Today is Independence Day in the United States.
Independence Day is the High Holy Day of American political identity. If you think about it, the Fourth of July is a strange choice of date. Consider the French equivalent, Bastille Day, which commemorates the storming of the Bastille and thus the event which demonstrated that the French monarchy was over. By similar reasoning, we should be celebrating when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown on 19 October, the battle of Lexington & Concord on 19 April, or (my favorite, with my soft spot for lefty activism) the Boston Tea Party on 13 December.
But we don't. We celebrate the day that a bunch of guys signed a piece of paper.
I've posted before about how the American veneration of documents in our political culture reflects our Enlightenment conception of the nation as a human creation, composed of ideas, rather than any essential volkish link from country to nation. Nowhere do we see this more strongly than in our choice of the Fourth of July, the day men signed the Declaration of Independence. The nation was born not when people used force of arms to secure the nation, either for the first time or the last time. Rather the nation was born when the idea of the nation was first named clearly.
It's easy to forget what a rhetorical achievement the Declaration really is. The world of 1776 was a world of kings, and finding a way to think and talk about a political order without kings was very, very hard.
Here's David Hume working to name a moral theory for equality, taking pains to say that there's nothing special about a king.
Whatever actually happens is comprehended in the general plan or intention of Providence; nor has the greatest and most lawful prince any more reason, upon that account, to plead a peculiar sacredness or inviolable authority, than an inferior magistrate, or even an usurper, or even a robber and a pirate.
Here's John Locke trying to talk about individual human rights, taking pains to say that this makes sense if you think about it carefully.
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.
Now here's Thomas Jefferson summing it up in the Declaration, asserting that these things are obvious givens.
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.
There you go. There's the fundamental principles of human rights, democracy, state legitimacy, and revolutionary action, rolled up in two hundred and three words.
I'd like to say that you couldn't improve it by changing a single one of those words. It's very, very close. But—forgive me getting feminist for a moment—those two uses of the word “Men” really stick out. I'm prepared to forgive Jefferson that one; he was a man of his time. He knew that the principles he describes meant that America was engaged in a terrible evil in the form of slavery. Check out his rough draft of the Declaration in which this is the longest complaint against the King of England.
he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
So I believe that Jefferson understood the radical implications of the idea that all people are equal, but didn't think to fit it into the language.
I gave you the best part, but hey, you really ought to take a few minutes in honor of the day and read the whole thing — it's really good stuff.
- Me on Hollywood movie stars and liberal patriotism—plus those movie stars reading the Declaration
- Brad DeLong and Don Herzog on Jefferson, rights, and Nature's God
- Hilzoy on Abstract Words, Too Noble To Neglect
- Fredrick Douglass on What is the 4th of July to a Slave?; you can hear a podcast of it read aloud ... or the marvelous Baratunde Thurston reading both Douglass and Jefferson