Saturday, July 5, 2008

The One Good Reason To Celebrate the 4th: The Word

Published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, 4 July 2008
The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen Colonies of the United States of America

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds 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 to 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.

Each 4th of July begins with a sigh. How to celebrate the birth of my nation? How do I celebrate the birth of one of the most unique nations in the history of the world?
For many years I didn't - feeling the 4th of July was to my sense of patriotism what St. Patrick's Day was to my sense of Irishness: an excuse to party, cookout, drink, parade, get with friends or family.

But the real meaning of the day was utterly lost, obscured by the hubbub of cheap gimmicks, shopping sales and festivities.

And then, of course, there is The History.

Each human birthday conjures up the life we have led to date; and the older we get the less a birthday can be a celebration, what with all our unanswered wishes and unwashed days stacked up all around us.

So too, each birthday of a nation: we hang out our flags -- which bear each day, each act, noble and ignoble stitched to its stars and stripes for all to see. If you have the sense and courage to see.

For every Washington or Lincoln there is a Sitting Bull or Geronimo. For every Jefferson or Roosevelt, a Sojourner Truth or Frederick Douglass. For every Daniel Shay there is a Jeffrey Amherst. For every Bunker Hill or Normandy or there is a Vietnam or Iraq.

For each moment of soul stirring nobility there is an act of villainy.

Only the words have remained unchanged.

Read the opening of the Declaration of Independence and there you will see -- unsullied by time, humanity or history - there you will see our great cause for celebration.

For stated there in words more artful and concise than ever penned, stated there is the simple, clear and unambiguous Idea which compelled us to became a nation. The very foundation stone upon which all else was to be built -- both for us and the world.

Despite our sins as a nation, the United States of America remains the only nation truly founded on an idea.

The Declaration begins with the words "When in the course of human events" - what a masterly way to describe politics in all their complicated and convoluted details: human events. Not religions, not ideologies, not identities, but simple human events.

And that first sentence - and what a sentence, 71 words long! - that first sentence holds a lesson long lost on American politicians: when you seek to do something which will effect others, "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind" compels you to explain your actions to the international community. Not a subservient respect, but a decent one.

Then come the 35 words which revolutionized the world - the words which are offered as the only explanation as to why the colonies dissolved the bonds which connected them to Britain and became a separate nation: "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."

Again the mastery and perhaps the only true genius of those flawed men in Philadelphia that hot summer of 1776. "We hold these truths to be self-evident…" There needs be, in fact can be, no discussion whatsoever as to the truth because it is as self-evident as land is dry and sea is wet. As self-evident as a sunrise, a rainbow, a thunderstorm.

And what truth is so utterly self-evident? The utterly revolutionary idea 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."

No document in the previous 3000 years or the subsequent 232 can match those 27 words as an artful and concise summary of human aspiration. No document can match it as a truth around which to organize our human events. No better ideal has ever been laid down for us to aspire to, or fail to achieve.

And the true genius of the Founders is that those combined 35 words have stood and can stand the test of changing times, laws, customs and "isms."

The Declaration may say "men" but as times changed there is no one who does not understand "men" to mean mankind, and thus human kind. Some pundits try to sell the notion that the "pursuit of happiness" - my favorite part - originally meant "accumulation of property." But as times changed the definition of "happiness" has too, but not the meaning of the words, the promise that its pursuit is a fundamental right.

Furthermore, it has been pointed out before that the phrase "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" means that the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness cannot be taken away (alienated) by man, government nor even God, the creator who has endowed us with those rights.

But neither the writers nor the signers of the Declaration invented such ideas. They were the product of the Enlightenment, a decades long evolutionary leap in consciousness when humanity tried to liberate itself from millennia, of feudalism and absolute monarchies to place at the center of the universe, not the king nor his subject, but the citizen, the individual beholden to no one. And thus the singular notion that "governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

The Declaration turned the world upside down: no longer did the Creator endow sovereigns; but only unalienable rights which belong to sovereign citizens.
It was as radical a "discovery" in human events as proving the earth revolved around the sun, or was actually round. Those were also ideas that people were a long time accepting, and many simply tried to ignore or repress for decades or centuries.

And yes, even as the ink dried on the Declaration, even as the United States was in the moment of its birth, we began to fail to live up to that those principles, that ideal.
But the words had been indelibly written, the idea born, and the world was a much better place for it.

So today and every 4th of July let us celebrate not the nation, the men nor women, not the deeds villainous nor heroic, but the Words, the Idea the United States has given to the world.

In fact, cut out the opening to our Declaration of Independence on this page and read it out loud at your picnic or cookout. And if you are, like me, a person of hope, a patriot, while reading them see if those words do not create a lump in the throat, a feeling that we as a nation have done one thing utterly right.

Read also to learn anew that those words do offer a clear way forward, a map to where we all want to get. But also a light, to find our way home when we are lost.


Anonymous said...

wow, this is great I never thought of it this way! thank joe

buddha-on-a-stick said...

I guess it could be so, that the words is allwe left to celebrate.