Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

July 4, 2006

July 4, 1776

by Doug Mataconis

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Two Hundred Thirty years ago today, the Second Continental Congress formally approved what undoutably ranks as one of the greatest revolutionary political documents of all time, the Declaration of Independence. It was, when you think about it, an audacious act. The fifty-six men who signed that document were taking on the most powerful nation on Earth and, at the time, the most powerful Empire the world had ever known. Some might have called them fools. Had they failed, they would have been called traitors and hung from a tree. Today, we call them patriots.

America is unique among nations. For the first time in history, a nation was founded based on not conquest, or clan, or royal blood, or heavenly decree, but on an idea. And what an idea it was:

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.

Human equality. Human freedom. Self-Government. And the right, some would say the duty, to overthrow a despot when those rights are violated. At the time, no other nation on Earth had even come close to upholding these ideas. While the United States was far from perfect itself — especially with regard to the treatment of blacks and women — it came close to that ideal than any other before or sense. And, because of its philosophical underpinnings, the contradictions that existed —- slavery being the most notable — were just that, contradictions that, eventually, would have to be corrected if America was to remain the nation she strived to be.

Once the American Revolution succeeded, the ideas that powered it spread across the world. To France, where they contributed to the downfall of a monarchy that had its roots in Charlemagne. And even to Mother England. Those ideas have continued to spread and inspire people from Eastern Europe to China (who can forget the statute of the Goddess of Freedom in Tiananmen Square, looking so much like our own Statute of Liberty ?). Today, if a despotic regime wish to keep those ideas from gaining hold among its population, it must effectively cut itself off from the rest of the world.

So, where does Amerrica stand after 230 years ? More importantly, what is the state of liberty ?

There is much to worry about. The modern American is far larger and far more intrusive than King George ever was. What’s worse, it often seems like a large part of the American populace doesn’t care about the continued loss of liberty at home, as long as the economy keeps booming and there’s something entertaining to watch on television. Breads and circuses some would call it.

At the same time, there is cause for optimism. The near universal revulsion at last year’s Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. New London showed me that, at heart, Americans guard their freedom jealously. But you can’t just react when something bad happens, the fight for freedom continues on a daily basis. And, as usual, Thomas Jefferson said it best himself:

“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

It does no good to speak up only when the grave threats to freedom become apparent, by then its usually too late.

But enough of that for now. Its the 4th of July, and, as another patriot, John Adams, wrote, its time to celebrate:

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Cross-Posted at Below The Beltway

Others marking the holiday: Jay Tea@Wizbang, Laurie Byrd@Wizbang , Michelle Malkin, Chris@The Liberty Papers, Outside The Beltway, The Indepundit

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  • VRB

    Slavery was more than a contradiction.

  • Eric

    Slavery was more than a contradiction, it was something that affected millions of people, black and white, and distorted American politics for all time. It could be argued that slavery, and failing to deal with it in a timely fashion, prevented the American experiment from reaching a greater potential than it did. On the other hand, it can be argued that dealing with slavery early on would have split the fragile Republic and ended the great experiment before it was truly begun.

    The reality is that the men dealing with creating an American Republic, a constitution and a government were treading ground never dealt with before, dealing with issues not imagined before. That they built something that stood the test of time as well as it did, enabled black slaves to eventually gain their freedom (and civil rights later), women to gain suffrage, and so on, is a testament to what those men accomplished. That it took so long for much of that to happen is a testament to the path the took, and not a good one.

    The point of my ramblings? That, for all the criticisms we can make from hindsight, the real question is, could we have done as well, let alone better?

  • http://unrepentantindividual.com/ Brad Warbiany

    Check out The Rough Draft of the Declaration. Jefferson (despite being a slaveowner) wanted to put in language condemning slavery. This was a major issue at the time, and they understood the contradiction of declaring every man equal with the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, all the while taking the liberty away from slaves.

    Was it right that they didn’t take that time to end slavery? No. But as Eric points out, is it possible that we would never have succeeded otherwise?

  • http://www.belowthebeltway.com Doug Mataconis

    I called slavery a contradiction principally because it stands in direct contradiction to the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence. I certainly didn’t mean to undermine its inherent evil.

    That said, Eric has an excellent point. In all likelihood, a confrontation over slavery in 1776, or 1787 when the Constitution was drafted, would have split the colonies. Instead of a united nation on the coast of the Atlantic, we would have been left with at best two or more separate weak confederations or, at worst, 13 weak independent states. Either alternative would have been ripe pickings for any number of European powers.

  • VRB

    I admire the ideas of the Declaration of Independence, I wish they would have been meant for my ancestors. Over 200 years of slavery an another 80 years of Jim Crow. I just could not stand to read slavery as a contradiction as if it was some small nusance to over come. Read some slave narratives and see how they yearned for freedom and the pain they endured. The slave paid the price for your freedom and their backs provided the economic engine to push this country toward greatness.
    I had read James Madison’s notes on the debate regarding slavery at the Constitutional Convention. I do understand the compromise and basically if Nergroes had not been catagorize as slave making entities, they would have continued to have importation of slaves. I still think the founding fathers made a pact with the Devil. The impact of slavery is still with us. To most that impact is ignored. In ways that are not easily describable, it has impacted me and my son. I lived a part of my life under Jim Crow. What was that excuse to allow Jim Crow?

  • http://www.belowthebeltway.com Doug Mataconis

    VRB,

    When I say slavery was a contradiction, I don’t mean to say that it was a nuisance. It was fundamentally at odds with the ideals that the founders were basing the country on. So was Jim Crow. Until those contradictions were dealt with, the nation really couldn’t be said to be living in line with the vision the founds had established.

    The fact that slavery was allowed to continue after 1776 and 1787 was abhorrent. But, the people forming the nation were dealing with reality as best they could. Could they have done better, certainly. If they had failed, though, I think all of us would’ve been worse off.

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