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Happy Independence Day

A commentary on the Declaration of Independence.


by James Leroy Wilson
July 4, 2001

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Happy Independence Day_James Leroy Wilson-A commentary on the Declaration of Independence. It is now eleven score and five years ago that, as Abraham Lincoln famously put it, "our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

Or did they? The social and political inequalities of 1776 America remained after we won independence - some still remain. But the power of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is that it changed how America thought about the Declaration of Independence. Since Lincoln, the debate over America's founding principles has been liberty vs. equality, between "all men are created equal" and the "unalienable rights"of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The Left asks, weren't the Revolutionaries hypocrites about equality, considering slavery and female disenfranchisement, and aren't we hypocritical still? The conservative and libertarian Right asks, haven't we betrayed the Founders' conception of liberty?

I'm not blaming Lincoln, but perhaps his influence in our perception of the Declaration made us forget what it was really about. It wasn't about individual liberty or individual equality. It was about justifying and declaring independence for thirteen of Great Britain's American colonies, provoked by intolerable abuses of the British Crown. Thomas Jefferson writes in the Declaration, "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." Jefferson is flat-out admitting that accommodation to reality is normally preferable to attempting idealistic ends for the sake of principle. The Established is to be favored over the Ideal because there is no better way to achieve civil peace and justice. Destroying established institutions will more likely lead to chaos and worse tyranny, not a more just society. The way this thinking goes, slavery violates the ideal of human equality and is unfortunate, but in real terms the institution is established and we don't know what else to do to protect the Negro. This thinking isn't a betrayal to the Declaration, and it doesn't make the slave-owning Jefferson a hypocrite. Rather, it is an argument implicit from the Declaration itself.

The "self-evident truths" therefore do not stand alone as objective reasons for the Revolution. Their persuasive power comes within the context of the "long train of abuses" - 28 evils that are no longer sufferable - which provide the meat of the document. The point of the self-evident truths is that while government is necessary, regimes that provide none of the protections and benefits of government can justify their existence on grounds of tradition or theology. Why? Because it is self-evident that all men are created equal, and that government's purpose is to protect their rights, not to violate them. Governments that violate our liberties aren't really governments, they are crime organizations dedicated to slavery, murder, and robbery.

With all such regimes, the people walk a fine line. Is it better to kill for the sake of installing, hopefully, a better regime or to let live with the current regime that kills indiscriminately? Is it better to die in combat or by execution, or to allow one's self and progeny to submit to slavery or worse?

Kris Kristofferson wrote the lyric, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." Bill Parcells, while he coached football, had a sign in the locker room that went "Blame no one. Expect nothing. Do something." Proper Christian discipleship develops the same themes. To gain life, you must lose your life. Acts of genuine freedom are exactly like acts of profound courage. They emerge not when things are easy, not when the choices are numerous, but when there is only one option left. The worst that can happen is that you lose your life; the best that can happen is that you save another life, perhaps a generation, perhaps several generations. Free people and courageous people are the same - they are optimists confident of victory. They don't ask, "What if we lose?" but rather "What if we win?"

Such was the position of the founders of our federal republic. The Revolution was primarily about practical failures and intolerable actions of the British Crown, not about "truths" that most of humankind still do not find to be "self-evident."

But what were these failures, these abuses done to what was then the wealthiest and best-educated people in the world, the people with seemingly the least complaint of any people against their ruler? Against a King who was, to be fair, probably the most liberal monarch, presiding over the most liberal government in Europe? These complaints were, by and large, about assaults on self-government, on the revocation of long-established charters, constitutions, and rights. About abolishing what had been self-governing legislatures. Britain may have defended Americans during the French and Indian War of the 1760's, but America resolved to go it alone rather than give up, for further British "protection," American liberties and institutions that had been in place for several generations.

To the founders, liberty and self-government were the same thing: taking away self-government in local affairs is the same as taking away liberty itself. As much as leaving individuals alone, liberty is about leaving communities alone, about leaving long-established and chartered colonies alone.

Every year the dissatisfied liberals and the doom-and-gloom conservatives ask about the state of equality and how free the inidividual truly is anymore. It is also fair to ask if our communities and states are as self-governing as, by the Declaration's intent and Constitutional right, they ought to be. The conclusion to me is obvious: no. But lest I get lumped in with the Timothy McVeighs of the world, I'm not an advocate for another violent Revolution. I believe the evils we live under are "sufferable" and will remain so unless, or until, the federal government either cancels a free and fair election, denies me the right to write these words, or actively attempts to disarm the civilian population. The work of politics is the work of avoiding civil war, not of promoting it.

Happy Independence Day.

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