Sunday, July 03, 2011

Independence Day

The Fourth of July is my favorite holiday. I love the picnics and fireworks, the parades and marching bands-- but what I love most are the words of the day; the words of Jefferson and Paine, of the founding documents and the passionate speeches.

English is the mother tongue of democracy and no better political prose has ever been written. It’s muscular, direct, clear. It appeals to the mind as well as the heart and it expresses what we are as a nation. When we fall short of its ideals it reminds us what we ought to be.

The movements to deconstruct and reconstruct American history, to reveal the hidden hypocrisies at the heart of the nation’s founding, have tempted some into an attitude of world-weary dismissal of those ideals.

But imperfect men may yet have perfect thoughts, and slave owners may recognize the moral imperative of the rights of man.

On the morning of July 4th I’ll take my coffee out on the patio and read the Declaration of Independence.

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.

These truths are the axioms of our political geometry. The assertion of them is not a scientific proposition, nor the deduction from some simpler or more evident truths. They are the bedrock on which we build a government. They are the commandments of a political faith.

Although all men have these rights, in a material and imperfect world they must be secured to us.

… to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

The preamble to the Constitution echoes the theme. The Constitution is written to… establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

Democratic government is not a burden, it is the condition of our liberty. Without it, as Thomas Hobbes earlier observed, we live in a state described as “the war of all against all” and lead lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Government cannot be left simply in the hands of others, as Thomas Paine reminded his fellow citizens in “The Crisis” (December 1776).

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of men and women.

Not every crisis that our nation faces has the chilling dimensions of that winter in Valley Forge. Some may be purely local, springing up only in our own moral neighborhoods so to speak, but each to some degree requires that we shoulder the responsibility for protecting our fellow citizens’ unalienable rights, and promoting the general welfare.

To fail in this is to be no more than summer soldiers, espousing the right but not defending it.

Circling the interior of the rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial is the following quotation.

I am quoting it from memory, and perhaps I have some single word wrong, but if I do, so be it.

I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

This is the great commandment of our political faith. Of course it implies freedom of speech, the press, expression… because a truth thought but not expressed is nothing.

There are other forms that tyranny over the mind can take, subtle, elusive, not always recognized for what they are: Hunger, prejudice and bigotry, poverty, the closing off of access to knowledge, the simple refusal to listen…all of these may stunt or cripple the mind by denying it the conditions to develop fully.

Finally, it is good to keep in mind that we are a country born of revolution.

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure. .( Jefferson.)

As a nation we might well remember this and take a more understanding and supportive view of other people’s revolutions.

Have a great Fourth of July.

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