Everyone agrees we can all use a good civics lesson, but what about rumination on the civics lesson? It is true, as our current President likes to say, that our nation is novel in being founded on an idea. This idea is that the government exists at the consent of the governed. Neither its power nor its authority hail from the patronage of a pagan deity, a Platonic Council of Guardians (as exists in the Islamic Republic of Iran), the sacramental monopoly of an invisible singular God, nor some Hobbesian Lord Protector convinced that he is needed to maintain public order. Our native mythology ascribe the source of legitimate government to the consent of the governed, so that they may be secure in their life, liberty and property.
In the 1600s the American colonies were thinly-populated, in relatively high degree by those who had made their fortune marking out large plots and exploiting the natural resource wealth of a continent to date only equally sparsely-inhabited by aboriginal tribes. (The 1790 Census of the United States recorded a population of 3,893,635 excluding the Northwest Territory which is now most of the Midwest.) To read the Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776, today one may be struck by realities of the time only subliminally-indicated by the text. As this was an atypically-affluent population for the World of the day, men (and at times women) would have had been provided an education in disproportional numbers; they would have had a vested interest–the sort of vested interest condemned in contemporary discourse by politicians of both parties but in reality a permanent basis for civil society–more-extensive than those of the true commoner; they would, as Englishmen, have insisted on their rights as Englishmen–and would have been familiar with an historical tradition in which King had regularly lost out in efforts at power consolidation to Lords and Parliament, as at the signing of the Magna Charta in 1215, the 3 phases of the English Civil War from 1642-1651, and the Glorious Revolution in 1688. Finally (though this hard fact of geography does not excuse the serious political missteps of King George III), sailing across the Atlantic Ocean took several weeks, almost assuring that any action by the more Hobbesian-minded King to restrain the independent political development of the Colonies’ many landed gentlemen would apply all the imagination and subtlety of a blunt instrument.
In any case, in this context the Declaration of Independence gains a certain life that mere consideration as an historical artifact cannot confer. For as Friedrich Nietzsche has said of all sacred objects also applies to the Declaration–that they begin as something useful and only afterwards, as the span of time and the resilience of a form compound a sense of awe, become sacred. For the Founding Fathers, their sense of propriety was generally rooted in their property; occasional references to the divine aside, the intellectual forces among them keenly recognized that, at this contentious political moment, ideas would allow them to re-frame the rising political conflict in their favor. Before enumerating the specific grievances held against King George III, Thomas Jefferson and the other contributors to a statement of intent to nationhood felt it appropriate to expound on the unalienable Rights of men and to explain that the rightful action of government is to secure those rights for enjoyment–not on the most-expedient available terms, mind you, but on those terms acceptable to the governed themselves.
To some, the Declaration of Independence serves more as a mission statement of for our political system than the U.S. Constitution; it is not, neither in practice and no moreso in principle. If you want to understand the principles underlying the United States Federal Government even now (Libertarian and “Tea Party” objections notwithstanding), consult the Constitution. The Liberal Ironist cannot read the Declaration today other than as the premise underlying our idiosyncratic politics. In some ways, our society collectively chooses to enjoy the freedom available to it in ways that undermine public health, safety and morals, and in other cases it criminalizes entirely private behavior. Our suburban sprawl and (until recently) political emphasis on the value of home ownership for all Americans constitute powerful physical and ideological evidence of the importance of property and private space to American citizens. “Suburban separatism,” as at least 1 observer has called it, began in earnest in the late-1940s following the triumphal return from World War II and witnessed a trend of middle class movement from centralized cities into small and mid-sized townships where taxes and the cost of goods and services would be lower, crime would be less-horrific and police protection better, schools would be better and more locally-controlled (and until the past generation, overwhelmingly white), and everyone could own a house on a lot of some size.
In relation to the current foremost domestic policy debate, our Federal and State budget crises are easily as much the result of a “revenue problem” (the failure of government to tax people, especially the rich, for the services and programs it provides them) as they are of a “spending problem,” but the Republican Party on balance is able to rally voter support on the proposition that taxes should be lower even if desired government services must be reduced. Though there are nuances to this dynamic as well as contingent changes in public sentiment towards this tax or that government program, in general the public is in chronic agreement with the Republicans that taxes should be lower, in spite of its vagueness. A revolt against centralized government is of course underway in this country right now, on the premise of the curious belief that American strength can be renewed if only we apply late-18th century political principles more-rigidly to contemporary problems. It is with strange appropriateness that the “Tea Party” movement has named itself after an act of mass vandalism that, in the history written by the winning partisanship, became a high-minded act of defiance of tyranny, subjection and monopoly (and yes, dreaded taxation).
Many readers might think these observations are intended as criticisms of either our country’s founding or of its political present. Actually, they are not intended as criticisms at all; I do not make a single of the above observations to inveigh against our political culture but simply to observe that our own particular national naivete is epitomized in the Declaration of Independence. The Liberal Ironist is a Liberal, but he is also a pragmatist: we must work with the World as we find it. In 1776 a group of largely-landed businessmen warned as eloquently as they were able that they were prepared to wage war to force the British Empire to stop meddling with their business; 235 years later what would be mere legal or administrative questions in many countries–over funding and regulation of health care, food safety monitoring, gun sale and ownership regulation, campaign finance, investment banking, energy resource procurement, and free trade–take on an aspect of moral struggles between non-commensurable perspectives. Progressive Liberals must engage this world of ideas more-boldly, and without falling prey to some naivete about the sudden repudiation of the right. While we seek to explain the importance of health care reform, or of the government role in education, or of combating poverty, or–the hardest sell–humanitarian operations abroad, we must check against any vain inclination to call Conservatives stupid or the United States unsalvageable, and recognize that in many ways, the medium through which our political statements are heard is the Declaration of Independence.
If that strikes a Liberal reader who is not also an ironist as discouraging or even alienating, the John Adams miniseries may help foster some sympathy for classical Liberalism. Either way, everyone please have a happy, patriotic, fireworks-laden, and even safe 4th of July.