President Donald Trump’s Independence Day message this year urged Americans to celebrate their status as “...one people, chasing one dream, and one magnificent destiny.” The president, like so many of his predecessors and fellow citizens, emphasizes the national character of independence without giving one thought to its federal character. By doing so, President Trump and the citizenry miss the real meaning of the American Revolution.

James Madison, the father of the Constitution and our fourth president, reminded us of the genuine Spirit of 1776: “The fundamental principle of the revolution was, that the colonies were co-ordinate members with each other, and with Great-Britain; of an Empire, united by a common Executive Sovereign, but not united by any common Legislative Sovereign.” In other words, the 13 colonies saw themselves as co-equal commonwealths existing within the British Empire based on allegiance to King George III.

Madison continued: “The Legislative power was maintained to be as complete in each American Parliament, as in the British Parliament.... A denial of these principles by Great-Britain, and the assertion of them by America, produced the revolution.”

Each colonial legislature, Madison explained, possessed the sovereign power to pass laws within its jurisdiction and was equivalent to the British national legislature. Parliament’s insistence that it could legislate for the colonies in all cases whatsoever led to the outbreak of hostilities.