What's amazing about primary author Thomas Jefferson's writing in the document is that it not only lists the grievances that colonists had with England, but it concisely defines the core purpose of government.
At a revolutionary time, with colonists rebelling against a distant tyranny that overtaxed them and meddled in their lives, it would have been quite understandable if they rejected the idea of government altogether.
But what Jefferson's words instruct us is that even at a time of revolution, the nation's Founders viewed some limited measure of government as not only tolerable, but necessary.
That is, in a state of anarchy, rights couldn't exist. There wouldn't be a military to protect individuals from foreign threats; there wouldn't be police forces to prevent people from harming one another; and there wouldn't be a court system to resolve disputes and exact justice on those who harm others.
Certain functions must be delegated to government because it simply isn't feasible for individuals to handle them by themselves. It doesn't make sense, for instance, that every individual would subscribe to his or her own private army or walk around with a personal bodyguard.
The Founders didn't see much of a role for the government beyond securing the most basic, unalienable rights.
In his First Inaugural Address, Jefferson called for "a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned."
In the intervening centuries, Americans' concept of the purpose of government has grown dramatically, and the Founders themselves are a part of the reason.
Nothing in this nation's history was a more egregious affront to Jefferson's words than the brutal institution of slavery, in which which many of the Founders, including Jefferson, participated. Furthermore, some of the largest expansions of the federal government's role in American history stemmed from the need to end slavery and to deal with its stubborn legacy. In the process, valid arguments about state sovereignty became tainted by those who used them to justify preserving an inhumane practice and continued racial oppression.
Obviously, at this point, there would be no way for the U.S. government ever to return to the limited purpose articulated in the Declaration of Independence. It would require cutting the federal budget by 75 percent or more and scrapping popular programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
On July 4th, however, Americans can still reflect on Jefferson's words and the vision for government that they conveyed, even if his own deeds — and those of his generation and succeeding generations — did not live up to them.
Members of Congress should take some time to reflect, as well. And before passing new laws to expand the size and scope of government, they would be wise to ask themselves, "Would this help secure the unalienable rights of American citizens?"