Posts Tagged ‘Declaration of Independence’

Declaration of Independence is still revolutionary

July 7, 2017

National Public Radio has a long-standing custom of broadcasting the Declaration of Independence every Fourth of July.

This year NPR sent out the Declaration of Independence on Twitter, and was accused of sending out radical propaganda.   They thought the Declaration referred to President Trump, not King George III.

It goes to show that the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are like the Bible. More people say they believe in them than actually reading them.

I can remember newspapers years ago doing man-in-the-street interviews about excerpts from the Declaration or the Bill of Rights, and showing how many average Americans regarded their country’s founding ideals as dangerous and radical.

Actually, this country’s founding ideals are dangerous and radical, but in a good way.


Some Trump supporters thought NPR tweeted ‘propaganda’ | It was the Declaration of Independence by Amy B. Wang for The Washington Post.

Your country is your country – like it or not

July 4, 2017

The world is my country, all mankind my brethren and to do good is my religion.
          ==Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine, born an Englishman, was an early advocate of American independence and a morale officer for George Washington’s Continental Army.

Later he traveled to France and became an advocate for the French revolutionaries, returning in old age to the new nation of the United States of America.  He said he considered himself to be a citizen of the world, but of no particular country.

A number of posters on one of my favorite Internet sites, as well as a couple of my acquaintances, aspire to be like Thomas Paine.

Although born American citizens, they disavow allegiance to the United States, which they see as a nation founded on slavery of African-Americans, ethnic cleansing of native Americans and enfranchisement of white Anglo-Saxon property-owning males.

None of them, so far as I know, make any actual effort to shed the legal privileges and responsibilities that go with American citizenship.  The question is whether shedding nationality is even possible.

European acquaintances, and friends who’ve spent time in Europe, tell me that Americans are instantly recognizable wherever we may be—by our gait, our body language, the way we speak English and our basic attitudes toward life.   These are not things that are so easy to get rid of!

The black writer James Baldwin traveled to France in the late 1940s and early 1950s to seek refuge from American racism.   What he came to realize, as he wrote in an essay collection called Notes of a Native Son, is that whatever else he was, he was an American.

Baldwin felt a strong solidarity with African students who hated French colonialism.  But he himself understood that he was an American, an African-American—not an African in exile.    He said the idea that nationality is a matter of personal choice is a specifically American idea.

… the American … very nearly unconscious assumption that it is possible to consider the person apart from all the forces that have produced him. 

This assumption, however, is itself based on nothing less than our history, which is the history of the total, and willing, alienation of entire peoples from their forebears.

What is overwhelming clear, it seems, to everyone but ourselves is that this history has created an entirely unprecedented people, with a unique and individual past. 

It is the past lived on the American continent … … which must sustain us in the present.

The truth about that past is not that it is too brief, or too superficial, but only that we, having turned our faces so resolutely away from it, has never demanded what it has to give.

==James Baldwin, “A Question of Identity” (1954)


The radicalism of the Declaration

July 4, 2016

Signing of the Declaration of Independence

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.

–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

==In Congress: the unanimous Declaration of the 13 united States of America, July 4, 1776

These words are among the most radical statements ever written.   It denies that government is established by divine right or ancient custom, and that subjects have no choice but to obey.   It affirms that people have the right to form a government by free decision, and proceeds to do just that.

It is a philosophy that is hard for many people to accept—including, as I have found through experience, many supposedly well-educated 21st century Americans.

Our Declaration.inddI have believed in the basic ideas of the Declaration’s since I was old enough to understand them.  My interpretation of American history is that it consists of (1) a series of events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of the Constitution and (2) a playing out of the consequences of those two actions.

Recently I read a book, OUR DECLARATION: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality by Danielle Allen which both reinforced and clarified my understanding of the Declaration.

What, Allen asked, does it mean to say “all men are created equal”?  Obviously people are not the same in virtue, or ability, or wealth and social standing.

As she pointed out, we are all equal in the desire to live, in the desire to live free of subjugation to someone else’s will and in the desire (this is more controversial) to define for ourselves what we need to make us happy.  If I demand these rights for myself, I have no standing to deny these rights to you.

The Declaration gives two possible sources of these rights – “the Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God.”  The first reflects the ideas of the 18th century Enlightenment; the second of radical Protestant Christianity.

All Christians believe that human beings are made in the image of God, and are in some sense descended from Adam and Eve and then from Noah.  Protestants believe that human beings can have a direct relationship to God without the need for a priesthood to serve as intermediary.  Radical Protestants such as the Congregationalists, Baptists and Quakers practiced democracy in their congregations, and in town meetings.

The rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment thought in the same manner, except without the Biblical scaffolding.  They held that all human beings, regardless of their other differences, had a moral sense.   They thought people should think of government as a social contract—a mutual agreement based on mutual benefit.

The social contract was only a theory for John Locke and other 18th century philosophers.  But social contracts were made by the American colonists—first in the Mayflower Compact of the Pilgrims as they voyaged to Plymouth Rock, then of various frontier communities, and finally the Constitution of the United States.

The most radical of the Declaration’s affirmations is the right of revolution.  The United States of America is founded not on a principle of authority or national unity, but on principles of freedom and equality to which the government itself must submit or risk dissolution.


Recommended reading for Independence Day

July 4, 2015

flag-fireworksThe custom of listening to patriotic speeches on Independence Day seems to have died out.  The next best thing—or maybe a better alternative—is to read about how the United States came to be and the ideals that inspired its Founders.

Here are links to material I think worth reading.


Speech on Conciliation With the Colonies by Edmund Burke to the House of Commons on March 22, 1775.

Edmund Burke gave all the reasons why Britain’s American colonists had such a powerful love of freedom and independence that any attempt to suppress them would be futile.  Reading this made me feel proud and grateful to be an American.


Common Sense by Thomas Paine, published on February 14, 1776.

Thomas Paine’s arguments helped convince Britain’s American colonists that they should become an independent nation.


The Declaration of Independence – In Congress, July 4, 1776


King George’s response to both houses of Parliament on October 31, 1776.


The American Crisis – Chapter One by Thomas Paine on December 23, 1776.

Thomas Paine’s writings reminded George Washington’s Continental troops what they were fighting for.


Washington’s Farewell Address 1796.

George Washington reflected on the past and future of the nation he helped found.

Civil authority, the CIA and two scary thoughts

December 26, 2014

The basic principle of constitutional government is that any government agency or official authorized to use lethal force is subject to legitimate civilian authority.

Governments, according to the U.S. Declaration of Independence, are instituted so that people may enjoy their alienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and they derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.


Click to enlarge.

If the police, the military or secret intelligence agencies become laws unto themselves, then they become the government, and so-called American freedom and democracy becomes a sham.

The greatness of George Washington was that he always followed the directives of the Continental Congress, however misguided he may have thought them to be, and that, after the success of the Revolution, he refused the temptation to make himself dictator and retired to Mount Vernon until called to public service by the people.

Washington’s decision, and the precedent he set, saved the infant USA from the fate of the new Latin American republics, whose military forces regard themselves as the ultimate authority and who think they have a right and duty to step in when the civilian authority falters.

Then there was Germany in 1919-1933, prior to the rise of Hitler, when the German General Staff set its own foreign and military policy in disregard of the elected government, which did not dare to challenge it.

Our Pentagon and CIA have come to be political forces in their own right, not defying the elected government but letting it be known that their views are not necessarily the views of the elected government.

John Brennan, the head of the CIA, openly disagrees with President Obama’s condemnation of torture, and the President has not reprimanded him.  Neither has he tried to dismiss torturers from government service.  He appears to argue with his appointment, but not to exercise his authority as commander-in-chief.

Why not?  One likely possibility is that the President is not sincere in his condemnation.  Another is that he does not believe the public would support him.

A Gallup poll indicates that the American public has more confidence in the military than in any other American institution, and less confidence in Congress than any other instituion.  Twice as many have confidence in the military than in the presidency.   It’s a bad sign for a democracy when the public has more confidence in the military than in the civilians it elected.

Here’s a scary thought.

Maybe the President fears that if he ordered the CIA to operate within the Constitution and the law, it would not obey.

Here’s a scarier thought.

Maybe the President already has ordered the CIA to operate within the Constitution and the law, and it did not obey.


How American history should be taught

October 3, 2014

The United States is an exceptional nation because American nationality is not based on race, religion, an ethnic culture or loyalty to a dynasty.  What unites us Americans as a nation are certain foundational ideas, and to a Constitution created to implement these ideas.

These ideas were set forth by the drafters of the Declaration of Independence, who said that —

Writing_the_Declaration_of_Independence_1776_cph.3g09904We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men [1] 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—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed …

I think the best way to understand American history is to understand what led up to the writing of those words, and the consequences that followed.   The history of the United States is largely an argument over the meaning of those words, and the story of the struggles (not always successful) to live up to them.

The history of the United States, like the history of all nations, is a history of crimes and oppression as well as of glory and achievement.  There is nothing exceptional about that, and no reason to hide it.  What makes us exceptional is that we have created a benchmark by which we judge ourselves and by which others can fairly judge us.

Please don’t be hung up on the phrase “all men.”  The logic of the Declaration’s ideas meant that their application ceased, over time, to be limited to white male property-owners and came to apply to all human beings.   .

The Founders, of course, were very different from 21st century Americans.  They didn’t agree among themselves, some of them hated each other and they didn’t necessarily practice what they preached.  To be loyal to their spirit does not mean to try to recreate the USA as it was in George Washington’s administration.  It means to love liberty as the Founders did.

I don’t believe the teaching of American history should be indoctrination.  I don’t believe students should be required to profess belief in American ideals of freedom and democracy, or anything else, but I do believe they should have a concept of those ideals.  If we disagree on what these ideals are, then teach the controversy.

Because when we Americans cease to be a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, when we cease to pledge allegiance to a republic with liberty and justice for all, then the United States of America ceases to longer a nation.  It becomes nothing more a labor force and a consumer market with an army.

Patriotic readings for the Fourth of July

July 4, 2014
Surrender of Lord Cornwallis to George Washington

Lord Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown

My friend and neighbor, David White, celebrates Independence Day by hosting a picnic for his friends in his back yard in which we read the Declaration of Independence aloud.

Over the years David and his wife, Linda, added readings of the Declaration of Sentiments by the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848 and then 0f Frederick Douglass’s speech on “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” in Rochester, N.Y., in 1852.

I like these additions, but I don’t like the way some of David’s guests treat them as indictments of the Founders for sexism and racism, rather than as examples of the working out of the Declaration’s meaning.

The Founders were men of their time, just as I am a person of my time.  Maybe we in our time understand some things better than they did.  Maybe we understand other things less well.

Either way, I do not condescend to my forefathers, who created the nation in which I live.   I would not say I am proud to be an American.  Rather I would say  I am grateful to be an American.  I am grateful for our Declaration of Independence, our Bill of Rights and our other founding documents which give us a philosophy and a standard of judgment for measuring our actions.


Here are some patriotic readings for Independence Day.


Speech on Conciliation With the Colonies by Edmund Burke to the House of Commons on March 22, 1775.  [*]

“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” by Patrick Henry on March 23, 1775.  [^]

Common Sense by Thomas Paine, published on February 14, 1776. [*]

The Declaration of Independence – In Congress, July 4, 1776.

King George’s response to both houses of Parliament on October 31, 1776. [*]

The American Crisis – Chapter One by Thomas Paine on December 23, 1776. [*]

Washington’s Farewell Address published on September 19, 1796 [*]

An Address Celebrating the Declaration of Independence by John Quincy Adams on July 4, 1821.  Or just read the high points.  [*]

Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions by the Women’s Rights Convention on July 19-20, 1848.

The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro by Frederick Douglass on July 5, 1852.

Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861. [^]

Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863. [*]

Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865.  [^}

The Conquest of the United States by Spain by William Graham Sumner on January 16, 1899.

Eugene Debs’s Independence Day Address on July 4, 1901 [º]

A Fourth of July Speech by President Theodore Roosevelt on July 4,1903. [^]

Speech on the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence by President Calvin Coolidge on July 5, 1926.

Was There an American Revolution? by Robert Nisbet for the American Enterprise Institute in 1974.


The Declaration: a persuasive argument

July 4, 2013


These are the opening words of THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE.

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.–

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.

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.

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.

Bert Likko, writing for the League of Ordinary Gentlemen web log, said the importance of the Declaration was that it was A Persuasive Argument.

The proposition that things are or even can be self-evidently true is something that it seems to me philosophers debate to this day.  But who among the readership — a readership consisting of English colonists in the Americas and Europeans — would deny that people should have life that not be taken arbitrarily from them, and that people ought to be happy, or at least be able to pursue happiness? Who would not want life, liberty, and happiness for themselves, and not recognize a similar desire in others? Jefferson frames these unquestioned social goods as rights, and universalizes those rights.

What is radical, or at least radical enough, for 1776 was to do so on an individualized basis, claiming all men as equals to one another.  In a world still steeped with and ruled by hereditary nobility, it was a relatively well-accepted proposition that some people were just plain better than others by virtue of the accident of their births.   To say that all men are created equal denies the very concept of nobility and calls into question the concept of even a social elite.  […]


In defense of hyprocrisy

July 6, 2012

I am a hypocrite.  I do things that are inconsistent with my principles and ideals, and I sometimes conceal this from others and even myself.  Furthermore I am hypocritical even in my admission of hypocrisy, because I hold back details, so as to allow you to think I am being too hard on myself.

Not a hypocrite

It isn’t good to be a hypocrite, but there are worse things than being a hypocrite.  Winston Churchill was a hypocrite.  He talked about freedom and democracy while trying to preserve British rule in India.  Heinrich Himmler was a mass murderer, but he was not a hypocrite.  What he said was aligned with what he believed, and what he did was aligned with what he said.

The writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were hypocrites.  They proclaimed political principles and ideals that few, if any of them, fully practiced themselves.  Since my youth, I have been stirred by Thomas Jefferson’s great statements about political, intellectual and religious freedom.  But Thomas Jefferson was a hypocrite.   He wrote that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, while owning human beings as property and subjecting them to harsh punishments for their attempts at liberty and happiness.

A hypocrite

Yet I am still stirred by Thomas Jefferson’s great language.  Should we condemn him for his hypocrisy.  Or should we be grateful to him for drafting the Declaration of Independence, risking his life in the cause of American independence and enacting the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom?  Would it have been better if he had been an honest and straightforward racist, like John C. Calhoun or Jefferson Davis?

These thoughts are prompted by the annual Fourth of July party given by my philosopher friend and neighbor David White.  We began by reading the Declaration of Independence, then over the years added the Declaration of Sentiments by the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and then “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” Frederick Douglass’s great 1852 speech in Rochester, in which he pointed out that the rights proclaimed in the Declaration and the Constitution did not apply to him as a black man—in other words, that white Americans’ claim to believe that “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” was hypocritical.

The original sin of the United States is that it was founded on slavery.  Without acceptance of slavery, the thirteen rebel British colonies would never have been able to come together as a unified nation.  The saving virtue of the Founders is that many of them were ashamed of this fact.  As Frederick Douglass pointed out in his speech, there is no specific language in the Constitution upholding slavery.  The word “slavery” is first used in the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 which abolishes slavery.

Fewer than 10 years after Douglass made his speech, the Southern states established a Confederacy which honestly proclaimed slavery as a founding principle.   The Confederates were not hypocrites.  They were honest racists and not hypocritical.  On the other hand, many white supporters of the Union, and even some abolitionists, talked about freedom and were racists at heart.  Frederick Douglass had no problem deciding what side he was on, and neither should you and I.   Even a half-truth can be worth fighting for against a total lie.

Hypocrisy is a normal human failing.  The only people who are not hypocrites are saints and sociopaths.  It is good to try to be honest with ourselves and others.  But hypocrisy can be a virtue in the sense that in trying to appear to be better people than we are, we actually become better people than we are.  Amoral cynicism has no such redeeming virtue.  Neither does sneering at flawed people who are trying to do good.

Click on The present belittling the past for an earlier post of mine on contemporaries who look down on the Founders and other great people of the past.

Click on The argument from hypocrisy for an earlier post of mine on the hollowness of hypocrisy-bashers with a great quote from the SF writer Neal Stephenson.

Click on Slavery was America’s original sin for an earlier post of mine on covert references to slavery in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Click on Thomas Jefferson on American freedom for great quotes from one who didn’t always practice what he preached.

The present belittling the past

July 4, 2012

Someone I know once asked me, in all seriousness, to show her the provision of the Constitution where it says that the rights of citizens are limited to white male property-owners.

She had heard this so often from so many different people that it is understandable that she thought this was actually in the Constitution.  This goes to show how the Constitution, like the Bible, is something people believe in more than they read, but it also is an example of how so many people nowadays look down on our forebears rather than revering them.

Signing of the Declaration of Independence

My friend and neighbor David White, who teaches philosophy, some years back started a custom of hosting a Fourth of July picnic at his house in which we read aloud the Declaration of Independence.  A few years later, at the suggestion of his wife Linda, we added the Declaration of Sentiments of 1848, by the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and some time after that, excerpts from Frederick Douglass’s speech, The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro, on July 5, 1852, here in Rochester.

Women’s Rights Convention of 1848

The Women’s Rights Convention and Frederick Douglass’s speech are worth remembering, but I don’t agree with those of David’s guests who regard these documents as an unmasking of the hypocrisy, sexism and racism of the Founding Fathers rather than an unfolding of the principles they affirmed.

The ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the rights guaranteed by the Constitution were not applied to everybody all at once.  It took time for this to happen, and in the case of black Americans, it took bloody struggles, of which the Civil War was only part, but it did happen or rather, it is happening—it’s not done yet.

Women and black people would have been unhappy about their position in society in any case, but it was because of the Declaration of Independence that they had a reference point to make a case to males and whites.  When I argue for equal rights, I use the Declaration, the Constitution and other foundational documents in American history as my authorities.  This is one of the reasons I am thankful to be an American.

If white male Americans had been really determined to deny rights to women and people of color, they might have been able to do so to this day—certainly for longer than they actually did.  It is because the founding document of the United States asserts a principle of universal human rights that they can’t do so with a good conscience.

Nor is the present generation of Americans more enlightened than the generation of the Founders.  Our generation can take pride in our breaking down prejudice and unfair discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation and other characteristics not of the individual’s own choosing.  But at the same time our generation has turned its back on other basic liberties whose origins are long before the Declaration—the rule of law, trial by jury, freedom of speech, your home as your castle.  Future generations will rightly judge our hypocrisies much more severely than those of the Founders’ generation.

Frederick Douglass

Click on The Declaration of Independence for the full text.

Click on The Declaration of Sentiments for the full text of this and other resolutions of the Women’s Rights Convention of 1848.

Click on The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro for the full text of Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech.

Click on Winning the Vote: a History of Voting Rights for a brief history of the right to vote in the United States.  You’ll have to click on READ FULL ESSAY to read the whole thing.

A black minister once told me that the Mayflower Compact was irrelevant to him because it only applied to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.  But in 1620, a person in Britain who was not of noble blood, whatever their color or religion, was as disenfranchised as a person in 1960 in Mississippi who was not of white blood.  The idea that ordinary people could come together and agree on how to govern themselves was a revolutionary step.  It was much more revolutionary than anything that has happened since, and was the seed of many subsequent revolutions, including the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.

Click on Reflections on the Revolution in the United States for the reasons why David White after all has the right idea on how to celebrate Independence Day.  I am old enough to member when listening to patriotic speeches and even reading of the Declaration were as much a part of the Fourth of July as eating hot dogs and watching fireworks.

Slavery was America’s original sin

July 5, 2011

Nations, like individual human beings, have things in their history which they hate to face.  For us Americans (or at least white Americans), it is slavery.  Not only was slavery part of our national fabric from the beginning, acceptance of slavery was the price that had to be paid for our nation to come into existence in the first place.

Our very founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, show this.

When Thomas Jefferson submitted his draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress, it contained this complaint against King George III:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere … determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold … he is now exciting those very people to rise to arms against us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them … thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes he urges against the lives of another.

This was a double complaint – that the British government had sanctioned the African slave trade and introduced slavery into the American colonies; and then that the British encouraged those slaves to revolt against their masters.   So the British were to blame for the existence of slavery, but also condemned for recruiting slaves to fight against their masters.  Jefferson had things both ways.

But even this was too much for some of the delegates.  As Jefferson later noted, the South Carolina and Georgia delegations were strongly in favor of continuing the slave trade, and some Northern delegates were reluctant to condemn it, since New England Yankee ship captains were themselves active in the slave trade.

References to the slave trade were deleted, and the final version, signed on July 4, 1776, had only this to say on the subject of slavery:

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us …

The document that proclaims that all men have the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness also condemns instigation of slave revolts.  That’s not consistent.  But if South Carolina and Georgia hadn’t supported the Revolution, maybe American independence could not have been won.  The Continental Congress faced a real moral dilemma.

Fast forward to the Constitutional Convention in 1783.  Without the agreement of the slave states, the Constitution would not have been ratified, and the United States would not have become a nation in its present form.  Three provisions were necessary to win the slave states’ agreement.


The American credo divides and unites us

July 4, 2011

The United States is exceptional in being founded not on loyalty to a monarch or charismatic leader, nor on identification with a racial or ethnic group, but on a set of ideas.   We Americans take this for granted, but foreign visitors do not.

Here’s how the English Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton saw us in the 1920s:

The American Constitution does resemble the Spanish Inquisition in this: that it is founded on a creed.  America is the only nation in the world that is founded upon a creed.  That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature.  It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice and that their authority is for that reason just. …

Here’s how Canadian sociologist Sacvan Bercovitch saw us in the 1960s:

I crossed the border into the United States and found myself inside the myth of America … a country that despite its arbitrary frontiers, despite its bewildering mixture of race and creed, could believe in something called the True America, and could invest that patent fiction with all the moral and emotional appeal of a religious symbol. … Here was the Jewish anarchist Paul Goodman berating the Midwest for abandoning the promise; here, the descendent of American slaves, Martin Luther King, denouncing injustice as a violation of the American way; here, an endless debate about national destiny … conservatives scavaging for un-Americans, New Left historians recalling the country to its sacred mission. … It was a hundred sects and factions, each apparently different from the others, yet all celebrating the same mission.

Our American credo is based on two complementary documents, one radical and one conservative.  The radical document is the Declaration of Independence.  The Declaration proclaims that all human beings are endowed with inalienable rights, that governments are instituted to protect these rights, that there is a right of revolution in defense of those rights, and that 13 British colonies are free and independent states.  The conservative document is the Constitution.  It  joins 13 free and independent states into a nation to form a more perfect union, provide for the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity.

Independence Day, our patriotic holiday, commemorates the signing of the Declaration.  The President of the United States, naturalized citizens, members of the armed forces and federal officers swear to uphold, protect and defend the Constitution.  To understand the United States, it is necessary to understand both the Declaration and the Constitution.

Like the Bible, these documents do not interpret themselves, nor do they make clear what parts are for a particular time and situation, and what parts are truths for all time.  You can pull out quotes from either document to justify many different things.

We Americans have been fighting over the meaning of these documents almost since the signing of the Declaration and the ratification of the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were both patriots who contributed greatly to the founding of the United States.  But they hated each other, and each thought the other a traitor to the principles of the American republic as they conceived.

During the Civil War, the Union and Confederate soldiers and statesmen each thought they were fighting for the basic principles of American liberty.  They were not equally right, but they were equally sincere.

In our own time, it is no different.  The Tea Party and the American Civil Liberties Union are fighting to defend basic Constitutional rights as they conceive them.  They are not equally right, but they are equally sincere.

All through American history, different groups of people have tried to define themselves as the true Americans and their opponents as the un-Americans.  This can be, and has been, a very bad thing, but sometimes it is justified.  At least when we argue about the meaning of Americanism, our common loyalty to the Constitution and the Declaration gives us a common point of departure.  Arguing over what it means to be an American is part of our American exceptionalism.

Thomas Jefferson on American freedom

July 3, 2011

Original draft of the Declaration of Independence (1776)

We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable, that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1779)

Thomas Jefferson

That Almighty God hath created the mind free,—that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget hahits of … hypocrisy and meanness … that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves by fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible … hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time: … that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics and geometry … that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession and propagation of principles on the supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, … and finally, that truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.


Independence Day

July 4, 2010

The history of the United States of America is not the history of an ethnic group, or the history of people of any one race or religion.  It is the story of the drafting and signing of two documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutions, the events that led up to it and the consequences that flowed from it.

The Declaration of Independence was, and still is, a radical document.  It affirms there is such a thing as a right of revolution.  It asserts that the only legitimate government is self-government.  It asserts that no government is legitimate if it denies basic human rights.  Very often Americans on the street, when confronted with the words of the Declaration without being told their source, refuse to sign it.

The Constitution was, and still is, a conservative document.  It sets limits on the will of the people.  It creates checks and balances.  It provides a basis for governmental authority.

The Fourth of July, commemorating the signing of the Declaration, is our great national holiday.  But loyalty to the Constitution is the basis of American loyalty.  The President of the United States and all other federal officers, down to the newest inductee into the armed forces, swear to uphold, protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and so do immigrants when being naturalized as American citizens.

My friend David White some years back started a nice custom of holding a Fourth of July picnic in his back yard, in which we recited the Declaration.  Later we added related documents, such as the Declaration of Sentiments by the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls on July 4, 1848, and selections from Frederick Douglass’ oration, “What to the slave is the 4th of July?” in Rochester in 1852.

There were a couple of years in which David didn’t give his party.  The first time I felt disappointed, and then I reflected there was nothing to stop me from reciting the Declaration of Independence on my own.  So I did, alone in my house.  I also read the Constitution.

For us, as for Americans in 1848 and 1852, the Declaration and the Constitution are still the benchmarks by which we judge our government and ourselves as a people.  It’s good to stop and remind myself of what’s in them.