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Happy Fourth of July!
July 1, 2011 - Stephen Browne
"America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just." G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) "What I Saw in America"
Sometimes it takes a stranger to tell you things about yourself you don't notice, anymore than a fish notices the water. Chesterton was one of those foreigners who visited our country and told us things about ourselves we might never have thought of.
Another was a French aristocrat on a tour of America, whose justification I believe was originally to study our prison system, though nobody remembers that anymore. What they remember is what Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) saw in America, and he saw very deeply indeed.
Tocqueville saw the virtues of America, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
But he also saw the flaws in our country that might yet destroy us as a nation.
There is a story that de Tocqueville had an "American moment" after sitting in on a New England town hall meeting. What he saw was not inspiring, not at first. The subjects discussed were mundane, the kind of stuff I write about every week. There was a lot of bickering, and the usual contributions from people who have to have their say, whether they have anything to say or not.
The story goes that de Tocqueville went back to his boarding house and wrote an entry in his journal full of Gallic scorn for these American rubes.
That night he awoke, sat bolt upright in his bed and exclaimed, "Mon Dieu! They are governing themselves!"
That by the way, is why after living abroad continuously for nearly 14 years, I find covering local government interesting, enlightening, and even inspiring.
This day is the birthday of our country. Many countries have an official day that marks in some way their beginnings as a nation. In many European countries it is the day of their patron saint. In some it commemorates a monarch who first united their country. In Great Britain their nearest equivalents are the reigning monarch's official birthday, or the day that commemorates the execution of a group of Catholics engaged in a sectarian conflict that now seems incomprehensible. In Poland there is a national holiday, November 11 - but in 13 years residence there nobody could explain to me exactly what happened on that day.
Our nation's birthday commemorates the formal signing of a document, the Declaration of Independence. That makes Americans almost unique among the worlds' peoples. There are perhaps two other groups of people in the world whose identity is defined by a body of literature. The Jews define themselves by their relationship to Torah and Tanach, and a body of scholarship surrounding them. Icelanders identify with a body of literature written in the first few centuries after the settlement of their land, the Sagas.
The American literary canon is not as well defined. The Constitution of course. Tom Paine's "Common Sense" certainly. The Federalist, which might be called the operating manual of the Constitution. The canon probably ends with Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and the Gettysburg Address. It might include the anti-Federalist papers, the arguments against the ratification of the Constitution, which ultimately led to the compromise we call The Bill of Rights. It might even include an awful lot of obscure pamphlets circulated in the 50 years leading up to the Revolution, which were only recently rediscovered by historians.
But the Declaration is the centerpiece and summation of it all, for reasons we have largely forgotten.
"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."
We have forgotten the effect these words had on the world when they became known. They terrified the rulers the ancient autocracies of Europe - and rightly so. This was dynamite laid in the foundations of every tyranny on earth. They denied the legitimacy of any government not founded on respect for the dignity and worth of the individual, and proclaimed the right of individuals to rebel against tyranny.
This is why Margaret Thatcher remarked, "Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy."
And this is why Thomas Jefferson, in the last letter he wrote before his death, spoke of "the bold and doubtful" experiment his country was engaged in.
"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." Letter to Roger Weightman, Monticello June 24, 1826
Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, just hours before John Adams his old friend, bitter enemy, and at the last close friend again.
Adams' last words were, "Thomas Jefferson survives!" and he was wrong. Or perhaps not, in the fullness of time we shall see.
Jefferson's last words were, "Is it the Fourth yet?"
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