In the 19th century, before the Progressive Era began to bite, there was a ubiquitous feature to Americans’ celebration of their nation’s birthday. More than beer or fireworks, more than family picnics, more than marching bands or parades, the Fourth of July was celebrated by a public re-reading of the Declaration of Independence. As time wore on, this practice was abandoned; one scarcely encounters it today.
The absence is a shame, but understandable: as the architect’s rendering of the nation for which our constitution is the blueprint, the Declaration gives clear voice to what our founders thought government should be and do, albeit through proscription and negative example. It continues to stand as a monument to the fully-developed political theory of Enlightenment Liberalism, with its emphasis on the individual, on God-given “unalienable” rights, and a healthy skepticism about the power of the state. Our disinterest in reminding ourselves about these foundational principles is but one measure of how far we have departed from these ideas, and from the men who embraced them.
The body of the Declaration is an indictment of what are seen as the King’s crimes, necessitating separation — congenially if possible, by violence if necessary. It’s an illuminating list.
“He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary to the public Good…” At issue here is who makes the law, and who enforces it. Those who signed the Declaration of Independence, and those who later created the Constitution regarded the legislature as the real center of legitimate government. It creates laws which the president is charged with faithfully executing. From its response to IRS malfeasance to failure to secure the nation’s borders to refusal to defend federal laws on marriage or marijuana, it’s clear why the current administration wouldn’t want this bit read in the public square.
“He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing Importance…” One might ask Gov. Jan Brewer about the administration’s lawsuit against Arizona for the effrontery of telling the federal government that, if it would not protect the border, the state would. Or Texas’ Rick Perry about federal reaction to the torrent of children currently being transported illegally into the country. For a start.
“He has obstructed the Administration of Justice…” It’s quite probable that IRS officials destroyed evidence that was not only the subject of Congressional hearings, but also of a lawsuit in federal court — a felony offense. The attitude of the IRS administrator, a big-dollar Democrat donor? “Too bad. Nothing to see here, folks …” Or, one could consider Benghazi. “Fast and Furious.” NSA spying on journalists. Barack Obama probably wouldn’t want Thomas Jefferson’s opinion on any of that.
“He has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and has sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People…” Barack Obama has made good on his threat to use his “pen and phone” to create new laws out of thin air. From EPA rules on boilers and refrigerators to mandates on contraception to directives on the ripeness of imported ackee fruit, his Administration has hit a new high in rulemaking. Perhaps that is what caused the Supreme Court to fire a shot across its bow this year, saying that the EPA does not have unlimited power to regulate everything, everywhere. This 238-year-old indictment still stings.
“For…declaring themselves invested with Power to legislate for us in all Cases whatsoever.” See “pen and phone,” above.
The present Administration makes an excellent case for the concerns of those who signed the Declaration of Independence. They saw a powerful and centralized government not as a guarantor of their freedoms, but a threat to them. They realized that a government large enough, and meddlesome enough, to concern itself with questions of “income equality” and “fairness in housing” may not be benevolent, but a menace — and that it would be difficult to curb, particularly when controlled by the unscrupulous or vicious.
They attempted to address these concerns by creating a system of government with distributed centers of authority, designed to thwart any one person gathering more than a modicum of power. They also saw government as small, limited to a few basic functions — security, currency, arbitration among the states. It dawned on the political class but slowly, that rules only matter so long as there are people willing and able to enforce them. We have now arrived at the results of that enlightenment, so people must be distracted from the real meaning of the day, lest they partake of the conclusion:
“A Prince, whose Character is marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free people.”
Happy Fourth of July, of American independence the 238th.
Morgan Liddick lives in Summit County.