Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Remembing the Declaration of Independence
On your right
Happy belated birthday, America. While we all shake off the excesses of brats, burgers, beer and baseball – with a side of wings and fireworks, permit me a question: What was July 4th about?
For most, an extra day off. For those unlucky enough to get the short straw, time-and-a-half. Some pleasant hours with family and friends. An opportunity to watch a parade with colorful cars and characters, surrounded by kids not yet old enough to be properly embarrassed by public hi-jinks undertaken by people who usually behave better. A little rest and relaxation.
Anyone read the Declaration of Independence out loud? At the beginning of our country, this was a feature of most municipal celebrations, in addition to the “shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations” John Adams recommended. Then it fell out of style; by the 1920s, the custom was almost entirely gone.
More’s the pity, since the Declaration is the real point of the Fourth of July. On that day (actually, July second, but there was a problem at the printer…) a small but enterprising group of English colonies — fed up with regulations promulgated by remote and indifferent officials; feeling their prosperity threatened by capricious governments; sick of taxes imposed for causes in which they had no voice — took matters into their own hands, deciding that freedom, however dear, was preferable to the most comfortable servitude.
They wrote a remarkable document, the more so in its time and place. For the first time in history, it proposed the foundation of a state be John Locke’s doctrine of government as a contract entered into for the limited and specific purpose of securing and protecting natural rights of its people. It enumerated these rights – the familiar “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Although, the last was originally “property.” It was altered to be more expansive.
No, the Declaration of Independence does not propose a right to health care paid by others. Or to housing paid by others. Or to a job, food, clothing or any of a myriad of other necessities now deemed “rights.” All those were responsibilities of individuals because the Founders were intent on establishing something new – an “Empire of Freedom” in which each person, either on their own or acting in concert with others, saw to their needs themselves. Government was to mind its own narrowly circumscribed business.
It was a minor miracle the republic lasted as long as it did, more than quadrupling Washington’s pessimistic prediction of fifty years. It wasn’t as if our present problems were unanticipated; some of the founders clearly saw that, once the franchise was exercised by a majority whose only interest in government was what it could extract from the successful and transfer to themselves, the game would be up. Against this sort of error, both Jefferson and Madison later emphasized in writing that the “general welfare” clause of the U.S. Constitution was not intended to give the government access to what the latter called “an unbounded field of power.” It was to be perpetually limited instead to its twenty enumerated powers, which didn’t include environmental protection, welfare, education, health care and a boodle of other meddlings of the modern federal state. Madison added that no fit leader would exceed the enumerated powers, and the American people were too smart to elect an unfit one. Alas …
The United States was founded to allow us to think and act for ourselves. It offered its residents not security and comfort, but freedom and opportunity. Its promise of equality was unique: One could come to America and make of one’s self whatever was possible through talent, effort and, yes, luck. Results varied because people vary in their capacities and character. But, in pursuing their dreams through the freedoms promised in that hot July of 1776, Americans brought their country from small beginnings to a continent-spanning, muscular world power in an historical blink of an eye.
We are now at a crossroads. For the past century, we have been told that freedom is bad for us; that those who are better and smarter must make our decisions for us; that we are unfit, weak, vicious and stupid, so we must be cared for. That it is unfair when people’s poor decisions and bad fortune bring unpleasant consequences. That we must have equality not of opportunity but of result, and that the few should be forced to pay for it all by the many because they can be. These are the arguments not of the patriot or the compassionate, but of the slaver and the tyrant; arguments from which we turned in 1776.
Now they are back, honeyed and louder than ever. We stand on a knife’s edge.
It’s not too late. Yet.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily.
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