04 July 2022

Independence Day

This is a deep revision of my old Independence Day post. (And I sharpened it up here in 2023.)

On this day, arriving in a dire moment in American life, I want to celebrate how our national holiday commemorates neither a military victory nor founding an institution, but rather people signing a statement of principles: the Declaration Of Independence.

Some of the principles the Founders asserted 246 years ago are superb. Frankly, many of them are … not so much. And we have failed to live up to the best of those principles.

But celebrating the nation by pointing to its defining principles — not land or blood or history or institutions, but principles — is good. So every year I re-read the Declaration on Indpendence Day.

I offer reflections on my favorite parts.

A decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them

I could do without the implicit sexism, but taking care to name your reasons for your politics is good.

We hold these truths to be self-evident

Being clear about which key points one takes as axiomatic — points where one refuses to even enter into an argument about them — is good. I recently learned that Benjamin Franklin suggested that bit, telling Jefferson that his initial draft “sacred and undeniable” was not strong enough.

that all men are created equal [⋯] with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

As Heather Cox “How The South Won The Civil War”Richardson observes

For all the fact that the congressmen got around the sticky little problem of Black and Indigenous slavery by defining “men” as “white men,” and for all that it never crossed their minds that women might also have rights, the Declaration of Independence was an astonishingly radical document. In a world that had been dominated by a small class of rich men for so long that most people simply accepted that they should be forever tied to their status at birth, a group of upstart legislators on the edges of a continent declared that no man was born better than any other.

… so this is good stuff.

And I love how the Declaration says “among these” rights. We have a lot of rights. We have too many rights to list. This is just a start, naming some of the key big ones. Especially delightful to me is naming “pursuit of happiness” in that top tier of rights. A frank admission that we cannot demand happiness, combined with the insistence that we are entitled to the things we need to have in order try for happiness. Again the expansive implications of not enumerating the particulars, as there are too many and the principle runs deeper any examples could encompass.

to secure these rights, governments are instituted

Our rights do not bind and limit government. Our rights do not come from government. Our rights exist prior to government. Our rights are what government is for.

governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed

When people do not accept their government’s legitimacy, it renders that government inherently unjust. We have a word for this principle: “democracy”.

whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it the right of the people to alter or to abolish it

Again, government is our instrument. If it does not secure our rights, it has failed and we can fix it.

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


These are instructions.

in every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury

The first step in political change is to name the problems, to open the possibility of a correction.

we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor

For political change we must act in solidarity, backed by all we are and all we possess.

Every year on Independence Day I also re-read a speech by the greatest American, Frederick Douglass: What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? Douglass underlines the paradox that the very people who declared these principles held other people in the bondage of slavery, as profound a betrayal of humanity and equality and rights as one could imagine, persisting among those founders’ children and grandchildren.

I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States …

Though we ended the slavery of his time, I humbly submit that we continue to fail too much, too often, in too many ways. Our nation still merits Douglass’ scathing words.

When I read these two great documents, I revisit those American principles. I ask myself what my principles are and how I may fulfill my principles better. I keep returning to the same statement of my most fundamental politics, my version of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”:

all people are equal in rights, dignity, and moral claim to the fruits of this world

all people

ALL people


And rights are necessary but not sufficient. Our moral equality extends to our essential value, to respect, to our material needs.

I hold those truths to be self-evident

My nation was born from slavery & genocide, the greatest injustices I can imagine. It perpetuates both, and their consequences, to this very day. But our national holiday reminds us how the USA came with a manual which counters those by getting some very important things very right.

  1. We start from principles
  2. Those principles hold that government — the public’s instrument for explicitly shaping society — has no legitimacy if it does not ensure liberty & equality for all
  3. We are not simply entitled to direct the nation to liberty & equality for all; we have an obligation to correct every failure in that purpose

The founding crimes of slavery & genocide rendered the entire system which supported them illegitimate on its own terms. So do our ongoing crimes. Every American bears an obligation to stand up for aligning our nation with its highest principles.

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