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Saturday, July 04, 2020

On the Fourth of July

"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 to 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."

Today, as we observe the 244th anniversary of the signature of the Declaration of Independence, a substantial body of activist Americans prefers to emphasize the hypocrisy, as they understand it, of these words.  Because their principle author and an actual majority of the signatories of the Declaration owned slaves, they regard them as empty.  Others have raised a parallel objection to the words "all men," since they do not explicitly include women, and one could also demonstrate, I am sure, that they did not recognize a right to same-sex marriage.  At best, therefore, many would argue this is not a document for our age. At worst they would characterize it as an instrument of oppression.

While many of the same people would also criticize the whole enterprise of western civilization as racist and oppressive, I believe on the other hand that their views reflect a particular pitfall of that civilization: a tendency to judge human affairs against a paradise which our brains can imagine.   The story of the Garden of Eden and the fall is based upon this, since Adam and Eve recklessly disobeyed orders and lost earthly paradise forever.  Christianity over the centuries has also inspired many visions of heaven on earth.  And the same tendency dominates many irreligious revolutionary movements, including anarchism and Marxism-Leninism.  It burst forth more than half a century ago on college campuses where students found the world of mid-century America falling well short of their imagination, and it is very influential on campus today. A year ago, at a panel of contemporary campus activists, one young woman concluded her talk by calling on her fellow students to rely upon their imaginations to picture a more just world. For half a century, more and more of us have been encouraged to define ourselves by our demographic, and the temptation to ascribe any personal misfortune or frustration to one's demographic has grown.  Only some new social order, many feel, can redress the balance.

Thus, I would argue, the real historical meaning of the declaration has been lost. That meaning can only emerge from a look at what it meant at the time, relative to what had come before.

The "truths" that Jefferson and his fellow signatories held to be "self-evident" were, in the 18th-century context, revolutionary, a complete departure from the principles not only of European civilization at that time, but of every civilization about which we know much of anything in history.  Nearly every society we know of--and certainly every relatively advanced one, intellectually and economically--was divided into legal orders with strict barriers between them.  People were endowed with such rights as they could claim not be their "creator," but by their status at birth.  Even in an irreligious age, European governments claimed their powers from God, not from "the consent of the governed," and only a few of them regarded their primary task as that of securing their subjects' rights. And none would have agreed with the immediately following words of the Declaration, that the people enjoyed a right to remove and replace a government that persistently abused their rights.  That is why, of course, that right had to be proven out in five more years of armed combat to become a reality.  And that victory became a symbol of what was now possible, first in Europe, and eventually in every continent.

The signatories certainly knew that slaves within the colonies did not enjoy those rights, and that women lacked the same political rights as men.  Some were genuinely troubled by these contradictions, although others probably would have tried to explain them away.  Critically however, they in no way tried to preserve those contradictions within the Declaration itself--or within the founding documents that followed it.  The articles of Confederation, our first national constitution, included a provision giving all citizens of any member state the privileges and immunities of any state to which they migrated.  Delegates from South Carolina proposed to insert the word "white" between "all" and citizens."  That provision was voted down.  In the  same way, the Constitution not only took great care not to mention, and thereby sanction, slavery explicitly within its text, but it did not even use the word "man."  "Person" was the founders' word for the citizens of their new nation.  Slavery, they knew very well, existed within certain states in 1787, but many of them hoped to see it disappear, and most of them did not want explicitly to make it part of the new Republic.  That was why slaves could, and did, sue successfully for their freedom if their masters brought them into free states from 1789 all the way up to the Dred Scott decision in 1857, when Taney overruled all these precedents.  That in turn set off the Civil War four years later, because the North would not accept slavery as a national and permanent feature of the Republic.

No one, of any ethnicity of sex, could claim equal rights under the law until some one had defined the concept and written it into fundamental law.   We would not be better off today had we delayed putting that idea into fundamental law until we were ready to give it equally to every one of us.  As it was, those words have inspired subsequent generations of those originally left out to secure those rights, and they have done so.  Last week, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argued that we erect monuments to men like Washington and Jefferson not to commemorate them personally as human beings, but to thank them for the ideas and institutions they left to us.  I agree.

And thus I return once again, as I have in previous years, to another text from Jefferson, perhaps the very last letter that he ever wrote.  It was the spring of 1826, and he (like John Adams) had only one ambition left: to live to the 50th anniversary of the Declaration.  They received invitations to attend a commemoration in Washington, which Jefferson declined for reasons of health.  This is what he said.

The kind invitation I receive from you on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration of the 50th. anniversary of American independence; as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. It adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day. but acquiescence is a duty, under circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to control. I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view. the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them."

The founders and their immediate descendants also knew very well that avarice and ambition had destroyed Republics in earlier ages, and they counted on a calm, reasoned and virtuous population to maintain ours intact.  They would not have been surprised, I think, to find nearly 250 years later that we have waged a continual battle to establish the precise meaning of their words and to extend many rights in light of cultural change.  We have come as far as we have, I think, because of the foundation which they laid.  Without it, we shall sink into despotism, tribalism, and ignorance.  We have always fallen well short of perfection and we always will--but no other nation has a better foundation on which to build.


Energyflow said...

It seems that our cultural basis is running out of steam. Decline has set in predictably enough and our belief in linear progress does not fit natural reality. To survive we must likely come to some level of consumption and population size which is sustainable as well as erecting a system which will permanetly fix these limits, like feudalism or caste system. Along with that an autarch isolationist country is likely, similar to Japan, China or Russia earlier. The constitutuion was a fantasy. Industrialization enabled growth in US population from several million 250 years ago and per capita consumption at a similar rate meaning total resource consumption of 10,000 times. Since per capita consumption slowed down and broke the gold standard in '71 we have lived off ever more debt. Now the system is breaking. Population will decline and consumption as the people go insane insisting on more and more rights. They are just following in the Founder's footsteps. A decadent culture lets us focus on our wants, desires like a small spoiled child. Nature is not required to fulfill those needs. A descent into madness and civil war seems preprogrammed due to lack of perspective on historical, ecological realities. If everyone demanding something were able to simply see another cultural perspective for a while, extreme poverty in 3rd world, desperation of endangered species living on the edge or by a tome machine another historical era they would awake from their dream before they continue with their madness driving off the cliff to certain death. I have little hope for that. We must just await the outcome. In 5 years perhaps the boomer prophets will be gone and the young hero generation will have torn down the statues, wasted their youth in hatred and bloodshed and be exhausted and wiser. If my generation in typical manner can attempt to maneuver the whole crisis successfully out of madness to a safe landing we may hope for least damage to ship of state.

Bozon said...


While I disagree with much here, much else also, I agree, has now come to pass, both here and now unfortunately also in global discourse.

Unfortunately, it will not be a large, cultural, civilizational, topic on which the West will, in general, be able to see or to prove itself, by continuing to grapple with it globally, as having been somehow vindicated.

Thank you for putting so synoptic, alarming, disturbing, hopeful, and arresting an account together today.

All the best

Energyflow said...

you might want to read this and the book he mentions. Certainly revises my view of the revolution.

Pmathews1939 said...

Thank you, David.

From Patricia Mathews

Wes Volkenant said...

Energyflow - thanks for sucking the air out of the holiday weekend. I don't know your history, but I know that you're reading a bunch of nonsensical twaddle from this Gary North dude, which you don't have to dump on us mainstream types. I visited North's distorted sense of American history, and I looked at biographical notes about him and his works. A paleolibertarian - that's a helluva description, who puts a Biblical twist on our American history... hmmm. No thanks, Energyflow. Thanks for playing.

I'll go back to the point-of-view I came here for, from David Kaiser, a trained and experienced historian.

I spent the weekend bemoaning the current resident of the White House and how he kowtows to his rabid followers with the Garden of Heroes proposal, mixed in with lie after lie of more campaign speeches wrapped in the dressing of honoring the Nation's Fourth of July.

I didn't celebrate the Mount Rushmore or Capitol Fourth evenings. Between the coronavirus, the daily racial unrest and protests against the blind eyes turned on the nation's ills, and the deep political divide with four months to go to Election Day, it felt hard to be celebratory.

But, one can also appreciate the steadfastness of believing we can overcome all of this, if we rest on the foundations that have brought us here. And for that, I thank Professor Kaiser for his writing this holiday weekend.