Another 4th of July holiday has passed. The parades are over now, the fireworks have gone out, the bands have disbursed and the flags have been put away. Everyone with jobs is back at them. For most, I suppose the holiday was good fun. “God bless America,” but don’t hold your breath.
Perhaps there should be a debriefing after such a holiday. Did we learn anything new about our national independence? Could we derive more value from this celebratory occasion? Might we entertain and ponder a related dimension of freedom also key to the realization of liberty and justice for all, namely, personal independence?
I think that's what many would like, so let me offer a few ideas along those lines. Perhaps by the 4th of July weekend in 2014, we can enjoy dialogues about the deeper meaning of an already pretty good holiday. It’s one thing to celebrate the start at our national independence; it is quite another to be aware of and alert to the challenge to free ourselves as individuals from subtle constraints on our liberties.
But first, a quick review of our wondrous beginning at national independence seems in order.
When the Founders crafted this Declaration, people were property, jointly owned by the kings and priests: our bodies belonged to the former, our souls to the latter.
This declaration set us free, at least for the moment - this freedom had to be secured by a terrible war with a powerful mother country in order to safeguard the claim). In time, the first Americans prevailed in that war and we were then truly liberated from king, landed gentry and agents of a deity. As a nation, we were free to tend to our own affairs.
Impressive - it was a splendid start for a new country.
The words of this Declaration stated that everyone has rights to life, to liberties and to seek happiness. What’s more, the source of these rights were others like himself, not kings/gods or aristocrats. Just other human beings who declared that these rights were just and proper. You know - government of, by and for the people.
That’s the Declaration of Independence, more or less. That’s the meaning of the 4th of July - the rest (the parades, fireworks, flags and bands) are foo foo - decorations, symbols, just simple representations of our freedoms.
What a watershed event in human history. Now political power rested with the people. The leaders, selected by the people, were agents, servants of the governed.
When writing the Declaration of Independence, the Founders knew that not all citizens of the colonies favored independence from Britain. Not everyone supported the equality of all men or the idea that political power should be vested in the general public, which then as now contained riff raff aplenty. The religious idea that a god was the source of power, a canard without evidence then as now, was common to all governments at that time. This idea was rejected. The source cited to justify our independence was the people themselves. Officials were to function only so long as they enjoyed the consent of the governed.
As Robert Green Ingersoll remarked in his famous Independence Day speech,
... and so they signed that brave Declaration of Independence. I thank every one of them from the bottom of my heart for signing that sublime declaration. I thank them for their courage -- for their patriotism -- for their wisdom -- for the splendid confidence in themselves and in the human race. I thank them for what they were, and for what we are -- for what they did, and for what we have received -- for what they suffered, and for what we enjoy. (Source: Robert Green Ingersoll, Centennial Oration, 1876.)
Making Good on the Declaration
Centuries have passed. Despite the noble ideas, the advances realized and the victories won in the name of liberty and true independence for all was not a reality. Advances have been made, but even after 239 years, personal independence is not a reality for all.
In the above-noted Centennial Oration, Ingersoll put it this way:
... I ask you today to make a declaration of individual independence. And if you are independent be just. Allow everybody else to make his declaration of individual independence Allow your wife, allow your husband, allow your children to make theirs. Let everybody be absolutely free and independent, knowing only the sacred obligations of honesty and affection. Let us be independent of party, independent of everybody and everything except our own consciences and our own brains. Do not belong to any clique...It is a grand thing to be the owner of yourself. It is a grand thing to protect the rights of others. It is a sublime thing to be free and just.
The Pursuit of Equal, Free and Just
One of the noblest sentiments in our treasured Declaration of Independence is that all men are created equal. What a grand idea. Has there been a nobler sentiment by a national government - ever?
Unfortunately, It is not an easy concept to put into practice - attempts over time have not been noted for their effectiveness. However, more than two centuries down the road, we should try harder. Let’s explore practical ways to better realize this noble idea.
For starters, let’s clean up the language a bit - let’s recognize the other half of the population. How about, All men and all women are created equal? We can go farther than that - why leave important clarifications to the courts? We could, for instance, expand the phrase as follows: All men and all women, and every citizen of all races, all creeds and no creeds, all sexual orientations and so on are deemed if not created equal and are in this nation entitled to equal opportunities, none favored and none neglected.
I know - it’s not as pithy as all men are created equal but it might save future generations considerable grief sorting out the original pithy version. What’s more, the suggested update is at least as noble as the original, if not as pithy.
Let’s all pitch in with ideas for self-liberation via personal independence. For starters, I’ll mention two.
Personal independence would be abetted by promoting the education of children in settings wherein all are encouraged to make discoveries using their own mental faculties, where science and reason, not revelation and dogma, are employed to explore the world and illuminate possibilities, not ultimate truths.
Recognize the Rights of Non-Believers (and reinforce the wall of separation between church and state)
FDR spoke of four freedoms less than a year before our entry into WWII. These were:
- Freedom of speech.
- Freedom of religion.
- Freedom from want.
- Freedom from fear.
I think there were not enough “freedom of” entries - and I think he made a mess of the second freedom when he added this sentence: The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. This statement failed to recognize that many citizens then and nearly a quarter of Americans now prefer an explicit recognition of our right to freedom from religion. Freedom of religion for those who want it, freedom from religion for those happy to have no part of it.
In 1852, the leading citizens of Rochester, NY asked Frederick Douglas, who had settled there, to speak as part of their Fourth of July celebrations. Douglas accepted their invitation.
While he was a free man, others who shared his heritage in this country were not. Here are a few of his opening remarks:
Fellow citizens, pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits, and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions. Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold that a nation's sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? ... But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me.
Let’s work on our independence and the freedoms of others so that as many Americans as possible feel included within the pale of this glorious anniversary. Let’s do all we can to ensure that no distance separates some from others. Let’s work so that all can rejoice over liberties common and the rich inheritance bequeathed by the Founders.