My new friends at the on-line humor magazine ThirdRailers.com were kind enough to publish my “O, Say Can You Z” article published here in an earlier post. Here’s my take on why presidential politics and the zombie apocalypse are made for each other, and what the social contract described in “The Declaration of Independence” tells us about the brutal world of the undead. The article is updated for national publication. Click on the link above to read the article. UPDATE: I should note that the latest Gallup poll does have Mitt Romney at 52 percent, Barack Obama at 45 percent as the choice of adults surveyed. My article originally suggested that the polls remained tightly locked. However, the presidential race obviously remains close.
Tag Archives: John Locke
“This is a revolution, dammit! We’re going to have to offend SOMEBODY!” – John Adams, in the musical 1776
Last night, I had the opportunity to see a charming production of 1776, the Tony Award-winning musical that did much to humanize the Founding Fathers and present the issues surrounding American independence in a literate and often humorous light. What I saw was an excellent local production, so you will have to tolerate a momentary and shameless plug for the Camelot Theater Company: The show runs through July 22, and it is well-worth seeing if you happen to be in Oregon’s Rogue Valley any time soon.
There is a lot of commentary regarding the historical accuracy of 1776. True, there are dramatic liberties that still grate on my nerves when I see the musical, including the brilliant Oscar-nominated 1973 film adaptation of the Broadway play. Richard Henry Lee, the Virginia delegate who offered the resolution for American Independence, was called the “Cicero of Virginia,” hardly the openly horny doofus portrayed on stage for comic relief. Half of the Second Continental Congress did not walk out over the issue of slavery, although national unanimity hinged on the removal of the anti-slavery clause from Jefferson’s Rough Draught of the Declaration. John Adams did not import Jefferson’s wife to Philadelphia to sexually refresh the Pen of Liberty – in fact, Jefferson’s frequent absences from Monticello while he was in Congress contributed to the physical stress that almost certainly exacerbated Martha Jefferson’s chronic illness. (In the musical, Jefferson’s character is portrayed as wishing to leave Philadelphia for a conjugal visit rather than write the Declaration. Actually, in the summer of 1776 Martha Jefferson had a miscarriage and was grievously ill. Jefferson wished to depart because he feared for the life of his beloved spouse). John Adams, the Voice of Liberty, was known for his prickly demeanor and outspoken embrace of independence far ahead of most of the other delegates – yet, he was one of the most respected and admired men in Congress from any colony.
Still, the musical “gets it” when it comes to the majority of the history. Much of the dialogue is the words of the actual men. Musical numbers in the production often do a better job than some history books in teaching people why American Independence was such a thorny problem. “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” points out that Americans (not just those at the top of the colonial social pyramid) were among the wealthiest, least-taxed people in the world. Why would anybody in their right mind in any century sever that kind political and economic relationship in exchange for an untried democratic experiment? (As an educational comparison, I often half-teasingly point out to my environmentally sensitive students that for a generation anxious about global warming I still see a lot of gasoline-powered autos in student parking.) “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” will make anyone cringe when they understand how the song accurately points out that all of America was economically tied to slavery: “Whose fortunes are made in the triangle trade/Hail slavery, the New England dream!/Mr. Adams, I give you a toast:/Hail Boston! Hail Charleston!/Who stinketh the most?” It is an intensely powerful indictment of our nation’s greatest weakness during the greatest revolution in world history. Even more powerful are the steady stream of dispatches from George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Like much of the musical, the lines are based on Washington’s actual writings and they portray the grinding difficulties and overwhelming odds that he and the soldiers in the field faced when fighting the most well-funded and militarily adept empire since ancient Rome. Anyone interested in a summary of the historical facts presented in 1776 would do well to look at James Troutman’s Web page or this article from the Yeshiva University newspaper.
However, one of the best things about 1776 is how it portrays the incivility of our democratic revolution and why conflict aided our nation’s cause. While reading the Director’s Notes written by Livia Genise, I was struck by her comments: “This is an election year. What may be at stake, in the opinion of many Americans, is our very way of life. So many people have already lost their homes, their pensions, their jobs. In the last four years, gun sales have soared and civility diminished. We seem to be, as a nation, on the verge of a not so-civil-war. Perhaps the lesson to be learned from our founding fathers [sic] is empathy, compassion and respect for all who make up the melting pot that is America.” I won’t win any popularity contests by dumping on a local theater director, and I want to make clear she directed a fine performance. But, the frequently expressed idea that America has somehow lost a Golden Age of Civility always strikes me as well-meaning but ahistorical and naïve sentimentalism. Furthermore, it ignores the historical themes (highly accurate ones, I might add) captured by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards, the authors of 1776 , that are there for all to see. (As for gun sales, two thoughts: Is Ms. Genise perhaps thinking of the Obama administration’s ill-advised Operation Fast and Furious? In 1776, would Great Britain have walked away from their wealthiest colonial prize without armed struggle? Sometimes, harsh language against an adversary isn’t enough and the British sent the largest amphibious invasion force in history before D-Day to destroy the American Revolution.)
The Second Continental Congress was often a contentious group. The colonies were notorious for the sheer absence of continental, i.e. intercolonial, cooperation. John Adams once wrote:
“The colonies had grown up under constitutions of government so different, there was so great a variety of religions, they were composed of so many different nations, their customs, manners, and habits had so little resemblance, and their intercourse had been so rare, and their knowledge of each other so imperfect, that to unite them in the same principles in theory and the same system of action, was certainly a very difficult enterprise. The complete accomplishment of it, in so short a time and by such simple means, was perhaps a singular example in the history of mankind. Thirteen clocks were made to strike together—a perfection of mechanism, which no artist had ever before effected.”
Differences, even brusquely expressed, are part of the mechanism of a healthy democracy. Often, the conflict will eventually lead to compromise of surprising kinds. The musical puts it even more succinctly when Benjamin Franklin’s character urges John Adam’s character to compromise on slavery for the sake of founding a liberty-loving nation:
“John, the issue here is independence! Maybe you have forgotten that fact, but I have not! These men, no matter how much we may disagree with them, they are not ribbon clerks to be ordered about – they are proud, accomplished men, the cream of their colonies. And whether you like them or not, they and the people they represent will be part of this new nation that YOU hope to create. Now, either learn how to live with them, or pack up and go home! In any case, stop acting like a Boston fishwife.”
One can’t forgive slavery, but forming a new nation with the institution of slavery intact either demonstrates the limits of civility or the power of differences in a democracy – or both. We are still working that issue out as a nation.
Finally, calling George III a tyrant was about as uncivil an act as one could accomplish in the free-wheeling political life of British North America. The Declaration of Independence declares that “a prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Throughout the Declaration the words tyrant, tyrants, and tyranny occur a total of four times. Definitions of “tyrant” and “tyranny” were both specific and potent in the political vocabulary of the age – and very rarely used. Kings were expected to consider their people’s welfare and the just administration of government as their first duties. Certainly, Mr. Jefferson and others could have named numerous examples both ancient and modern of men who had breached that expectation, but all the more reason for men who had come from the freest political culture of the time to watch a king and judge his actions. Their grandfathers had memories of a similar situation in English history, and knew the dangers of a king who placed self-interest above all else. “For he being supposed to have all, both legislative and executive power in himself alone, there is no judge to be found, no appeal lies open to any one, who may fairly, and indifferently, and with authority decide, and from whose decision relief and redress may be expected of any injury or inconviency [sic], that may be suffered from the prince, or by his order …,” wrote John Locke in The Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690), which provided the intellectual arguments for the removal of James II during the Glorious Revolution as he described the dangers of a king dedicated to absolute power above all else. “For he that thinks absolute power purifies men’s blood, and corrects the baseness of human nature, need read but the history of this, or any other age, to be convinced of the contrary. He that would have been insolent and injurious in the woods of America, would not probably be much better in a throne; where perhaps learning and religion shall be found out to justify all that he shall do to his subjects, and the sword presently silence all those that dare question it.”
Again, the musical presents the main idea very clearly:
John Dickinson: Mr. Jefferson, I have very little interest in your paper, as there’s no doubt in my mind that we’ve all but heard the last of it, but I am curious about one thing. Why do you refer to King George as a… tyrant?
Thomas Jefferson: Because he is a tyrant.
John Dickinson: I remind you, Mr. Jefferson, that this “tyrant” is still your king.
Thomas Jefferson: When a king becomes a tyrant, he thereby breaks the contract binding his subjects to him.
John Dickinson: How so?
Thomas Jefferson: By taking away their rights.
John Dickinson: Rights that came from him in the first place.
Thomas Jefferson: All except one. The right to be free comes from nature.
John Dickinson: And are we not free, Mr. Jefferson?
Thomas Jefferson: Homes entered without warrant, citizens arrested without charge, and in many places, free assembly itself denied.
John Dickinson: No one approves of such things, but these are dangerous times.
There is one kind of safe society where no words are ever raised in harsh criticism. Jefferson once wrote, “Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem.[I prefer dangerous freedom to peaceful slavery.] Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
That’s the beauty of the musical 1776. As I often written on these pages, I do not expect popular culture to present in-depth historical analysis. But a historically accurate, entertaining dramatic production (with more than a little light-hearted comedy as forgivable distraction) will sometimes do more than volumes of history to teach people why the United States is an exceptional nation. One of our exceptional qualities is like the Founding Fathers’ old habits. We often argue our way to liberty, not always with the hand-holding, “kumbayah” moralizing that some want but with a messy process called democracy. Like one of the characters in the play says, “Well, in all my years I ain’t never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yeah! I’m for debating anything.”
In Part 1, I described an essential premise found in the Declaration of Independence that makes it the most important human rights document in American history. Liberty is the right to protect the God-given rights possessed by human beings and to protect those rights by force if necessary from anyone using arbitrary power to strip them of their liberties.
The idea is no small matter. One of the goals of those who exercise arbitrary power is the subjugation of anyone who present a threat. Although this viewpoint is frequently criticized as cynical or even paranoid, history teaches something different. Robert A. Heinlein, the visionary master of science fiction in the 20th century, addresses this issue in Starship Troopers, a book that is really about the nature and responsibilities of citizenship. In one section of the novel, a teacher of a course called “History and Moral Philosophy” (a course required for high school graduation in the fictional world of the 23rd century) refutes the idea that “violence never settles anything.”
Anyone who clings to the historically untrue – and thoroughly immoral – doctrine ‘that violence never settles anything’ I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and of the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedom.
Those who are the enemies of freedom are often those quite comfortable with the use of force, even violence to achieve their ends. It all depends on whether a society is willing to acknowledge that reality. Fortunately, the authors of the Declaration had no delusions regarding the link between “liberty,” “life,” and another closely related idea “the pursuit of happiness.”
Life is a basic right, John Locke wrote, because all are equal under the law of nature, created equally by nature’s God, and independent of subordination – therefore, no one can arbitrarily take another’s life unless it is deprived in the cause of justice. Simply taking life for no just cause not only kills the body, but declares the subordination of the victim, denying the people their equal rights. According to Locke:
“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for our’s. Every one, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.”
The American Patriots could not enjoy their liberty and the pursuit of happiness if they were deprived of their lives. Furthermore, they possessed a right to protect not only their lives, but the things that allowed them to maintain their lives (their health, possessions, even the ability to use their bodies). For example, British actions ranging from control over their trade to the Boston Massacre to outright war was all arguably an attack that emphasized the British government’s goal of subordinating Americans into “inferior ranks,” impair life by impairing livelihood, and denying justice based on widely accepted belief’s in natural rights. Listing “life” as an unalienable right sets a standard that the British failed to meet by the measure applied by Jefferson and the Continental Congress.
“The pursuit of happiness” was one of the innovations of the Enlightenment. For centuries, philosophers in the Christian era saw happiness as something ultimately obtainable only in the afterlife; in the 18th century, political thinkers and economists moved it to the realm of everyday life. Many intellectuals of the age dreamed of bringing happiness, which they defined as the greatest good for the greatest number of people, to humanity as a whole through the expansion of liberty and freedom. Adam Smith writing in The Wealth of Nations described how the pursuit of what he deemed personal economic advantage shaped the possibilities of cooperation without coercion – the stark opposite of British taxation and trade policy imposed on the North American colonies to pay the expenses of the Seven Years’ War – through an “invisible hand” that could promote the good of the community through the free market. “As every individual, therefore, endeavors as much he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labors to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it … By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it,” said Smith. Technological innovation and social improvement (what we today would sum up as “progress”) could be meted out and its effects measured with a “science of happiness,” according to the Marquis de Chastellux, one of Jefferson’s minor intellectual heroes. The French thinker even established “indices of happiness” based on levels of taxation, working hours, levels of agricultural production, and whether a society possessed slavery or faced war, all of which were impediments to the pursuit of happiness. Of course, Locke, too, had weighed in on the question of happiness, which he linked to the presence of liberty obtaining the greatest good for both individuals and society as a whole:
As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness, so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action, and from a necessary compliance with our desire, set upon any particular, and then appearing preferable good, till we have duly examined, whether it has a tendency to, or be inconsistent with our real happiness: and therefore till we are as much informed upon this inquiry, as the weight of the matter, and the nature of the case demands; we are, by the necessity of preferring and pursuing true happiness as our greatest good, obliged to suspend the satisfaction of our desires in particular cases.
As far as Jefferson was concerned, the British government deliberately thwarted the Americans’ pursuit of happiness by placing the thirteen colonies in a state of war, taxed them without representation, and (some today might argue improbably) encouraged the colonial slave trade as Jefferson argued in the Rough Draught. It is worth noting that Jefferson had developed many of these ideas two years earlier in a pamphlet that sealed his reputation as a stylist and even a radical. Jefferson had penned A Summary View of the Rights of British North America as policy paper when illness prevented his attendance at a convention of Virginia’s burgesses who were drafting a response of solidarity with Massachusetts after Parliament imposed the Boston Port Act. The Englishmen who had emigrated to the American colonies did so as free men with the highest hopes to improve their lot, paying for the enterprise with lives and treasure. “America was conquered, and her settlement made, and firmly established, at the expense of individuals, and not of the British public. Their own blood was spilt in acquiring lands for their settlements, their own fortunes expended in making that settlement effectual; for themselves they fought, for themselves they conquered, and for themselves alone they have right to hold.” With a lawyer’s precision, Jefferson pointed out how “his majesty has no right to land a single armed man on our shores,” how British policy had resulted in unfair taxes and stifling regulations that prevented Americans from enjoying the fruits of their own labors (“Men who had spent their lives in extending the British commerce, who had invested in that place the wealth their honest endeavors had merited, found themselves and their families thrown at once on the world for subsistence by its charities …This is administering justice with a heavy hand indeed!”). Jefferson in the Summary View complained about the closure of Boston Harbor and British opposition to colonial efforts at banning the slave trade (“…Our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his majesty’s negative: Thus preferring the immediate advantages of a few African corsairs to the lasting interests of the American states, and to the rights of human nature deeply wounded by this infamous practice.”) Jefferson’s arguments in the Summary View were hardly mainstream, but they are earlier evidence of his political thinking that Americans had the right to decide their own futures in a way that would best suit their search for political and economic opportunities, the “pursuit of happiness” he later described in the Declaration.
Finally, the Declaration makes a strong statement regarding the necessity of republican government and the right to seek change if a current form of government attempts to destroy the blessing of those rights. In the natural rights statement of the Declaration, Jefferson made it clear that the people can have any form of government they choose. However, it is abundantly evident that he and the other Founders wanted America to have a republican form of government based on the consent of the community of the political involved and firmly rooted in representation of the people’s interests. Jefferson stated that government is strongest when every man feels himself a part. The people secured these rights – government did not grant them – and a just government exercising just powers is derivative of the people and their will. No other form of government would have been “an expression of the American mind” in Jefferson’s words, and since government was to his mind a man-made device for promoting human welfare, guaranteeing self-government was the right and the duty of the American Revolution, not simply of Englishmen. It would provide the best form of government, meeting the expectations of Americans who in 1776 were obviously willing to defend their right to self-government and providing a road map for what a stable and responsible future government of the United States would be. Linking the need to self-government to a call for independence made sense as well, since Jefferson would soon argue in the next section of the Declaration that history showed Great Britain had abandoned its practice of allowing the colonies their own form of just government. As Jefferson makes the case that “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism,” it is worth remembering Alexander Hamilton later stated in Federalist No. 9 a political philosophy regarded as a self-evident truth by the founding generation: Republican forms of government would help Americans avoid “the perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.” According to Jefferson, securing that form of government would only come as the result of the successful establishment of the United States of America and the rejection of Great Britain.
A republican form of government. Limits on governmental power. The recognition that ordinary people know more about their own pursuit of happiness than those in power. These are the ideas worth fighting for, as declared in the Declaration of Independence. They are venerable ideas deeply respected in America’s past. Do these ideas matter today? Or is even the discussion of these ideas found in the Declaration the mark of those oriented toward violence and social upheaval rather than liberty? More about those questions in Part 3.
Next: Why liberty is worth fighting for, and what “fighting for” means.
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the oft-quoted trinity of rights so easily remembered by anyone with a passing familiarity with the Declaration of Independence. Yet, “liberty” is a word today with forgotten meaning despite a very rich intellectual pedigree. Most Americans know it is a good thing — Thomas Jefferson and George Washington wanted it, for instance — but they would be hard-pressed to describe what it is. Frequently considered synonymous with “freedom,” this all-too-precious idea needs rediscovering. Fortunately, there is a superb road map: the intellectual history of Colonial America and the Declaration itself.
Liberty was a much cherished, much discussed idea in 18th centuryAmerica, and it was much applied as the guiding concept that shaped peoples’ choices politically, economically, and spiritually. What is often misunderstood (or simply forgotten because it reminds us of limits while we live in a contemporary world that has abandoned most boundaries) is liberty did not mean the license to do what one pleased, denying the existence of any laws that bound human conduct. However, the intent of just laws is to restrain the power of the lawless and protect property, life, and individual actions. John Locke made it clear that true liberty was found in obedience to this basic purpose behind law:
So that, however it may be mistaken, the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom: for in all the states of created beings capable of laws, “where there is no law, there is no freedom;” for liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others; which cannot be where there is not law: but freedom is not, as we are told, “a liberty for every man to do what he lists:” (for who could be free, when every other man’s humour might domineer over him?) but a liberty to dispose, and order as he lists, his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property, within the allowance of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own.
Liberty, then, is protection from the arbitrary will of another – one of the many reasons why the Founders so often cast their predicament in terms of facing the threat of slavery. John Adams was blunt: “If the English nation was the most virtuous, pure, and free that ever was, would not such unlimited subjection of three millions of people to that parliament, at three thousand miles distance be real slavery? There are but two sorts of men in the world, freemen and slaves.” When George Washington wrote his associate Bryan Fairfax regarding his disgust with Parliament’s high-handed treatment of Bostonians in 1774, he said, “the Crisis is arrivd when we must assert our Rights, or Submit to every Imposition that can be heap’d upon us; till custom and use, will make us as tame, & abject Slaves, as the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway.” An all too real fact of American life at the time was only slaves were under the arbitrary sway of those who were nearly unlimited by law regarding the command that they held over the lives of the enslaved. Jefferson, a Virginian who at one time owned more slaves than any other property holder in his state, knew well what life looked like when it lacked liberty. That experience surely influenced Jefferson’s ideas regarding liberty and tyranny as much as Locke’s writings did. If not, it certainly did form the love of liberty found among his fellow Virginians, some of whom were among the first who called for independence.
Is liberty, then, simply the freedom to be at the apex of the power structure? The answer is an unequivocal “no.” The examples from the times indicate that the Declaration was written from the point-of-view of men who rejected the idea of the use of arbitrary power as the basis of just government. In fact, one synonymous phrase for liberty could be “fighting spirit in a righteous cause.”
For example, Jefferson had worked with John Dickinson, his famous colleague in the Continental Congress known for his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania that were the watershed for nearly all ensuing debate regarding whether Parliament could constitutionally expand its control of the colonies, to write A Declaration by the Representatives of the United Colonies of North-America, Now Met in Congress at Philadelphia, Setting Forth the Causes and Necessity of Their Taking Up Arms. Written almost exactly a year before the Congress adopted the Declaration, it casts its arguments with the logic of people defending their rights as Englishmen. It was written to justify an armed revolt that was viewed by many in the Atlantic world as a civil war. Yet, the overall substance of the document reveals a theme that Jefferson presents in the natural rights statement as well as the whole of the Declaration of Independence, namely that Americans are fighting for one purpose only: to preserve their freedoms: “We most solemnly, before God and the world, declare, that, exerting the utmost energy of those powers, which our beneficent Creator hath graciously bestowed upon us, the arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume, we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating firmness and perseverance, employ for the preservation of our liberties; being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live slaves.” Though not a call for independence, it is a reminder that Jefferson had spent a considerable time contemplating questions of liberty, and how they related to the necessity of acknowledging inherent rights as the intellectual wellspring for anything called “America.” It is in that American idea of liberty that we find the first piece in understanding what it is: Liberty is the right to protect the God-given rights possessed by human beings and to protect those rights by force if necessary from anyone using arbitrary power in an effort to strip one of their liberty.
Next, how “life” and “pursuit of happiness” add to the definition of liberty.
As Presidents’ Day comes our way, it is a good time reflect on the creation of a nation where the chief executive is not the locus of government power, but power is derived from the “consent of the governed.” (By the way, “Presidents’ Day” is a misnomer. The Federal government sets the third Monday of February as George Washington’s Birthday.) American presidents come and go. However, there are basic assummptions about the Declaration of Independence that every American should know, and every American should use as the touchstone for proper government — especially American presidents.
The Declaration of Independence was a necessary and vital statement made at a time when the success of the American Revolution was doubtful and government by ordinary people was considered a novel experiment (at best).
When the Second Continental Congress issued the Declaration, it was a powerful reminder to a “candid world” that in all of European history no colony had ever successfully separated from a mother country to form an independent nation. Furthermore, the Declaration made it clear that the United States would be founded on Enlightenment principles such as good government is based on a respect of natural rights and the people have a right to alter or abolish a government that does not respect those rights. Equally important, the Declaration is based on an American concept of liberty that became the standard for nation, even though its principles were considered experimental at best by the European political class of the times. “A decent respect for the opinions of mankind” compelled the Second Continental Congress to explain what they were doing. George III and many British considered the Americans rebels and traitors, which by definition meant they were beyond the law and beyond the sovereign’s protection. The Declaration was a political manifesto, de facto declaration of war, and statement of the Americans’ right to exist as a free nation of people possessing liberties endowed by their Creator.
The Declaration of Independence was the product of a democratic process that was the broadest expression of rights and liberties in the world at the time.
Americans by the thousands debated the question of independence for months before the actual Declaration was finally issued and signed. Thomas Paine, the “firebrand of liberty,” persuaded tens of thousands of Americans with the first call for a declaration in his wildly popular tract Common Sense. Although Thomas Jefferson is the main author of the Declaration and was charged by the Continental Congress to write the “rough draught” of the document, he was one member of “The Committee of Five” comprised of congressional delegates Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. Each offered comments and exerted influence that either overtly or subtly swayed the genesis of the document. The Congress, meeting as a Committee of the Whole, debated the Declaration and edited it (including the well-known decision to strike language condemning the slave trade and slavery). When the Declaration was approved and signed by John Hancock (presiding officer of the Congress) and Charles Thomson (the secretary of the Congress), about 200 copies were printed for distribution throughout all 13 states and to the Continental Army, which was in the field fighting the British Army. In addition, it was published in newspapers and circulated as broadsides. Even with the omission of language calling for the end of slavery, the Declaration was embraced by men, women, free blacks, and slaves as the promise of a new order for the ages: a government based on the idea that ordinary people could govern themselves.
The Declaration of Independence placed everything the Patriots held dear – their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor – in danger of utter destruction.
By signing their names to the Declaration, the delegates to the Continental Congress likely faced doom if the British captured them or prevailed in the Revolutionary War. The Declaration an was act of treason, punishable by public disgrace and execution by hanging. They were the de facto leadership of the United States, and by issuing the Declaration as an internationally circulated statement of intentions they had bluntly stated that they would pursue revolution, not reconciliation. People declared rebels in Scotland and Ireland earlier in the century had suffered terrible fates, and there was no reason to believe any signer would fare any better. Ordinary Americans fighting for independence faced an equally grim fate. The men and women, white and black, who helped create this nation did so in the face of real danger and great cost – and that sacrifice in the name of principles embodied in the Declaration should be acknowledged, understood, and remembered.
The Declaration of Independence is a relevant document important to the survival of our nation today.
The Declaration helps define us as the land of the free. It has been called by some “the birth notice of the nation,” and it is the first significant statement of the basic freedoms acknowledged as distinctly American. Even with the survival of slavery in the new republic, it set the standard for what the nation should become. Abraham Lincoln used its most important idea to call for a “new birth of freedom” during this nation’s most devastating war fought to end slavery. Civil rights leaders from Reconstruction through the 1960s held up the Declaration’s ideals to remind this nation of its failures in the realm of political equality and liberty. Martin Luther King Jr. used its words to remind a tormented and divided generation that the hope for America was the survival of the American system of liberty and democracy when given to all of the nation’s citizens. Women from Abigail Adams to the suffragettes laid claim to its promises, and still do. Its words remind us that the idea of being “American” is not simply based on the activity of enjoying the economic advantages of this nation’s economy, or simply recognizing the United States as a geographic reality. The words of the Declaration help define us as a unique people, and the value of those words is incalculable at a time when foreign enemies who wish to impose another world system upon our countrymen through violence and terror offer no apology for the words that define them.
The main promise of the Declaration – “that all men are created equal” – is not a racist or sexist statement. It is a promise to all people, at all times.
There is more at stake here then the nature of the English language in the eighteenth century, although it is clear that the Founders meant “all humankind” when they used the word “men.” According to the Declaration, human beings are born equal in life and liberty and we are by nature equally free and independent. We are unequal in ways too numerous to list categorically (such as wealth, status, talents, physical attributes, and many others), but no human, class of humans, or group of humans is superior to another human, class of humans, or group of humans. This is the most important idea in the Declaration of Independence, the basis for true political equality in the United States, and the cynosure of human rights for great Americans such as the Founding Fathers and Mothers, Abraham Lincoln, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It excludes no class or race of Americans but embraces all who are willing to acknowledge this self-evident truth.
A new History Channel documentary on the history of the United States is a cause for both great excitement and anxiety. As a historian who believes that history is too often written only for the consumption of other professionals, the debut tonight of History’s 12-part series “AMERICA: The Story of US” strikes me as a laudable attempt to use the tools of television and historical narrative in a way that will reach millions with the story of the United States. However, a series that openly declares that it wants viewers to “feel like they are on a rollercoaster ride through American history” and touts the use of CGI reminds me that there also is a good chance that the process of understanding American history could literally be reduced to a cartoon.
However, I am going to err on the side of high hopes and join viewers for several reasons. First, the approach to the series is certainly in the spirit of the economic culture defended in the Declaration of Independence, which is much a reflection of the thought of Adam Smith as John Locke . The producers state that they will emphasize American entrepreneurship and technological innovation over political and governmental history. We sometimes forget that the Founders were enraged at Parliament’s ever-increasing hold on colonial trade and that the American Revolution was as much a tax revolt as a war for political rights. Some of the grievances listed in the Declaration such as “He (George III) has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance,” or accusations that the king had combined with Parliament to pass laws “cutting off our trade with all parts of the world” bring home the economic purposes of both the document and the establishment of a sovereign state capable of granting its citizens economic freedoms. As Milton Friedman once said, “Economic freedom is also an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom” and this series seems to recognize a vital idea that was present at the founding and the source of much of what is best in the American experience.
Secondly, the line-up of commentators included Daniel Walker Howe and Henry Louis Gates. Howe is the author of the superb What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, the 2007 winner of the Pulitzer Prize in U.S. history and an installment in the Oxford History of the United States. One of the main themes in Howe’s narrative is the antebellum period was marked by efforts to improve ordinary people through economic development for both moral and material reasons – Jeffersonian ideals, to be sure, that were seized upon by many Americans ranging from the reformers of the Second Great Awakening to future president Abraham Lincoln. Before his scuffle with a local cop, Gates was better known as one of the nation’s best scholars of American black culture and history, as well as an intellectual who delivered the 2002 Jefferson Lecture, the highest honored bestowed by the National Endowment for the Humanities. His rejection of black separatism, respect for the Western canon of history and literature, and uncompromising call for inclusion of black authors in the canon produced critics on all sides of the academe, but I consider those facts marks of a great mind unwilling to be swallowed alive by political correctness, which is now the mother’s milk of the current academy. The presence of those two impressive scholars indicates the series will be more than computer-generated slow-mo musket shots and American triumphalism. (However, Donald Trump is also listed as one of the commentators. That will be interesting.)
As they say in TV land, check your local listings for broadcast times tonight.