What Are We Celebrating? Thoughts on the Fourth

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On July 4, Americans celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration sets forth the principles of liberty and limited government upon which a new nation was founded.

How many people actually celebrate the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth? How many know the following words, or even agree with their political sentiments any more:

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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 shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But 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.

Notice that the Declaration declares that overthrowing a tyrannical government is not only a right — it is a duty.

In that regard, on July 3, 1997, libertarian columnist par excellence Vin Suprynowicz related the following tale:

Recently, President Clinton’s then-Drug Czar, Lee Brown, told me the role of government is to protect people from dangers, such as drugs. I corrected him, saying, “No, the role of government is to protect our liberties.”

“We’ll just have to disagree on that,” the president’s appointee said.

As Suprynowicz continues,

The War for American Independence began over unregistered untaxed guns, when British forces attempted to seize arsenals of rifles, powder, and ball from the hands of ill-organized Patriot militias in Lexington and Concord. American civilians shot and killed scores of those government agents as they marched back to Boston. Are those Minutemen still our heroes? Or do we now consider them “dangerous terrorists” and “depraved government-haters”?

You know the answer to that question: many of those living today, in particular those who voted for Clinton and Gore, and who cheered the Commie Mommie March, would have been Tories back in the day — willfully helping the British to put down a rebellion, and turning Thomas Jefferson over to be executed.

Consider the reigning American view of gun control: although most Americans appear to believe in the individual right to keep and bear arms, most unthinkingly assent to the idea that the government is somehow empowered to regulate which arms can be owned.

In other words, assuming that you have the right to keep and bear arms, most today think that the government gets to decide what you have the right to keep and bear.

But of course, if the government decides what you can own, then you don’t really have a right to keep and bear arms at all. You have permission from the state, which is the exact opposite of a right.

The purpose of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, and the related state constitutional provisions — such as Article I, Section 21 of the Pennsylvania Constitution — is to guarantee the individual right to keep and bear arms.

There are those who claim that the Second Amendment guarantees a right to the states. This is utterly wrong for three reasons. First, the amendment refers to “the people,” and not to “the states,” in a document which makes repeated — and purposeful — usage of both terms. Second, the amendment is the second in a group of ten amendments — known as the Bill of Rights — which sets forth a non-exclusive list of individual rights which the federal government is powerless to violate. Third, even if one assumes for the sake of argument that the Second Amendment gives states the right to have a militia, this interpretation is logically destroyed by a reading of the various state constitutions — like the Pennsylvania Constitution — which explicitly recognize an individual right to keep and bear arms.

Article I, Section 21 of the Pennsylvania Constitution provides that “The right of the citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the State shall not be questioned.” Notice that this constitutional provision does not so much as use the term “militia.”

And by the way, Senator Kennedy — yes, you, the blowhard who grilled John Ashcroft for daring to suggest that the right to keep and bear arms was a check on tyranny — consider the words of a couple of right-wing wackos: James Madison and Alexander Hamilton (click here for The Federalist Papers — searchable, no less! on line at the Yale University Law School Avalon Project).

In Federalist No. 46, James Madison writes:

Let a regular army, fully equal to the resources of the country, be formed; and let it be entirely at the devotion of the federal government; still it would not be going too far to say, that the State governments, with the people on their side, would be able to repel the danger. The highest number to which, according to the best computation, a standing army can be carried in any country, does not exceed one hundredth part of the whole number of souls; or one twenty-fifth part of the number able to bear arms. This proportion would not yield, in the United States, an army of more than twenty-five or thirty thousand men. To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence. It may well be doubted, whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops. Those who are best acquainted with the last successful resistance of this country against the British arms, will be most inclined to deny the possibility of it. Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.

A few questions. First, what country today is “afraid to trust the people with arms,” and has a military establishment “as far as the public resources will bear”? Hmm. Certainly not the USA.

Second, note that Madison holds up an armed citizenry as a check on government tyranny. That dirty Founding Father, Madison, dared to think that some saintly servant — like Ted Kennedy — might ever get carried away and become tyrannical. Of course, Madison is thus evil, and we should perhaps outlaw the study of the Federalist Papers in school.

Third, note that Madison envisions private citizens — and their guns, Mr. Bellesiles — defeating the US Army. Would that be possible today, where the government makes it illegal for anyone but governments to own the most sophisticated weaponry? Lexington and Concord were one thing, with muskets in British and colonial hands. But a new Lexington and Concord might not turn out so well for the forces of liberty, with bolt actions and semi-automatics in the hands of the citizens, and an array of fully automatic weapons — and then some — in the hands of the State. (In this regard, see Vin Suprynowicz’ article “But which arms do we have the right to ‘keep and bear’?” )

By the way, notice that James Madison was wrong in at least one respect in Federalist No. 46. In trying to reassure those who wanted to retain the Articles of Confederation, and who saw in the Constitution the blueprint for a federal monster that would devour the sovereign states, Madison attempts to sell these so-called “Anti-Federalists” (men like Sam Adams, George Mason, and Patrick Henry) by writing that

The only refuge left for those who prophesy the downfall of the State governments is the visionary supposition that the federal government may previously accumulate a military force for the projects of ambition. The reasonings contained in these papers must have been employed to little purpose indeed, if it could be necessary now to disprove the reality of this danger. That the people and the States should, for a sufficient period of time, elect an uninterrupted succession of men ready to betray both; that the traitors should, throughout this period, uniformly and systematically pursue some fixed plan for the extension of the military establishment; that the governments and the people of the States should silently and patiently behold the gathering storm, and continue to supply the materials, until it should be prepared to burst on their own heads, must appear to every one more like the incoherent dreams of a delirious jealousy, or the misjudged exaggerations of a counterfeit zeal, than like the sober apprehensions of genuine patriotism.

It is at this point that Madison adds the section previously quoted — the section where he mentions that an armed citizenry can never be enslaved by a tyrannical government.

And as for the idea that the federal government, with the consent of the people, could accumulate an army sufficient to defeat the states on the battlefield, how ridiculous.

Notice that Madison mentions that for such an event to happen — a Federal army defeating the armies of the states on the battlefield — the politicians in office would have to be “ready to betray both…the people and the States.” Madison calls such men “traitors.”

What kind of idiots, Madison wonders, would build up a Federal army “until it should be prepared to burst on their own heads”? Madison says that such an idea is “delirious jealousy” and “the misjudged exaggerations of a counterfeit zeal,” rather than “the sober apprehensions of genuine patriotism.”

In other words, Madison paints the opponents of the Constitution as “counterfeit” zealots in defense of liberty. They are “delirious” and “dreaming,” if not drunk (the opposite of “sober apprehensions of genuine patriotism”).

As Madison concluded,

On summing up the considerations stated in this and the last paper, they seem to amount to the most convincing evidence, that the powers proposed to be lodged in the federal government are as little formidable to those reserved to the individual States, as they are indispensably necessary to accomplish the purposes of the Union; and that all those alarms which have been sounded, of a meditated and consequential annihilation of the State governments, must, on the most favorable interpretation, be ascribed to the chimerical fears of the authors of them.

Sign on the dotted line! The new federal government will be strictly limited to the powers it needs to do its job — that’s all! If you don’t like it, you can return it in 30 days for a full refund, no questions asked. Anyone who says otherwise is just crazy. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist No. 28, makes much the same points as Madison. Propounding on the virtues of a standing Federal army (hey, you might need it to crush a rebellion!), Hamilton writes,

When will the time arrive that the federal government can raise and maintain an army capable of erecting a despotism over the great body of the people of an immense empire, who are in a situation, through the medium of their State governments, to take measures for their own defense, with all the celerity, regularity, and system of independent nations? The apprehension may be considered as a disease, for which there can be found no cure in the resources of argument and reasoning.

No Federal army could ever defeat the states! It might put down unjustified rebellions, but it could never be a tool of tyranny. The states are like “independent nations,” notes Hamilton, and able to raise armies to defend themselves. As Hamilton also writes in Federalist No. 28,

If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no resource left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government, and which against the usurpations of the national rulers, may be exerted with infinitely better prospect of success than against those of the rulers of an individual state. In a single state, if the persons intrusted with supreme power become usurpers, the different parcels, subdivisions, or districts of which it consists, having no distinct government in each, can take no regular measures for defense. The citizens must rush tumultuously to arms, without concert, without system, without resource; except in their courage and despair. The usurpers, clothed with the forms of legal authority, can too often crush the opposition in embryo.

In other words, if the federal government were to become tyrannical, the people would exercise their “right of self-defense,” and “rush tumultuously to arms.” And besides — no usurper would ever be able to convince everyone that he hadn’t really usurped power. How silly!

Hamilton also noted that the territory of the states was too large for any Federal army to conquer:

The great extent of the country is a further security. We have already experienced its utility against the attacks of a foreign power. And it would have precisely the same effect against the enterprises of ambitious rulers in the national councils. If the federal army should be able to quell the resistance of one State, the distant States would have it in their power to make head with fresh forces.

Say, did they have transcontinental railroads in Hamilton’s time? Steamships? Hmm. How about stealth fighters and nuclear weapons?

Madison and Hamilton were wrong. Utterly, horribly, terribly wrong.

On July 4, 1863, the city of Vicksburg fell. It fell to armies controlled by a man who some scholars still claim “defended” the Constitution. He had to suspend and violate the Constitution in order to save it, don’t you see? It’s what makes him great.

(As an aside, David McCullough, in his recent book on John Adams, gives the same excuses for President John Adams’ nullification of the First Amendment, via the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 , which criminalized opposition political speech. There was a war going on! Doesn’t everybody suspend the Constitution during a war? So what if Adams imprisoned a bunch of newspaper writers and editors? See if McCullough would say the same thing were he thrown in jail for his writings.)

Never mind that some of the states, such as Virginia, only took up arms in defense of the “guarantees” of the Constitution (is the Constitution covered by the Lemon Law?), after the “great leader” had raised troops to invade other states — states which had the audacity to have claimed their independence, this time from Washington, DC, rather than from England. The great leader, you see, knew that the Union was akin to what the Eagles call the Hotel California (“you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave”).

July 4, 1776 to July 4, 1863. Not very long for an experiment in limited government to last. Of course, the limitations on the powers of the federal government had been removed long before the fall of Vicksburg.

The historian and novelist Shelby Foote notes that the Fourth of July was not celebrated in Mississippi when he was a boy. The Fourth was the day when Vicksburg fell.

Perhaps you’ve heard of a Federal army that defeated the states. No, that would be silly. Listen to Hamilton and Madison. Trust your government. It could never happen.

But of course, Hamilton and Madison told people to “trust the government” precisely because the people were armed, and could supposedly defeat a federal government army in battle. Today, the politicians and the media tell you “You don’t need to own a gun. If you do own a gun, let the government tell you what guns you are allowed to own. Are you crazy? No one should be afraid of the government.”

Happy Fourth of July.

Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2001 David Dieteman

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