Photo source: Defense.gov
God bless the U.S.A. We remain the land of the free because of the brave. The above photo of more than 500 veterans with American flags lining a procession route at the Iowa Veterans Cemetery in Van Meter, Iowa (the veterans were providing a motorcycle escort for the unclaimed remains of seven Iowan troops) was taken by Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Gary Ward. Keep our troops in your thoughts and prayers as we celebrate in the comfort of our homes surrounded by friends and loved ones.
It was the ultimate act of defiance of its time, a statement to a presumably divinely-appointed monarch from his supposed subjects that they had decided to reject his authority. The world had seen rebellions against monarchy before, but usually on the basis of rival claims to the throne, or on religious principles more than political.
On July 4th, 1776, Great Britain’s colonies united not to depose a king but to declare him irrelevant to their land, and to make the clearest declaration in history of the right of a people to self-governance. It not only argued that the abuses declared in the document gave the 13 colonies the right to cut ties to their mother country and its monarch, but also made an argument against all monarchies and dictatorships in its explicit reliance on the natural rights of all people for freedom. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence made the point almost immediately that the entire notion of divine appointment to hereditary rule had no basis, as all men are created equal. And not just monarchs either, but also tyrants, despots, and those who put any class of people above another without the consent of the governed.
While many of the founders of the new nation that affixed their names to this document failed to consistently live up to that ideal, they lit a flame that burns to this day — and that still makes tyrants quake with the implication of these 1300 words from the 13 colonies.
Happy birthday, America. May these words continue to ring in all the corners of the world with the same force.
This post was originally published July 4, 2006.
Today marks the 230th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Jim Lynch sent out an email to several of us asking us to blog the event as if we were there. Thus, the following Fisking of the Declaration.
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Jefferson has buried an obviously untrue assertion after a rather longwinded series of unsubstantiated premises. [And what's with the capitalization? Is Course a proper noun now?-ed.] Is it really necessary to dissolve our political bonds? Really? Does the earth have powers? [And why isn't "earth" capitalized? Surely, it's closer to being a proper noun than "course."-ed.]
Regardless, Jefferson provides no proof that there’s a “Creator,” much less that he’s endowed us with any rights, inalienable or otherwise. And, rather obviously, that’s untrue. One has to know very little history to realize that “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is hardly Man’s natural condition. And the idea that “all men are created equal” is simply laughable on its face. For example, I’d have a lot more difficulty impinging on people’s “inalienable” “rights” than, say, King George III.
–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
This contract theory of government is interesting but hardly comports with reality. Governments are generally created by brute force, with precious little consultation with “the governed.” And, even if we grant that premise for the sake of argument, how exactly are we to ascertain that the masses think the government–let alone its “Form”–is destructive to the Big Three rights that are simultaneously inalienable and about to be destroyed? Presumably, such a government would not have elections that would include ordinary landholders, let alone serfs and indentured servants. (Perhaps Ben Franklin could invent a communications device utilizing “electricity” and people could be randomly sampled?-ed.]
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
Shorter Tom Jefferson: Treason is bad.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.
What whiny nonsense. The King has just sent the best army in the history of the planet over to defend his subjects from armed Indians–banded with the bloody French, no less. All he’s asking for in return is that we pay a tax on newspapers, tea, and whatnot. That hardly seems unreasonable. It’s so typical of the Left to undervalue security and to expect it to be provided without trade-offs.
Peggy Noonan at The Wall Street Journal:
Jefferson had, in his bill of particulars against the king, taken a moment to incriminate the English people themselves—”our British brethren”—for allowing their king and Parliament to send over to America not only “soldiers of our own blood” but “foreign Mercenaries to invade and destroy us.” This, he said, was at the heart of the tragedy of separation. “These facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection, and manly spirit bids us renounce forever” our old friends and brothers. “We must endeavor to forget our former love for them.”
Well. Talk of love was a little much for the delegates. Love was not on their mind. The entire section was removed.
And so were the words that came next. But they should not have been, for they are the tenderest words.
Poignantly, with a plaintive sound, Jefferson addresses and gives voice to the human pain of parting: “We might have been a free and great people together.”
What loss there is in those words, what humanity, and what realism, too.
“To write is to think, and to write well is to think well,” David McCullough once said in conversation. Jefferson was thinking of the abrupt end of old ties, of self-defining ties, and, I suspect, that the pain of this had to be acknowledged. It is one thing to declare the case for freedom, and to make a fiery denunciation of abusive, autocratic and high-handed governance. But it is another thing, and an equally important one, to acknowledge the human implications of the break. These were our friends, our old relations; we were leaving them, ending the particular facts of our long relationship forever. We would feel it. Seventeen seventy-six was the beginning of a dream. But it was the end of one too. “We might have been a free and great people together.”
It hurt Thomas Jefferson to see these words removed from his great document. And we know something about how he viewed his life, his own essence and meaning, from the words he directed that would, a half-century after 1776, be cut onto his tombstone. The first word after his name is “Author.”
America and Britain did become great and free peoples together, and apart, bound by a special relationship our political leaders don’t often speak of and should never let fade. You can’t have enough old friends. There was the strange war of 1812, declared by America and waged here by England, which reinvaded, and burned our White House and Capitol. That was rude of them. But they got their heads handed to them in New Orleans and left, never to return as an army.
Even 1812 gave us something beautiful and tender. There was a bombardment at Fort McHenry. A young lawyer and writer was watching, Francis Scott Key. He knew his country was imperiled. He watched the long night in hopes the fort had not fallen. And he saw it—the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
And so to all writers (would-be, occasional and professional) and all editors too, down through our history: Happy 234th Independence Day. And to our British cousins: Nice growing old with you.
Frank Rich in the New York Times:
ALL men may be created equal, but slavery, America’s original sin of inequality, was left unaddressed in the Declaration of Independence signed 234 years ago today. Of all the countless attempts to dispel that shadow over the nation’s birth, few were more ambitious than the hard-fought bill Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law just in time for another Fourth of July, 46 summers ago.
With the holiday weekend approaching, Johnson summoned the television networks for the signing ceremony on Thursday evening, July 2. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, first proposed more than a year earlier by John F. Kennedy, banished the Jim Crow laws that denied black Americans access to voting booths, public schools and public accommodations. Johnson told the nation we could “eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country” with the help of a newly formed “Community Relations Service” and its “advisory committee of distinguished Americans.” Talk about an age of innocence!
Still, there were some heartening reports of America’s first full day under the new law. A front-page photo in The Times on July 4 showed 13-year-old Gene Young of Kansas City being shorn by a white barber at the Muehlebach Hotel shop “formerly closed to Negroes.” But that Norman Rockwell-like tableau was paired with the image of a white businessman, Lester Maddox, and a teenage accomplice respectively wielding a pistol and an ax handle as they turned away blacks from Maddox’s restaurant in Atlanta. The summer of 1964, which had begun with the lynching of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., would soon erupt in a bloody wave of terrorism, marked by dozens of bombings of black churches, homes and businesses.
The Dish is actually going to take a brief breather this holiday weekend. But one small program note on this day, given the media debates of the last few weeks.
I believe the blogosphere first truly gained traction in America for a good reason. There is something about blogging’s freedom from the constraints of conventional journalism that captures an American ideal: civic engagement totally free of anyone else’s influence. It is an ideal of a fourth estate hostile to authorities public and private, suspicious of conventional wisdom, and, above all, confident, even when confidence seems absurd, in the power of the word and the argument to make a difference … in the end. The rise of this type of citizen journalism has, in my view, increasingly exposed some of the laziness and corruption in the professional version – even as there is still a huge amount to treasure and value in the legacy media, and a huge amount of partisan, mendacious claptrap on the blogs.
But what distinguishes the best of the new media is what could still be recaptured by the old: the mischievous spirit of journalism and free, unfettered inquiry. Journalism has gotten too pompous, too affluent, too self-loving, and too entwined with the establishment of both wings of American politics to be what we need it to be.
We need it to be fearless and obnoxious, out of a conviction that more speech, however much vulgarity and nonsense it creates, is always better than less speech. In America, this is a liberal spirit in the grandest sense of that word – but also a conservative one, since retaining that rebelliousness is tending to an ancient American tradition, from the Founders onward.
James Poulos at Ricochet:
After many years of considering what role the Declaration of Independence plays in our Founding, and pondering the nature of the American creed, I’ve come to a simple answer. Essential to understanding the American creed are the rights the Declaration proclaims inherent in all human beings — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (and property! shouts a voice). But the foundation of those rights is even more essential to our understanding.
They’re founded in our nature as human individuals. Each of us is created, by our Creator, equally human and equally uniquely individual. Or, as Philip Rieff put it in his final lectures, there is only one God and one You. (Here is a new paper of mine [pdf] on that line.) The Declaration adds a momentous footnote: this foundational truth may be confirmed by every human being in the exercise of his or her reason.
That’s a powerful recipe for free republican government. Ultimately, I judge it to be the only one. Happy Independence Day.
UPDATE: Matthew Rothschild at The Progressive
Will Wilkinson and Jonah Goldberg on Bloggingheads