There were two July 4ths in the American calendar this year.
On the first one, people waved and pledged the flag, sang the national anthem, cheered our troops, thought of monuments and presidents, and praised those who made the “ultimate sacrifice” to insure our freedom. Spin it how you want, but in this governo-centric version of the holiday, our role is to salute the regime. That makes it no different from any other kind of nationalism one can find in any country, anytime in history.
On the other 4th of July, we celebrated a historical event that shaped the ideological basis of the American nation: the moral and political courage of the generation that made the momentous choice to overthrow a foreign occupation that was trampling on their liberties. We reaffirmed our attachment to the right of self-government, and to the message of the Declaration: that it is the people who institute governments, and that they can overthrow them when they no longer suit their purposes.
No holiday exists in a vacuum. They have meaning for current events. But the interpretations surrounding the first and second July 4ths couldn’t be farther apart.
The current meaning of the first version is clear: cheer the occupation of Iraq by US troops. Surely, in ways we can’t understand, goes this view, the occupation is essential to American liberty. It is not up to us to question the wisdom of the nation-state and its commander-in-chief, but rather to go along, no matter what. This is the Fox News version of the lesson of July 4.
In the second version, we are confronted with a serious problem. If we are celebrating the overthrow of a foreign occupation by the generation of Thomas Jefferson, whom should we cheer in Iraq, now that it is suffering a foreign occupation? Should those who adhere to the ideals of 1776 sympathize with the near-universal opinion in Iraq that the US ought to be tossed out?
When average Iraqis decry martial law, arbitrary justice, bombings, arbitrary searches and seizures, the impeding of democracy, the suppression of the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly, interventions in the economy, political arrests, and all the rest, are they reflecting the same spirit that led our own ancestors to revolt against Britain?
Such a view is not inconsistent with supporting the troops, among whom morale has never been lower. Every last man and woman now required to subjugate Iraq would rather be home. They have begun to see themselves as victims of King George too.
As the Monitor reports:
The open-ended deployments in Iraq are lowering morale among some ground troops, who say constantly shifting time tables are reducing confidence in their leadership. “The way we have been treated and the continuous lies told to our families back home has devastated us all,” a soldier in Iraq wrote in a letter to Congress.
Security threats, heat, harsh living conditions, and, for some soldiers, waiting and boredom have gradually eroded spirits. An estimated 9,000 troops from the 3rd Infantry Division – most deployed for at least six months and some for more than a year – have been waiting for several weeks, without a mission, to return to the United States, officers say.
In one Army unit, an officer described the mentality of troops. “They vent to anyone who will listen. They write letters, they cry, they yell. Many of them walk around looking visibly tired and depressed…. We feel like pawns in a game that we have no voice [in].”
There comes a time in the history of an empire when lovers of liberty must stand up against their own government. Thus did the Americans in the 18th century have many sympathizers in Britain, men who were willing to stand up in Parliament and decry the actions of their own regime.
William Pitt, in opposing the Stamp Act and arguing for its repeal in 1765 rose to say:
I have been charged with giving birth to sedition in America. They have spoken their sentiments against this unhappy act, and that freedom has become their crime…. The gentleman tells us that America is obstinate; America is almost in open rebellion. Sir, I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people, so dead to all the feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit to make slaves of all the rest. I come not here armed at all points with law cases…to defend the cause of liberty. I am passed the time of life to be turning to books to know whether I love liberty or not… Will you sheath your sword in the bowels of your brother, the Americans? You may coerce and conquer but when they fall, they will fall like the strong man embracing the pillars of this constitution, and bury it in ruin with them.
After the war broke out, many more Britons dared risk accusations of sedition to speak out in favor of the Americans, and even raise money for them. With striking parallels to today, Rothbard explains (Conceived in Liberty, Volume 4, pp. 20-21):
So zealous and skillful were the American radicals at spreading their account of Lexington and Concord that, by a feat of seamanship and enterprise, the American version reached Britain two full weeks before the official dispatches of Gen. Thomas Gage! Dr. Warren dispatched the skillful young mariner Capt. John Derby to England from Salem. Derby reached London before the end of May, quickly placing the papers in the custody of the radical John Wilkes, by then lord mayor of London. The next day, the American version of the affair hit the English press with great impact. The Reverend John Home, a leading radical of London, promptly issued an appeal for funds to aid the widows and orphans of Americans murdered at Lexington, funds to help “our beloved American fellow-subjects, who, faithful to the character of Englishmen, preferring death to slavery, were, for that reason only, inhumanly murdered by the King’s Troops. . . .” For sending the money thus raised to Benjamin Franklin, who had already sailed for America earlier that year, Home was imprisoned by the crown. For its part, the British government, bereft of information for two critical weeks, could only deny that such battles had taken place — a denial that made it a laughingstock when Gage’s dispatches finally arrived.
The outbreak of war had a great and critical impact upon the liberal Whigs, many of whom were high-ranking officers in the British armed forces. Some refused outright to serve in war against the Americans, including Adm. Augustus Keppel and Lord Effingham. Rather than lead the war against the Americans, Effingham published his resignation from the army in September, for which he received public thanks from London, Dublin, Newcastle, and other cities. The British army was hit by numerous other resignations of conscience-stricken Whigs. Lord Chatham publicly refused to allow his son, William Pitt the Younger, to fight against the Americans. A typical Whig defection among leading Englishmen was that of Granville Sharp, the man chiefly responsible three years earlier for the legal action that had outlawed slavery within England. When the American revolution broke out, Sharp was assistant to the secretary of ordnance and was in charge of ordering the munitions for the British army in the colonies. By midsummer, he obtained extended leave from his duties, because, “I cannot return to my ordnance duty whilst a bloody war is carried on, unjustly as I conceive, against my fellow-subjects.” As the war dragged on, Sharp finally resigned his post, winning public applause for his courageous act.
Many merchants joined the Whig leaders in opposition to war against the Americans. The Common Council of London petitioned the king to end the harsh measures against the Americans, and the Livery Company of London declared that the Americans were dutybound to resist invasion of their rights. This American victory for the minds of the British people was never entirely erased by the government, especially since Warren had been careful to appeal to the English as “fellow-subjects” in natural alliance against the crown and its armed forces.
The crown, of course, in the manner of hardliners throughout history, refused to acknowledge that its policy of coercion had failed. Instead, so much the more did the Americans need to be suppressed, and the “rebels” and “villains” to be taught a lesson. For the moment six regiments from the Mediterranean were to be sent to Boston and more enlistments were hoped for — enlistments that failed to materialize. Neither was the North ministry at all apologetic about the failure to cow the Americans. Instead, blame was put on subversive Whigs who had put ideas of liberty and revolution into the heads of the Americans, and, more specifically, on the supposed incompetence of General Gage, who had, however, been essentially acting on crown orders.
So too has the US policy of coercion and occupation failed. As British patriots saw the error of their government’s ways, so too must we — for the sake of our troops, and for the sake of liberty itself.