04 July 2004

Independence Day

I consider this essay largely supplanted by my later, hopefully more astringent, version, but you may still find it interesting.

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 as an occasional lefty activist) 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.

It's easy to forget what an achievement the Declaration really is. But 1776 was a world of kings, and finding a way to think and talk about a political order without kings was very, very hard.

A look at Jefferson's intellectual sources shows how just hard the problem was at that time. Here's David Hume trying to find a moral theory for equality in world that only knew the divine right of kings:

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.
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 Jefferson summing it up perfectly in the Declaration.
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.
Those are the principles, 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 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: it's right there.) And so also, deep in the Declaration is the principle that all people are equal, and I suspect that Jefferson knew it without knowing it, but didn't know how to fit it into the language. Maybe not, but I prefer to believe in the Declaration as it should have read.

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.

Bonus followup post: Hollywood movie stars and me ranting about liberal patriotism!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Did I tell you about going to the Jefferson Memorial when they were washing the Declaration of Independence with high-powered hoses? I was walking up the steps into a fine mist of water. Then there was that monumental statue. Then the image of the washing of those powerful words...

What a blessing. It all got me to thinking about what a nation of cowards we've become.

- Yezida