The following paragraphs are from an essay by Edward Hudgins, director of regulatory affairs at the Cato Institute. It originally appeared on Cato.org on July 3, 1998.
"We celebrate July Fourth as the day the Declaration of Independence created the United States. But in my heart I also honor July 15. On that day in 1930 Giustino DiCamillo, my grandfather, arrived here with my grandma, aunts and an uncle to start their lives as Americans. My mom was born the next year.
'I never had the chance to hear my grandpop's deepest thoughts about his extraordinary journey and rich, long life, which ended when I was fairly young. But one way I can understand his character, and the character of my country, is to reflect on the question, "What is an American?"
'An American is anyone who loves life enough to want the best that it has to offer. Americans are not automatically satisfied with their current situation. My grandpop wanted to be more than a poor, landless tenant farmer, no better off than his ancestors. Americans look to more than the next meal; they look to the future, the long term, a better tomorrow.
"An American is anyone who understands that to achieve the best in life requires action, exertion, effort. Americans aren't idle daydreamers; they take the initiative. Fortune did not fall into my grandpop's hands. He had traveled to America several times before 1930 to find work, establish himself, and make it possible to bring over the family. He toiled for years to achieve his dream, but achieve it he did."
< . . . >
"Americans seek personal liberty, to live as they see fit, to worship as they please. Americans seek freedom from the use of power wielded arbitrarily by whoever holds the political sword. My grandpop no doubt did not want to be at Mussolini's mercy.
"The Declaration -- and the Constitution that followed it -- created a political regime for individuals who wished to be united with their countrymen not essentially by a common language, ethnic background, or other accident of birth. Americans are united by a love of liberty, respect for the freedom of others and an insistence on their own rights as set forth in the Declaration.
"Unfortunately, the American spirit has eroded. Our forebears would look with sadness at the servile and envious character of many of our citizens and policymakers. But the good news is that there are millions of Americans around the world, living in every country. Many of them will never make it here to the United States. But they are Americans, just as my grandpop was an American before he ever left Italy. And just as millions discovered America in the past, we can rediscover what it means to be an American. The principles of this country are no mere abstractions; they are written in the hearts of all true Americans. And it is the spirit of America, the spirit of my grandfather, that we should honor on July Fourth."
And from the Heritage Foundation's policy blog, The Foundry, Matthew Spalding begins a post on whether the Declaration of Independence matters:
"The Declaration of Independence was partly intended as a list of grievances against a distant monarch. And both George III and the colonists who disagreed with his rule are long dead. But so are many of those who’ve argued that the Declaration is obsolete. In fact, this is exactly what those who called themselves “progressives” were saying a century ago .
"Woodrow Wilson, one of the most famous early progressives, argued during the 1912 presidential campaign  that “all that Progressives ask or desire is permission…to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle,” meaning that it should promote an ever-expanding set of powers for an ever-expanding government. The problem, he declared, was that pesky Declaration of Independence: “Some citizens of this country have never got beyond the Declaration of Independence,” he remarked. “The Declaration of Independence did not mention the questions of our day.”
"But in fact the Declaration is more than a litany of complaints. Its greater meaning  is as a statement of the conditions of legitimate political authority and the proper ends of government. It proclaimed that political rule would, from then on, reside in the sovereignty of the people. “If the American Revolution had produced nothing but the Declaration of Independence,” wrote the great historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, “it would have been worthwhile.”
Finally, in an essay posted at the Independent Women's Forum, Charlotte Hays begins by writing:
"Something tells me that I won’t be the only American pondering some famous words uttered by Ben Franklin tomorrow as we celebrate the anniversary of our founding.
"Franklin was exiting Independence Hall at the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1789. The great man was approached by an excited Philadelphia lady, who asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”
"Franklin famously replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” This July Fourth falls in the shadow of the Supreme Court’s having upheld a law that augments the federal government’s already vast taxing powers and increases the government’s ability to intrude into our personal lives. Can we keep it? This is the question for Americans living in our time, but, of course it has always been the question, as, indeed, Franklin knew it would."
Hays also points to another good read on what it means to be an American. Here's hoping your celebration of the Fourth of July is done in good health and safety.
UPDATE (7/4/12): The Washington Free Beacon has a great video posted of CNBC's Rick Santelli offering a "special Independence Day message" in which he focuses on the meaning of the phrase "pursuit of Happiness" from the Declaration of Independence. It's only 2 minutes, 17 seconds long.