Whose Independence Are We Celebrating?

July 4th, 2011

By Tom Carter

Declaration of IndependenceThere’s a lot of discussion about the Declaration of Independence and the unique founding of the United States of America every year at this time.  That’s a good thing.  But we also should be reflective enough to consider the flaws in our founding.

The American Revolution against British rule, followed by the founding of a republic on philosophical principles of equality, democracy, and consent of the governed hadn’t happened before and hasn’t happened again.  Some have tried, at least mouthing the right words, but the follow-through wasn’t there.  Witness the bloody vengeance that followed the French Revolution and the rapid rise of a dictatorship.

The everlasting words of the Declaration of Independence have real meaning:

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.

These few words may be among the most famous and portentous in the English language.  They’ve been quoted and studied by philosophers and political thinkers all over the world, and some have aspired to found their own societies and governments on those principles.

It’s true enough to say that America has struggled to live up to the stirring words drafted by Thomas Jefferson, seeking always to form a more perfect union of disparate states and peoples.  We’re slowly getting there in many different respects, but when it all began we were far less than equal, not everyone enjoyed the benefits of those “inalienable rights,” and the Creator who supposedly endowed those rights had (and still has) a lot to answer for.

In 1776, about 20 percent of the population of the American colonies were black people, the overwhelming majority of them held as chattel slaves.  They had no freedom or rights whatsoever and certainly were not included among “all men” who were created equal.  Apparently neither most of the Founders nor the Creator they credited saw any contradiction in this; perhaps they considered black slaves to be something other than “men.”

And what about the half of the non-slave population who weren’t, strictly speaking, men?  The Founders and, presumably, their Creator didn’t consider women to be equal at all.  Most couldn’t vote (colonies and then states had different laws) and had hardly any of the rights men enjoyed.  Women were considered inferior to men in all respects, a view strongly reinforced by religious leaders.

But wait, that’s not all:  Many of the “men” who were presumed to be endowed with inalienable rights and the power to consent to be governed couldn’t, actually.  Voting was restricted in many ways, to include property qualifications.

As American society has developed over they years, we’ve come to accept the idea that the Founders’ reference to “all men” was really meant to include all people, regardless of race, color, gender, etc.  But it wasn’t.  They clearly meant some men and intended to exclude women.

Does all this mean that we should engage in endless paroxysms of breast-beating about how terrible American is and has been since the founding?  Certainly not; we’ve taken what we were given in the beginning and steadily made it better, and that’s to our great credit.  What it does mean is that we should look at ourselves and our history with a bit more humility, and we should avoid unquestioning insistence on living today by the original words of Founders written in an entirely different era.

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12 Responses to “Whose Independence Are We Celebrating?”

  1. Clarissa |

    What’s really sad is that when I say in class, “And in 1776, one of the greatest documents the human civilization has produced was offered to the world. Who knows what document I’m talking about?”, the majority of the students looks confused.

  2. Dan Miller |

    Slavery is bad and so are not according all citizens the same property, voting and other rights. These failings persist in some parts of the world. That they are bad is the current view and one to which I adhere. However, in what became the United States that view was not generally held. Black slaves were generally seen as chattel, inferior in intelligence to Whites; White women were seen in some but not all respects as chattel. We often tend to view the past through the prism of the present and to be uncomfortable with it to the extent that it does not conform to the present. That, I think, is a mistake. We should neither try to edit nor condemn our history by seeing it through the prism of the present.

    Many changes have been made by amending the Constitution. Those changes could not have been incorporated into the Declaration of Independence or into the Constitution when adopted because they were not, when those documents were adopted, generally seen as desirable. A principal foundation of the United States is the consent of the governed; without that consent, and the consensus upon which it must be predicated, the United States would have been a far different and, I think worse, country than she became. The Constitution, when adopted, wisely provided for such changes recognizing that, as attitudes change over time, so must our principal governing document. The Constitution should not be amended rashly and amendment was intentionally made difficult for that reason. Gradual change may seem to some as unfair. However, I think it is good for it to come that way.

  3. Dan Miller |

    Further to Clarissa’s comment and to my own, it seems that

    A Marist Poll just out found 52 percent of our fellow Americans either had no clue about the significance of July 4 — or thought Independence Day was on another date, altogether. Also, one in four drew a blank on the question about who we fought to win our independence!

    The fact only 58 percent of respondents knew with certainty that we declared independence from Britain on July 4, 1776, feeds into what many have been saying for a while: that the shocking lack of basic knowledge about the United States and its origins symbolizes the failure of the education system.

    Meanwhile, just 31 percent of adults 30 and under replied that 1776 is the year the United States broke away from Great Britain. But, 75 percent of Americans, 45 to 59, were most likely to know the right answer.

    Marist surveyed more than a 1,000 people for the poll.

    That’s sad.

  4. Tom Carter |

    It really is sad, and, as you say, it’s just one more indication of the state of public education in the U.S. As unionized teachers demand higher and higher salaries and greater benefits, abandoning their jobs and protesting when changes seem to be coming, demands should be placed on them to do a much better job.

    One point in all this is the silliness of those who insist on an “originalist” or “strict constructionist” view of the Constitution and our other founding documents. Not only are many of those who hold this view largely ignorant of history, they’re apparently incapable of understanding that the Constitution was designed to change and grow over time. But then, many of these same people profess to believe in the literal truth of the Bible as written, even while they pick and choose from the contradictory parts of it and seem oblivious to the fact that the translations were often so bad that the original meaning was perverted.

    Take heart, though — everyone has exactly the same vote….

  5. Brian |

    Tom, the constitution was written to be able to change with the times via Article V, not by judicial or legislative fiat. In the world of the rational mind, “General Welfare” means precisely today what it meant in 1787. In the world of the irrational mind, it means whatever they think it means, much the way Humpty Dumpty upbraided Alice that a word means only what HE says, neither more no less.

    “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,'” Alice said.

    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”

    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,'” Alice objected.

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

    Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again.

    “They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs, they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

    I can only speak for myself, but that isn’t the world I want to live in, and it is precisely that world to which the “living document” crowd is bringing us.

  6. Dan Miller |


    I agree completely that the Constitution was meant to be, and therefore must be, amended as necessary using the procedures it contemplates and provides for rather than changed by judicial fiat. However, that does not make interpretation unnecessary or necessarily bad. The Constitution is a broad but concise document, far shorter than much modern legislation — which also has to be interpreted to divine legislative intent, also with reference to documents evidencing that intent. That is sometimes difficult and sometimes easy to do. ObamaCare is as good/bad an example as any.

    For one example: radio and television were unknown at the time the Constitution was written and it was not mentioned there. Yet properly to regulate commerce among the states and with foreign countries, as provided in Article I, it became necessary to prevent radio frequency interference among stations, the signals of which often radiate beyond state borders and into foreign countries. It would be impossible for the individual states to deal with the situation. Hence, the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC has gone far beyond its original mandate and even beyond what its authorizing statute now provides and some of that might well be deemed to require changes to the Constitution; at least it requires new statutory authorization.

    I have no problem with interpretation, so long as it looks to the plain intent of the Constitution rather than to the ideological beliefs of judges. When desires for social change are to be accommodated, I think that a competent jurist must disregard his ideological beliefs; difficult to do but necessary. When social change as was accomplished by the Fourteenth Amendment is desired, it can be brought about by appropriate amendment. It should not be done in another fashion.

  7. Dan Miller |

    Several days ago, I began some research for an article about the Southern antebellum views on slavery and the situation of Blacks. There were different Southern views and those held by many owners of large plantations in Virginia seem to have been different in many respects from those held by others. In some cases, slaves were treated very badly and in other cases with kindness. Some plantations freed their slaves before the end of the Civil War, some didn’t.

    The research has been interesting and I hope the article, whenever I get around to finishing it, may be as well.

  8. Clarissa |

    “It really is sad, and, as you say, it’s just one more indication of the state of public education in the U.S.”

    -The elementary and secondary education in this country is not what it should be, of course. However, I believe that teaching children such basic facts of their own history is, first and foremost, the parents’ responsibility. People are too willing to relegate all responsibility for themselves and their own children on outside authorities, in my opinion.

  9. Dan Miller |

    What, then should the teachers teach?

  10. Tom Carter |

    Clarissa, in my view the education system, certainly the public education system theoretically controlled by the people, should teach the things associated with education for most of our history. These include reading, writing, mathematics, languages, history, geography, civics, and the core sciences. From what I’ve read on your blog, the students you encounter as they enter university education are lacking in most of these subjects.

    I remember the bumper sticker: “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” There’s an obvious corollary: “If you can’t read this, blame a teacher.” That’s what we have to start doing — require teachers to perform and fire those who don’t. And in particular, the concepts of “tenure” and “academic freedom” which rightly are so valued at university level have been allowed to seep into the public education system. They aren’t appropriate there and should be avoided.

    The responsibility of parents is secondary in this; they need to reinforce what public schools teach, ensure homework is done, and at least make sure their kids go to school and behave properly. Where parental responsibility is primary is in the teaching of values and beliefs. Public schools are secondary to that kind of teaching and should be monitored and controlled where it’s concerned.

    As for the Constitution, I don’t subscribe to the “living document” idea. It isn’t that flexible and shouldn’t be. However, it must grow and change, and it has — through amendment, judicial review, judicial precedent, and legislative action within acceptable boundaries. I don’t have any trouble with all that.

    What I do have trouble with is blatant ideological bias among judges. As our system has become more polarized, so has the judiciary at all levels. It’s gotten to the point where decisions can often be predicted by knowing the bias of an individual judge, and the same question will be decided in exactly opposite ways. The law is obviously of lesser importance to these judges. That can only be controlled through our elected executive and legislative officials, and we have to instruct them at the ballot box. If we don’t, then we get the wrong appointments to the bench (at the federal and some state levels).

  11. Brian |

    Tom, even if judges could utterly divine the intent of the founders, there would still be an ideological bias. We all have an ideology. I don’t really think that that is the problem.

    From my perspective, the serious problems with the USSC really started with FDR’s threat to pack the court with justices that would rule that all of his New Deal crapola was constitutional. Since that time, the measure for justices seems to be whether or not they believe in social justice or not. To this day, we’re still reeling from that move.

    The thought that “there ought to be a law” seems to have become far too prevalent, even if the law stands in direct contrast to the enumerated powers, or if the law is in limbo with relation to the enumerated powers (cases where the constitution is silent). Too many people seem to be of the mind that if a power is not specifically prohibited that the federal government may use it, the current tenant at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. being one of them.

    I have read liberal screed taking the Taney court to task on Dred Scott (yeah, I know, merely an academic undertaking, but it speaks to ethical and political philosophy), that he and his court should not have ruled the way that they did, that they should have taken the opportunity to right a wrong. That’s not really up to justices unless they do so within the confines of the law. I strongly suspect that had the constitution had some prohibition that spoke to the Fugitive Slave Act that Taney and his court would have ruled in favor of Dred Scott. The court followed the law in ruling in favor of the states, and that’s all they can really do (hew to the law, that is, not necessarily to rule in favor of the states). To make it up as they go along is, literally, a usurpation, the move of a tyrant or despot; even if doing so means “righting a wrong.”

    Moving on to more modern times, we could examine the court’s decision in Wickard v Filburn. Only the grossest and most irrational mischaracterization of the Interstate Commerce Clause could hold that the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 was constitutional, at least as it was applied in this case. The goal of the ICC is very clearly to keep trade wars from arising between the states. To that end, it was wildly successful, as the US became the most powerful commercial enterprise in the history of the world because of the ability to trade freely with “foreign” interests.

    FF to today, where ideologues of the left, in order to find Obama-Care constitutional, have literally thrown out centuries of jurisprudence in finding that not buying insurance is “commerce.” They’re getting their social justice, don’t you know.

    The depressing thing to me is that there is no greater force for social justice than freedom. There is an arbitrariness to freedom, to be sure, but it doesn’t choose sides.

  12. Brian |

    Dan, your example of the FCC is a good one, and is quite easily covered by the ICC because it forestalls disputes that would likely arise between the states.

    The ICC cannot be made to cover the activities of the DoE (either one of them). They should both be done away with.

    The federal government, in my world, exists to forestall or resolve disputes between the States, to represent the States to the world, to defend our borders, to keep our currency stable, and precious little else.

    As Coolidge opined, “the business of America is business.” The Invisible Hand of free commerce between free moral agents will solve a great many more problems than all the do-gooders in the world put together.

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