How do you imagine present day Americans would have responded to the events of July 4th, 1776, and the years immediately preceding and following, had they occurred today? I shall take literary license and do what most Americans have already been taught to do, namely, compress this time period into one continuous event. Contrary to widespread opinion, the drafters of the Declaration of Independence did not — upon completing this wonderful statement on behalf of human liberty — sit down and draft the Constitution! The latter occurred in 1787. The Declaration was only a statement of philosophic principles, neither establishing — nor professing to establish — a new state apparatus. In the true Lockean spirit in which it was fashioned, it purported to bind none other than the draftsmen themselves, mutually pledging "to each other, our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."
What a remarkable act, and how alien to the mindset of most Americans today who, if they had a grievance would draft a constitutional amendment, or a piece of proposed legislation to be maneuvered through Congress. The modern approach to political grievances is to grovel before state officials and beg for leniency or, perhaps, a "new deal" of the deck of cards which they imagine fate has dealt them. But the Declaration spoke not to kings and prime ministers, but to the spirit of humanity itself, an audience no longer patronized by the practitioners of Realpolitik. It was a challenge to state authority, not an appeal, that underlay their efforts.
The thinking of such people as Jefferson, Sam and John Adams, John Hancock, and Franklin rarely informs political discussions anymore. These were genuine renaissance men — an architect, a publisher as well as scientist and inventor, farmers, men of commerce, writers, philosophers — whose visions far exceeded the crassness with which we are more familiar in Washington: the Johnsons, Nixons, and Bushes, along with their hirelings: the Kissingers, Albrights, McNamaras, Renos, Rumsfelds, and Ashcrofts. We have gone from men who believed in the supremacy and inviolability of the individual, to those who believe that human beings have no intrinsic worth, save as resources to be exploited on behalf of the power interests of a corporate-state leviathan.
The voices of the drafters of the Declaration are heard on occasion, such as at the Tiananmen Square demonstration in China a few years ago. These young students — whose symbol was not the American flag or the dollar sign, but the Statue of Liberty — were channeling the sentiments of men like Jefferson and Sam Adams. The sight of that sole individual, Wang Wei-Lin, confronting that row of faceless, brutish tanks, spoke to the depletion of the human spirit with which most of us have accommodated ourselves in America. He could well have been the spiritual reincarnation of Patrick Henry, defying the dehumanizing power of the state with his words "give me liberty or give me death!"
To contrast the spirit of 1776 with modern America, let us imagine the Revolutionary War era events taking place today. First of all, but for the Internet, most of us would probably not hear of this document. The lickspittles in the major media would play out their assigned roles as protectors of the political establishment in much the same way that they have ignored the spreading public opposition to the "Patriot Act" that was hurried through Congress with virtually no debate. As Nat Hentoff observed in a recent article in the Village Voice, resolutions aimed at defending the Bill of Rights against Bush Administration efforts to expand a federal police state, have been passed at town meetings and/or city council meetings in various cities in Massachusetts, as well as Ann Arbor, Denver, and Berkeley. Have you heard any mention of this on network or cable newscasts, or read of it in any of the major newspapers or magazines?
If news of the Declaration managed to get through the media jamming stations, I suspect that initial news reports would characterize the drafters as "terrorists" associated with the "right-wing militia group" that had gotten into a gun battle with government troops at Lexington and Concord. Advocates of "gun-control" laws would then be paraded before the television cameras to tell us how dangerous it is for individuals to be armed, but how a well-armed state poses no conceivable threat to the public. We might also be shown videotape of Paul Revere’s ride, as he was pursued by government forces in an earlier "horse chase" on Massachusetts roadways.
When the content of the Declaration began to leak out, we might see White House Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer, warning "all Americans" that "they need to watch what they say, watch what they do." Mr. Fleischer is in error, of course: given the expanded role of federal authorities in spying upon and supervising the behavior, speech, buying habits, and communications of us all, there is no need for us to watch what we do and say: the government is already doing these things for us!
After reading the grievances spelled out in the Declaration, British Prime Minister Lord North (ooops, that should have been Attorney General John Ashcroft) might have inveighed against those "who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty," and then warn that such utterances "only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity."
With the word spreading that there were "extremists" afoot in the land who insisted that governments were intended to be subservient to people, rather than their masters, the news media and federal officials would likely next undertake a campaign to identify those who, in Ashcroft’s words, "give ammunition to America’s enemies." The sordid backgrounds of the drafters would be revealed: marijuana cultivation, smuggling, alcohol brewing, and tobacco farming being just some of the activities for which the drafters would have been pilloried.
When it is further shown that some of these men owned slaves, the ad hominem nature of the attack would be in high gear. Intelligent men and women might use the words "all men are created equal" to begin questioning how "liberty" and "slavery" could possibly co-exist. Such an approach might distill a deeper understanding of the meaning of liberty, particularly when considering ideas that went far beyond notions of "equal rights." But such a response would simply not do in an age that prefers to stick labels — such as "white-male racist" — on each of these men. In such ways does attention get deflected from the content of ideas.
You can probably script out the rest of the political/media campaign for yourself. Having declared that "all men . . . are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable Rights," the "feminists" will attack the document for "sexism," while the reference to a "Creator" would suffice to uphold the charge of "religious fundamentalism."
When it is further established that these men had been influenced by the writings of Tom Paine — whose atheist sentiments would seem to negate the religious fundamentalism charge — allegations that this group was part of some kind of "cult" would also likely be made. News reports would then begin to appear asking about possible "cult" connections between the "rebels" and David Koresh. And since the government massacre at Waco was the alleged motive of Timothy McVeigh’s actions in Oklahoma City, grounds for dismissing the Declaration of Independence as a "terrorist" statement would likely have become overwhelming to those "inquiring minds" who "want to know" in today’s culture!
All media examinations of the drafters would, of course, be undertaken by so-called "news reporters." Government officials, retired military officers, and minds accustomed to swimming in the shallow ends of "think tanks," would be brought in to summarize and characterize the views of the drafters. At no time would these men, themselves, be given the opportunity to explain or defend their words or deeds, it being the role of the media "experts" to put the state’s desired spin on such matters.
Now you have some idea as to how this document would have been greeted had it come into being some two and a quarter centuries later. It would likely have been dismissed, by all "right-thinking" people as the irrational rantings of an "extremist right-wing fundamentalist cult of white-racist and sexist drug-dealing males who belong to paramilitary militia groups whose anti-government views u2018aid terrorists.’" Public attention would then be redirected back to where it safely belongs: examining the sexual escapades of politicians, celebrity gossip, and the relative box-office earnings of various movies.
Do my speculations sound far-fetched to you? If so, perhaps you need to listen more closely to what government officials and the media are telling you and, more importantly, what they are not telling you. You also need to pay closer attention to how you are being informed of events in your world.
If you have not already done so, you might want to sit down and read the "Declaration of Independence." As with so many other basic writings, most of us have a familiarity that has not, unfortunately, arisen from an actual reading of the works. Ask yourself whether the human spirit that burned those liberating words into parchment — in a day when men were hanged for such anti-government sentiments — is aflame within you.
To focus on this question a bit more, ask yourself how — if at all — you intend to spend July 4th. Will it be in celebration of your independence, or submission to a condition of dependence? Do you regard your interests as primary, and the state’s as secondary, in political matters, the basic premise underlying the Declaration of Independence? Perhaps the following quotation can help you to answer this question:
I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.
These words would doubtless raise the ire of Mr. Ashcroft which, he would say, "aid terrorists" and "erode our national unity." One who spoke them, today, would likely be arrested, transported to an isolated military base to be held — indefinitely, incommunicado, and without benefit of a public trial — as an "enemy combatant." The man who spoke these words was, of course, a former American president and the draftsman of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson!
To generations of Americans long conditioned in the collectivist premises of the Pledge of Allegiance — which speaks of "one nation, indivisible" — the idea of the moral supremacy of individuals who, no longer "consenting" to be governed, had the "right to alter or abolish" the political system they had set up, is incomprehensible. It is not so much that most people disagree with the proposition as it is that they find it meaningless, as irrelevant to their lives as the provisions of Magna Carta!
Most Americans have contented themselves with their subservience to the state. When I was growing up, we understood a "patriot" to be as it is described in The Oxford English Dictionary: "one whose ruling passion is the love of his country," and "who maintains and defends his country’s freedom or rights." Such a definition was even extended to one who was "a factious disturber of the government." Today, "patriotism" — like "liberty" — has come to mean little more, to most people, than obedience to political authority!
Bear in mind that, on July 4th, 1776, the British were not an invading army, but the established government in America. But such men as drafted the Declaration had a deeper love for the country that transcended any duty of obedience the state sought to impose upon them. It was in this sense that those of my generation learned to regard Jefferson and his colleagues — not the Loyalists who supported the existing government — as patriots.
The Declaration’s appeal to the sovereignty of each individual has become weaker over the decades, as most of us accept the propriety of others exercising authority over our lives. We increasingly accept the proposition that we are not to be trusted with any genuine power over our lives and that, for our "own good," the state must act on our behalf. Even such limited power as is found in firecrackers, sparklers, and Roman candles, are deemed too "dangerous" to our well-being and so, on July 4th, we allow the government, with its fireworks displays, to celebrate our "liberty" and "independence" for us!
The liberating words of men like Thomas Jefferson are regarded as passé in modern America. Most of us now prefer the soothing assurances of our current George III!
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.