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And So Fourth

Declaration-of-independence-broadside-cropped

Declaration-of-independence-broadside-cropped (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Copyright © 2007 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.

Another Independence Day has passed. Supermarkets and drug stores have bins of discounted flags and patriotic red-white-and-blue napkins to wipe your mouth on. On the Fourth United Statians lit barbecues and fireworks, listened to patriotic pronouncements on TV, to Sousa marches, or to the ritual reading of the Declaration of Independence — all, the mantra goes, to “celebrate our freedom.” Just like the Christians, however, who believe they follow the Ten Commandments without being able to name them, most citizens have no clue what the Declaration says, let alone means.

This knowledge gap is particularly troubling eleven score and eleven years after the first Fourth. More than one commentator noted the irony during the first week of July 2007: we “celebrated our freedom” while the storm over the commutation of Scooter Libby’s prison sentence blew through, and the talking heads scratched themselves over the actual connection of Veep Cheney to the government and the Constitution, and as bombs bursting in air, on roads, and in Iraqi markets killed more soldiers and civilians in a war the U.S. started to “protect our freedom” — even if only our freedom to start war.

As most Statians of any age or education do know, or did know at one time in their lives, July 4 marks the date in 1776 that the Declaration of Independence was publically read aloud in Philadelphia. Furthermore, any semi-conscious citizen of these United States at least recognizes its most often quoted sentence: “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” S/he might even know what follows: “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” But how many actually understand the significance of these words, so rooted in the mindsets of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment?

For example, the meaning of the words “self evident” appears self-evident, but they reflect a debate that swept Scottish philosophy in the eighteenth century. In response to empirical philosopher David Hume’s proto-postmodern conclusion that reality was ultimately unknowable due to the fallibility of human perception and reason, Thomas Reid, professor at King’s College, Aberdeen, maintained that some understandings did not require the exercise of reason; they were “self-evident” because they were built into our “common sense” — a term he also formulated. In this view, a grasp of reality and morality was simply characteristic of human nature. Thus, when Thomas Jefferson, seconded by his peers, declared “these truths to be self evident,” he was appealing to a inborn apprehension of said truths.

The first — “that all men are created equal” — sounds good in theory, although pursuant to our Enlightenment coda, which peaked around 1976, we now recognize that women were not explicitly included in that original sentiment, nor were Africans and Indians. This founding hypocrisy polluted all of the U.S.’s subsequent history — yea, even unto our own era — but the principle is such a good one that many of us continue to fight for it.

The next “truth” — “that they are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights” — has been singled out as evidence that the Founders believed in God. New to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, however, was the idea that the natural world and its scientific laws were the finest expression of a Creator, and the Creator itself was much less the giant, tempestuous humanoid of Judeo-Christian tradition than the engineer of said laws. In short, Jefferson uses the concept of a deity the way Einstein did in such expressions as “God does not throw dice”: as an expression of the essential logic of nature.

More significant is the mysterious term “inalienable,” which means nothing to most moderns. It was in fact a notion adopted from the French Enlightenment: that basic human rights are not handed out by governments but are inherent in the very fact of being human; in other words, they are not “alien” from the individual. In the rigidly hierarchical monarchies that had dominated Europe up to that point, only the king, queen, or emperor was “sovereign,” that is, inherently possessed of the right to act independently. All other subjects, whether peer or peasant, enjoyed only those rights permitted to trickle down from the throne.

This was perhaps the most revolutionary concept to evolve during the Enlightenment, and the one that most directly led to the revolutions, American and French, that climaxed the century. While the Declaration generalizes these inalienable rights as “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” — drawing from that other Scotsman Adam Smith, who actually listed them less loftily as “life, liberty, and property” — the Constitution and Bill of Rights would limn them more specifically: the right to speak out and assembly freely, the right to a fair and speedy trial by one’s peers, etc. These are undoubtedly the freedoms the beer-drinkers and barbecuers of the Fourth think they are celebrating.

Oh say, can you see how far we have fallen from this principle? Our own George III currently sequesters in our name hundreds — who really knows how many? — so-called “enemy combatants” in indefinite detention, without trial or habeas corpus, in offshore detention on the grounds that they have no rights because they are not covered by the Constitution. In other words, they possess only those rights granted to them — i.e., none — by the Commander-in-Chief, the Decider. He gives nary a damn for inalienable human rights. Granting that the true extremists in Guantánamo may think likewise, what kind of a government do you want pulling your strings? One that agrees in principle with Jefferson or one that agrees with religious fanatics who think they act for God?

Indeed, in our era of environmental and economic degradation, of a newfounded Homeland Security that surveilles its citizenry but cannot protect them from the ravages of weather, of the erosion of civic rights in the name of war without end, of an unequal distribution of wealth, public power, and justice reminiscent of that in the United Kingdom of the Hanovers — a perusal of the rest of the Declaration shows how much our George the Third shares with the Anglo-German king of yore:

He has refused his assent to laws the most wholsome & necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate & pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; & when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has obstructed the administration of justice by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.

He has erected a multitude of new offices and sent hither swarms of new officers to harrass our people . . . .

He has affected to render the military independent of, & superior to the civil power.

He has abdicated government here by declaring us out of his protection & waging war against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, & destroyed the lives of our people.”

Even acknowledging that the Declaration of Independence was created largely to permit France to provide economic and military assistance, even bearing in mind that many of the philosophical assumptions of this document were scaled back when it came time to create the Constitution, it is still a national treasure. It lays down principles that were not completely lost in the founding documents that followed, including the right to change our government. Even if we go no further than to get politically active within or on the margins of our system, we have not only that right but that duty. Otherwise, we let our Republic devolve into Autocracy, dominated by a chain of sovereign Deciders selected by inheritance, wealth, and power concentrated at the top.

So before you “celebrate freedom” again, make damn sure you are exercising it. Rage, rage against the dying of our rights.

(Sources: Garry Wills’s Inventing America [Vintage, 1979] and Arthur Herman’s How the Scots Invented the Modern World [Random House, 2001])

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