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Sunday, July 4, 2010

Reflections on The Declaration of Independence: July 4, 2010

Two hundred forty two years ago, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence of the Colonies from Great Britain.  This document has provided generations of Americans and people all over the world an elegant, relatively short, explanation of why one people sought "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" through the formation of a new nation.  A few thoughts are offered today as we seek to sustain our Founders' dream for ourselves and our offspring.

Self-Evident Truths
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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, 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, and Madison, to the extent he contributed to the text, proposed a theological foundation for their political act.

Divine fiat had created all people equal before God. Every person on the earth was granted equally Jefferson's, nay, God-granted inalienable rights to live, to live free, and, within the context of that freedom, to make choices as to how best to life so as to achieve their happiness. Jefferson proposed human nature and its purposes, created by God, as anthropological drivers leading to the political necessities for breaking with Great Britain.

The Revolutionary Idea In Historical Context

This was a revolutionary idea, and opposed to centuries of political theory. Throughout the medieval period, kings had ruled over their subjects by "divine right." In the New Testament, in St. Paul's Book of Romans, chapter thirteen, verses 1-8, Christians had been told that existing government were by divine fiat. Caesar had been appointed by God to rule over his subjects "for their good" and, on that basis, was not to be feared but obeyed.

Over the next centuries, kings and queens used Romans 13 to justify their rule over all others. Despots and tyrants did not administrate for the good of millions. Those at the top of the pyramid used the labor of their peoples and all natural resources for their own enrichment and power. Christian bishops and clergy typically were allies of the political elite, though some preached against abuses of power. Most preached that kings and queens had a "divine right" given to them to rule.

According to this pernicious notion, when citizens submitted to the whims of the existing regime, they were submitting to the God who ordained it.  Hobbes's Leviathan was the classic exposition of this idea in political theory.  Divine right was a curse on Europe and, from the French Revolution on through later secular dictatorships.  How perilous to civil society when religious ideology justifies passivity and quietude against injustice, or actively prosecutes or enables such horrors as genocide.  We have analogies for both in many nations, all over the world, including our own.  The "divine right" doctrine has slain millions, garbed in religion or secular patriotism.

By the time Jefferson wrote, the history of nations had proven how rulers, once in power, often had no thought either of their duty to a just and good God or of their duties to rule people "for their good," as St. Paul had written. Now Jefferson was an unorthodox Christian, if he could be called a Christian at all. He was a Deist who, as the Declaration makes clear, believed in "Nature's God"--the God revealed in the "Laws of Nature and not by the sectarian interests of the warring religions.

Jefferson admired Jesus, but he literally took scissors and cut out all the miraculous stories about him, and placed Jesus' moral teachings to be read as guides for conduct. This was "Jefferson's Bible," and I have a copy of it, obtained from Monticello's bookstore.

While Jefferson was a Deist, his statement of the "inalienable rights" given by God could be said to be appropriated from the Book of Genesis, chapters 1-2. There the primordial human parents were given life, were free, and were allowed to choose how they would use that freedom, within the framework of God's single command on what they were not to do: eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

It might be said, though Jefferson was not doing this, the Declaration's inalienable rights also had some foundation in St. Paul's statement in the Book of Galatians, chapter 3, verse 28, that in Jesus Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female." All human distinctions were dissolved in the new theological regime. All were equal before God.

In any case, Jefferson's inalienable rights were revolutionary for their time, and for today. We now have the biological facts of human equality stated affirmatively through our knowledge of the humane genome. That in itself provides a scientific basis for asserting human beings are created equal, that all by nature are free, and that all desire happiness.

Jefferson's Authority For and Purposes of Governments:
Causes for the Declaration

Governments derived their authority from the "consent of the governed," not God, according to the signers of the Declaration.  Their purposes were to "secure safety and happiness" for the governed.  Governments never were to be changed for "light and transient causes."  People tended to endure unjust governments as long they could stand them, Jefferson wrote.  Yet, under certain conditions, the governed would rebel and overthrow what became intolerable.  When...
a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Jefferson and his comrades then listed their grievances against King George and his policies.  Readers curious to know the principal complaints of our forefathers should read the entire list.  The signers of the Declaration claimed they had repeatedly had appealed to dear ears.  They were driven to declare severance from British rule because their past government, they wrote, had failed to preserve their safety and happiness.

They knew what they were doing.  They knew their Declaration only could be considered seditious and treasonable.  Their last line read, "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."  Benjamin Franklin said, "Gentlemen, we must all hang together or we all will hang separately."

The American rebellion was based, first, on a harmful government unwilling to redress wrongs for right.  Had Britain listened and shown willingness to reform, the Declaration never would have been written.  Yet its refusal to hear and change pressured the Founders to reassert what was divinely given, their lives, freedom, and search for happiness secured by a government of their own making and consent.

The Declaration in American History

The words of the Declaration have inspired many groups of Americans through later centuries to rebel against U.S. federal laws that did not, in their united opinions, provide for their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Because the government did not secure "safety and happiness," these worked to overthrow the yoke of oppressive rule.

President Washington, who was a master distiller enriched by keeping his Revolutionary troops stocked with rum, sent federal troops to Pennsylvania to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. Independent distillers refused to pay the federal tax as "taxation without representation," a Revolutionary grievance. Washington sent those troops knowing he had self-interest at stake, as well as the federal law on taxation on his side.

The Confederate States' Congressmen appealed to The Declaration as a warrant for their secession from the Union. They argued that slavery, which always had been legal in most states, was a matter of "states' rights" and the consent of the governed in those states. Lincoln did not run for the Presidency to abolish slavery, but to limit its spread. Yet when the Confederate States left the Union, they declared themselves seditious and rebellious to federal authority under the U.S. Constitution.

The war would be won and the Union restored, but it would be exactly 100 years before the freed slaves' great-grandchildren would be assured the right to vote.  And the residuum of racism yet lives among some whites today, who would deny life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to people possessing more melanin than them.

Not too many years later, coal miners and railroad workers united to oppose labor abuses. Companies virtually owned them and their families. They lived in company homes, were forced to buy from company stores. Men were worked more like abused draft horses than fellow Americans. And when they were maimed or killed, their wives and children were put out to starve on their own. Federal troops were called out to quell these "seditious and rebellious" acts, as they were called.

The words of the Declaration inspired hundreds of thousands, and finally, millions of workers seeking life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Like Britain a hundred years before, Washington did not listen for a long time. In fact, listening to the vest interests of the company owners and their money, federal troops were called out to suppress and kill fellow Americans engaged in what some called "seditious and rebellious acts." I have been to Matewan, West Virginia, and seen where one gun battle occurred.

Nevertheless, when the leaders in Washington DC finally realized that their choice either was changes in federal law or domestic violence, U.S. labor laws were passed. Any protections today for labor against harmful corporations are owed to those brave men and women who lost their lives and jobs to assert their "inalienable rights."

It seems incredible to us now, from our point in time, that half of the U.S. population, women, should have been denied the right to vote. Yet the Suffrage Movement also appealed to the Declaration as millions of women peacefully but powerfully wrote, spoke, demonstrated, and worked for change. What a blemish on the national story that men on horses, men with truncheons, men with handcuffs and prisons, opposed the race that gave them life and tenderness--their mothers--which also gave life to their children--their wives.

Once again, federal troops, allied with state and local law enforcement, opposed the right of women to vote. What had begun with Frances Wright in 1826, among others, finally came to fruition only in 1920 with the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Right to the end, some men fought that. Not all states ratified it, only 36. Kentucky was Number 23 in the original group. Mississippi was the last, in 1984. That's right. Look for yourself at the list of sorry states who respected and loved women so little for so long.

If readers will go deep into our national story, they will see that whatever noble and true words were written in 1776, it has required a series of brave patriots to rebel against unjust government--even our own--to work for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Even today, Jefferson's "inalienable rights" still elude millions across our land.

The Declaration in Our Present Time

Let us remember Jefferson's primary cause for breaking away from Britain: its refusal to listen to grievances, and unjust exploitations of those it ruled in the Colonies. He noted how people by nature are willing to endure injustice, until the burden becomes unbearable, and pain motivates the move towards rebellion and insurrection.

Just today, I heard my preacher, the Rev. Peter H. Whelan, of St. James Episcopal Church in Shelbyville, say, speaking within the context of the American Revolution, "Treason, if successful, is never known by that name." Throughout American history, groups seeking political and social reforms who were successful have gone down as heroes and heroines, but those who failed by other names, none good.

I think my first exposure to first-hand knowledge of American justice gone wrong was when I read the transcript of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial in 1920. I owe my English teacher at the University of Kentucky thanks for being required to write a paper on that transcript. Anyone reading the primary documents will be shocked by the legal process through which both men finally were executed. American history calls these men "anarchists and murderers" but, if they were, they surely did not enjoy the freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution ratified in 1787.

Today there are millions of Americans who feel alienated and distrustful of their federal government. There are too many who believe Washington does not listen nor cares to hear their lists of grievances. They are too many who believe Washington desires only their taxes and submission to the elite who seem to hold sway among the elected who seek re-election and self-interest.

There is a TEA ("Taxed Enough Already") Party gaining attention. Most of the Americans in this coalition appear to be conservative Republicans who believe their elected party leaders are not conservative enough. The TEA Party also uses some language drawn from The Declaration and the Revolutionary War for some of its rhetoric. Some call for the overthrow of the existing government, and a new one formed to "secure safety and happiness." All cry out against "taxation without representation" and new laws that allow We the People to keep their money for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet. But I am a historian. And on this day where we remember that first July 4, 1776, I have grave concerns for the future of our country.

Millions now swim in a tide of rising debts threatening to drown their American Dream, now the American Nightmare. Millions already are stripped bare of possessions and are on their own, on the plains of desperation, feeling the icy wind of Poverty freezing their hopes for help. Millions have seen trillions poured into the pockets of corporations, insurance companies, and banks, and for foreign wars where pallets of American cash were passed out to buy the temporary loyalty from anti-American war lords.

Unless the people in Washington are willing to do what Jefferson and the signers of The Declaration did--risk their lives and fortunes for America--history suggests that unrelieved suffering will produce again patriots seeking redress by whatever means at their disposal, if the government will not listen.

What we need now is a Declaration of Interdependence, for independent self-interest has nearly pillaged our land. I pray for patriots who love America, who will seek to avert violence, and work for just solutions to our current crises. AMEN

1 comment:

Blaine Donais LL.B., LL.M., C.Med., WFA said...

Thank you for this John. It is good to see people with ethics and principles step out into the world and offer a better approach to leading our lives than the simple dog eat dog approach we have seen in our societies for so long. Cheers to you and keep up the good work.