Posts Tagged ‘Fourth of July’

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.


The immortal words of Patrick Henry

July 4, 2015

Click on Patrick Henry – Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death to read the text.

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.

My country, right and wrong

July 4, 2015

Rod Dreher, a Louisianan who writes for The American Conservative, objects to fellow white Southerners who deny the reality of the South’s history of slavery, lynching and white supremacy.

He objects even more to self-righteous white Northerners who condemn everything about the South as if the North had nothing to answer for.

Taking the good and the bad together, he is part of the South and the South is part of him.

I completely understand what he is saying because that is the same as my attitude toward the United States as a whole.

AmericanflagWhenever the Star-Spangled Banner is played, I stand at attention and put my hand over my heart, even when I am the only person who does so.

At the same time I can understand why, for many people, the Stars and Stripes is as much a symbol of oppression as the Confederate Stars and Bars.

I think of people in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and other Latin American countries that have been ruled by U.S.-backed dictatorships.  I think of how U.S. intervention has spread death and destruction spread through the Greater Middle East during the past 15 years.

      I remember the U.S. Constitution was ratified based on a compromise with slavery, and the USA acquired its present territory through ethnic cleansing of the native people and a war of aggression against Mexico.

That’s not the whole story, of course.   American history is also the story of black and white Americans who fought slavery and Jim Crow.  It is the story of the first important modern nation to be founded on democratic ideals, which we have sometimes lived up to and never completely forgotten.

It is the story of a nation to which the whole world looked as a land of opportunity, and which was the first important modern nation to achieve mass prosperity for ordinary people.

The French writer Ernst Renan said a nation is a group of people who have agreed to remember certain things and to forget certain things.  I don’t accept this.  I believe it is possible to be patriotic without historical amnesia.

I identify with the comment of another French writer, Albert Camus, at the time when the French army was fighting Algerian rebels by means of torture and atrocity.  He said he wanted to be able to love his country and also love justice.

That should be less of a dilemma for Americans.  The United States is a nation whose patriotism is based not on loyalty to an ethnic group, but on the willingness to uphold, protect and defend a Constitution.

We Americans can love our country without having to love our government.

But my love of country is not based these arguments or any other arguments, any more than my love of family is based on arguments.   I love America because I am part of it and it is part of me.


Loving the South by Ross Douthat for The American Conservative.

Washington’s victory at Monmouth, 1778

July 3, 2015


When I think of the Revolutionary War, the first names that come to mind are Bunker Hill and Valley Forge.

But Bunker Hill was an exercise in survival, like the evacuation of the British army at Dunkirk in 1940.  And Valley Forge was an exercise in endurance.

I read a couple of articles the other day that make the case that the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778, in which George Washington’s Continentals met the best of the British army head-on, and won, was the real turning point, and the battle we should remember.

Whether or not you agree with that particular contention, you will see, if you read the articles linked below, that the battle showed the greatness of Washington as a commander and the valor of Americans fighting for their independence.


June 28, 1778.  Battle of Monmouth by “streiff” for RedState.

Battle of Monmouth by the HistoryNet staff.

John Paul Jones, American hero, Russian admiral

July 2, 2015
John Paul Jones in 1781

John Paul Jones in 1781

John Paul Jones is remembered by Americans as a naval hero of the Revolutionary War and the founder of the American Navy.

He then had a remarkable short second career in the service of the Empress Catherine the Great in Russian’s conquest of Crimea.

He was born John Paul, the son of a poor gardener in Scotland, in 1747.  He went to sea at age 13 and was a captain by age 21.

In 1773, he was put on trial in Tobago in the West Indies for allegedly running a would-be mutineer through with his sword.  He fled to Virginia instead and changed his name to Jones.

When the Revolutionary War began, he took service in the new United States Navy, and quickly rose to the rank of captain.   On his first command, he captured 16 British ships in six weeks.

jpj4-05He was sent to French waters in 1778 to take the war to the British, which he did.   As captain of the Ranger and later of the Bonhomme Richard, he raided British ports, captured British merchant ships and defeated British warships in British waters.

This was astonishing achievement.   The American rebels had no navy or naval ships at the outbreak of the Revolution, and the British Navy was regarded as invincible at sea.

John Paul Jones’ most famous battle was in September, 1779, when he commanded a squadron that attacked a British merchant fleet protected by British ships of war.

He sailed directly for the lead British warship, the H.M.S. Serapis.  They fired broad-sides at each other at close range, and within an hour or so, the two ships were actually lashed together.

bhrichrdCaptain Pearson of the Serapis asked Jones, who was getting the worst of it, if he wanted to surrender.  Jones replied, “I have not yet begun to fight”—or words to that effect.

Jones personally fought with a pike to help repel a boarding party from the Serapis.  Then one of his crew threw an exploding grenade at one of the hatches of the Serapis, igniting gunpowder that lay along the deck and slaughtering many of the British crew.  The British captain surrendered soon after that.

The Bonhomme Richard sunk, but Jones sailed back to port in possession of the Serapis.

After the war ended, Congress disbanded the Continental Navy.   Jones took service with Catherine the Great of Russia in 1787 under the name Pavel Ivanovich Jones.


Yorktown 1781: Glory to the French

July 1, 2015
Lord Cornwallis surrenders to French and Americans at Yorktown

Lord Cornwallis surrenders to French and Americans at Yorktown

As we Americans prepare to celebrate Independence Day, it is worth remembering that we didn’t win our freedom all by ourselves.

And when an American mouths off about French military history, he’s not just being ignorant, he’s being ungrateful.  I was raised to think ungrateful people were trash.

When I say ungrateful, I’m talking about the American Revolution.   If you’re a true American patriot, then this is the war that matters.  Hell, most of you probably couldn’t name three major battles from it, but try going back to when you read Johnny Tremaine in fourth grade and you might recall a little place called Yorktown, Virginia, where we bottled up Cornwallis’s army, forced the Brits’ surrender and pretty much won the war.

Well, news flash: “we” didn’t win that battle, any more than the Northern Alliance conquered the Taliban.  The French army and navy won Yorktown for us.  Americans didn’t have the materiel or the training to mount a combined operation like that, with naval blockade and land siege.  It was the French artillery forces and military engineers who ran the siege, and at sea it was a French admiral, de Grasse, who kicked the shit out of the British navy when they tried to break the siege.

Long before that, in fact as soon as we showed the Brits at Saratoga that we could win once in a while, they started pouring in huge shipments of everything from cannon to uniforms.  We’d never have got near Yorktown if it wasn’t for massive French aid.

So how come you bastards don’t mention Yorktown in your cheap webpages?  I’ll tell you why: because you’re too ignorant to know about it and too dishonest to mention it if you did.

via Gary Brecher – The eXiled.

Expressed a bit harshly, but true.

His whole article, which is about French military history, is worth reading.


The War Nerd: Glory to the French by Gary Brecher for The eXiled.

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.


Two Founders on religious freedom

July 4, 2014

George Washington to the Newport, R.I., Hebrew congregation on August 18, 1790

1presIt is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

via Teaching American History.

Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury, Conn., Baptist association on Jan. 1, 1802

jeffersonthomasbigBelieving with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.

via Teaching American History.

Readings for Independence Day 2013

July 4, 2013


Some readings for American patriots.

Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies by Edmund Burke (1775)


Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions by the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls (1848)

Speech on The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro by Frederick Douglass (1852)

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness by Andrew Sullivan

Is the U.S. a land of liberty or equality? by Robert J. Samuelson

The Omega Glory by Maggie McNeill

Remembering the Harvesters on this Fourth of July by Gracy Howard in The American Conservative.

How Unreasonable Searches of Private Documents Caused the American Revolution by Juan Cole on Informed Comment.

A Persuasive Argument by Bert Likko for The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

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.

John Quincy Adams on Independence Day

July 4, 2012

John Quincy Adams gave a Fourth of July speech to the House of Representatives in 1821, with good advice to those who think it is the mission of the United States to impose our version of freedom and democracy on other nations.

America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government.  America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity.  She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, equal justice, and equal rights. She has … respected the independence of other nations, while asserting and maintaining her own.  … …

John Quincy Adams

Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.  But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.  She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.  She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.  She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.

She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.  The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.  The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished luster the murky radiance of dominion and power.  She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.

And later near the end of the speech.

Her glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of mind. She has a spear and a shield; but the motto upon her shield is Freedom, Independence, Peace.

Click on Speech on Independence Day by John Quincy Adams to read the whole thing.  Hat tip to Daniel Larison.

The punnier side of Independence Day

July 4, 2012

Q. What has feathers, webbed feet, and certain inalienable rights?

A. The Ducklaration of Independence.

Q. What has four legs, a shiny nose, and fought for England?

A. Rudolph the Redcoat Reindeer.

Q. What did the American flag say to the British flag?

A. Nothing. It just waved.

Q. Why did Paul Revere ride his horse from Boston to Lexington?

A. Because his horse was too heavy to carry.

Q. Why did King George think the Declaration of Independence was a joke?

A. It was written in Punsylvania.

Q. Why did George Washington chop down a cherry tree with his hatchet?

A. The chainsaw hadn’t been invented.

Q. Do they have a Fourth of July in England?

A. Yes, between July 3rd and July 5th.

via Making Light.

Theodore Roosevelt on Independence Day

July 4, 2012

 I like the Fourth of July speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in 1886 when he was a young rancher in the Dakota Badlands.

Much has been given to us. . . and we must take heed to use aright the gifts entrusted to our care.  It is not what we have that will make us a great nation; it is the way in which we use it.  I do not undervalue for a moment our material prosperity.  Like all Americans, I like big things; big prairies, big forests and mountains, big wheat fields, railroads . . . big factories, steamboats, and everything else.  But we must keep steadfastly in mind that no people were ever yet benefited by riches if their prosperity corrupted their virtue. … … 

Each one must do his part if we wish to show the nation is worthy of its future.  Here we are not ruled by others, as in Europe; here we rule ourselves. …… When we thus rule ourselves, we have the responsibility of sovereigns, not of subjects.  We must never exercise our rights wickedly or thoughtlessly; we can continue to preserve them in but one possible way, by making the proper use of them.

Click on Address to the Citizens of Dickinson for Theodore Roosevelt’s full speech.

Click on Reflections on the Revolution in the United States for reflections by Conor P. Williams on The League of Ordinary Gentlemen web site on how to celebrate Independence Day.

Click on The Fourth of July for thoughts on the significance of Independence Day by Maggie McNeill on The Honest Courtesan web log.

Click on Happy Independence Day: a Story About Becoming American by Ken on Popehat.

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.

Edmund Burke on the roots of American freedom

July 2, 2012

On March 22, 1775, the great British statesman Edmund Burke gave a speech to the House of Commons advocating conciliation rather than repression of the American colonies.  Here are highlights.

In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole: and as an ardent is always a jealous affection, your colonies become suspicious, restive, and untractable, whenever they see the least attempt to wrest from them by force, or shuffle from them by chicane, what they think the only advantage worth living for.  This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English colonies probably than in any other people of the earth; and this from a great variety of powerful causes … …

Edmund Burke

First, the people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen.  England, Sir, is a nation, which still I hope respects, and formerly adored, her freedom.  The colonists emigrated from you when this part of your character was most predominant; and they took this bias and direction the moment they parted from your hands.  They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles. … …

… … Their governments are popular [democratic] in a high degree; … … and this share of the people in their ordinary government never fails to inspire them with lofty sentiments, and with a strong aversion from whatever tends to deprive them of their chief importance.

If anything were wanting to this necessary operation of the form of government, religion would have given it a complete effect.  Religion, always a principle of energy, in this new people is no way worn out or impaired; and their mode of professing it is also one main cause of this free spirit.  The people are Protestants; and of that kind which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion.  This is a persuasion not only favorable to liberty, but built upon it. … …

… In no other country in the world, perhaps, is the law so general a study.  … In other countries, the people, more simple, and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; here they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.

The last cause of this disobedient spirit in the colonies is hardly less powerful than the rest, as it is not merely moral, but laid deep in the natural constitution of things. Three thousand miles of ocean lie between you and them. No contrivance can prevent the effect of this distance in weakening government. … …

To prove that the Americans ought not to be free, we are obliged to depreciate the value of freedom itself; and we never seem to gain a paltry advantage over them in debate, without attacking some of those principles, or deriding some of those feelings, for which our ancestors have shed their blood.

Click on Edmund Burke, Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies to read the whole thing.

Hat tip to George McDade.

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.