Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Would we sign the Declaration of Independence today?
On Your Right
Saturday marks our country’s 239th anniversary — a suitable time to remind ourselves of some truths about our foundation. We should do this annually because there are many who would have us believe falsities about ourselves and our nation, for reasons either misguided or malign, or both.
Every American should understand: The first principle of this country is freedom. Those who pledged their fortunes, lives and sacred honor in a lopsided contest with the world’s greatest military power did not do so in the name of equality. They recognized the God-given right of Americans to pursue happiness but knew its achievement was guaranteed to no one. No soldier froze at Valley Forge, bled at King’s Mountain or fought at the Fusilier’s Redoubt before Yorktown in the name of health-care-for-all to be paid for by someone else. No Ranger staked his life against Britain’s Native American allies in the Ohio River valley, so that schoolchildren could have free lunches or farmers a guaranteed income. No mariner hoisted sail under the new flag against impossible odds for the welfare state, the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Education.
Americans who stood up on that July of 1776 — and who stood up afterward despite the threat of death, dismemberment, loss of property and family — did so in the name of freedom. It was a simple demand: They wanted to be left alone to pursue their own ends to the best of their abilities and to make of themselves, their communities and their country the best things that they could. In a scant 150 years, they and their heirs succeeded beyond any Founder’s expectation.
To those men and women, the greatest threat to freedom was government. A paradox, as even revolutionaries like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson realized, since government is necessary because of human nature. Their challenge was to design a government strong enough to exercise a few basic powers, and exercise them well, but not so strong as to ever be a threat to America’s first principle: freedom.
The primary difficulty lay not in theory or design: Locke and Montesquieu had worked out many details years earlier. Rather, the problem was that their design required a population that continued to value freedom to such a degree that they would sacrifice to protect it: sacrifice time, sacrifice effort, sacrifice property and even self-interest if freedom was threatened. Who thinks that a majority of Americans would sign the Declaration of Independence today, knowing what would be demanded of them? That answer measures the distance by which we have fallen short of this nation’s first principles.
Revolutionary Americans also saw themselves as a unified people different from Britons; this was an illusion — there were many loyalists, even in the first flush of revolutionary enthusiasm. But, it was an important idea, and one which gained strength during and after the Revolution. Identity as Americans was vital to early national successes and, indeed, to national survival in the face of sectional difficulties caused by the War of 1812. It continued to be an underlying strength, which, even though put to the ultimate test of civil war, saw us to the pinnacle of greatness in a world beset by the evils of totalitarianism in its fascist, Nazi and, finally, communist guises.
Now, unity and the goal of making new Americans more like the old has given way to the divisive ideas of multiculturalism and class conflict — playing identities off against one another for political gain. How this will strengthen the nation is unclear — but the practitioners of identity politics, from Ward Churchill to Dylann Roof, care nothing for that. They are concerned only with the minor part of America that is before their eyes and touches them directly. Call their activities ego-driven and self-serving — the very opposite of what the nation needs. What is even more repellent is, given the obvious corrosive effects, that such a large number of Americans are gullible enough to swallow their poison.
Finally, the Founders and those who followed them saw this nation as something unique. There were various phrases to express the thought, but they all boiled down to the same thing: America is an exceptional place. Families with long histories here knew it; rich, poor or middling, they all knew it. Newcomers knew it as well; that’s why they risked the trip. Nowadays, it’s fashionable to look on this national self-respect as something naïve; the cognoscenti know better.
But they don’t. This nation is unique; it is, as John Winthrop once said, “A light to all the world.” And, as Americans all, it is our legacy: a legacy of freedom, a legacy for good.
That is something to remember, on this July 4th and every day thereafter.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summt Daily News.
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