Bored on the Fourth of July
Peter Lawler is Dana Professor of Government and former chair of the department of Government and International Studies at Berry College. He serves as executive editor of the journal Perspectives on Political Science, and has been chair of the politics and literature section of the American Political Science Association. He also served on the editorial board of the new bilingual critical edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and serves on the editorial boards of several journals. He has written or edited fifteen books and over 200 articles and chapters in a wide variety of venues. He was the 2007 winner of the Weaver Prize in Scholarly Letters.\r\n\r\nLawler served on President Bush's Council on Bioethics from 2004 – 09. His most recent book, Modern and American Dignity, is available from ISI Books.\r\n\r\nFollow him on Twitter @peteralawler.
Well, I'm really not. But a lot of BIG THINKERS must be, because we have nary a post so far talking up THE AMERICAN HOLIDAY. So HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY!
Today is the celebration not so much of independence (voted on July 2), but of the argument for it--THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE.
The Declaration is, of course, the argument for independence given by the united Americans against Britain. And the argument is that the British government--but especially the KING--is tyrannizing over us, systematically and repeatedly violating our rights. But the Declaration is also an agrument for the independence--for the equal freedom by nature--of every human person or creature or individual. Our government(s) will claim SOVEREIGNTY by the consent of individuals who are sovereign by nature.
So today we're celebrating by sharing our allegiance to truths we hold to be self-evident. We are, as G.K. Chesterton wrote, "a nation with the soul of a church." Churches are held together by common belief in particular dogmas. We're held together by common belief in the principles set forth, Chesterton wrote, with "dogmatic lucidity" in the Declaration.
The not-so-silent Calvin Coolidge wrote that those principles are restful because they're final. We believe that no progress can be made beyond them--just as we believe that our progress comes from more faithfully and consistently actng in accordance with them. The Fourth of July, in that light, should be a day of rest for the same reason every Sunday should be. We need to take a break from our incessant activity to remind ourselves of the foundation that makes our free and restless prosperity possible.
So we can criticize the authors and signers of the Declaration for not acting in full accordance with their principles. Jefferson knew that all human beings--including those imported from Africa to be slaves--we're created equal and had inalienable rights. But he didn't always act according to what he knew.
But we remember that it was the Abolitionists, from the very beginning, who talked up more than other Americans the stirring words of the Declaration as the foundation of their liberationist cause. So did our first strong proponents of the rights of women. And the southern slaveholders ended up openly denying the Declaration's truth, saying that Jefferson didn't know what he was talking about. It was in the context of the spilling of a huge amount of blood for a new birth of freedom that Lincoln rededicated us to the Declaration's proposition that all men are created equal.
Later, I will remind you that even on the level of principle our Declaration was a legislative compromise, with the result better than the theoretical intention of Jefferson the philosopher. So I don't really think we should regard the principles of the Declaration as quite as restful or final as Biblical revelation--nor do I think our Founders would have wanted that. But I won't go on on THE FOURTH OF JULY.