Another Forth of July is behind us. The speeches are now fading memories, the patriotic music is quiet, the hotdog eating contests are over (thank god), and the fireworks displays have fizzled out
Everybody knows (or should know) that the Forth of July is the day of the year when we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was written by Thomas Jefferson at the behest of a committee of five appointed by the Second Confidential Congress, and then adopted on July 4, 1776.
Some observe this day as the birth of our nation, but that is wrong. To be metaphorically correct that date is when the nation was conceived. In fact, as written in the document itself, the caption was “united States of America,” where the “u” was not capitalized. So, as of July 4, 1776, we went from being colonies to being States. However, by the time the Articles of Confederation were approved in 1781, we had become “United.” And with the Constitution of 1787, we were officially a federal republic called the United States of America.
While standing in the killing fields of Gettysburg in November, 1863, Lincoln famously described the Declaration, saying,
“our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
This first of our nation’s founding documents not only declared our separation from England, but much more. As Jefferson writes in the Declaration,
“The history of the present King of Great Britain [George III] is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.”
The Declaration goes on to list the “injuries and usurpations” (the facts), some 27 by actual count, committed by England upon what would eventually become the United States. Although some of these grievances were specific to the times in which they were written, others are more general. In fact, many of those were later adopted for our new government, including the right to a Trial by Jury, the prohibition of taxation without representation, and putting the military under civilian control.
Those particulars, when combined with some political philosophy from the ancient Greeks, and the Renaissance and Enlightenment philosophers, including many of the founders themselves, and much of English common law as well, were incorporated, first, into the Articles of Confederation, and then into the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
All well and good. But the Declaration also contains one of the most troubling and debated phrases in the history of our nation, namely,
“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.”
Looking back now, it was patently, if not painfully, obvious that equality and unalienable rights were not universal at that time. Women, along with African Americans, many Native Americans, and those who were not property owners, were denied those most basic liberties. However, what’s lost in all the noise is the very next phrase, the one that in my opinion that is the most important in the whole document:
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed.”
That is the glittering diamond in this old parchment. Governments are to be controlled from the bottom up, by democracy, by we the people. Again, Lincoln adds clarity to this principle at Gettysburg, concluding his speech with the resolve:
“that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
So the underlying importance of the Declaration of Independence was not just to proclaim a separation from Great Britain, though that was certainly a critical part, it was to turn the prevailing form of governance in Europe and in the colonies on its head. No more Devine rights of Kings, no more monarchies, or autocracies, or oligarchies, or plutocracies, or dictatorial, megalomaniacal tyrants. Ours would be a government that must acquiesce to the will of the people and the people alone.
That, then, brings up the question that should be asked every Forth of July – Is our country operating by the consent of the governed as intended, or have the governed been replaced by the elites, the lobbyists, the Trade Associations, the unions, the political parties, the military industrial complex, the too-big-to-fail banks, the unaccountable government bureaucracies, the self-serving politicians looking for a lucrative quid pro quo? Unfortunately, the fact that we the people give Congress an approval rating of 8%, yet reelect 95% of the incumbents makes the answer a paradox.
Maybe the Declaration has become a dusty relic of the past, a well intended but unworkable idea from a bunch of white men wearing powered wigs, fluffy shirts, and shoes with shiny buckles on top – a chimera if you will – beautifully written but merely rhetorical and somewhat useless today.
Think about that next Forth of July as you wave the flag, listen to the speeches, sing the patriotic songs, eat the hotdogs, and watch the rockets’ red glare.
This is a revised and expanded version of an Op-Ed that appeared in the Joplin Globe on July 13, 2014.