Our Messy Liberties, Then And Now

Posted: Thu, 07/05/2012 - 5:58pm

On the Fourth of July, I poured a cup of coffee and started my day reading the Declaration of Independence at my kitchen table. Out loud.

You should try it. It’s one thing to think you know what it says. It’s another thing to hear the words come back at you in your own voice.

We all remember the opening phrases -- “When in the course of human events...” and “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….” But how many of us recall how in-your-face the rest of the document is?

The bill of particulars that the Founding Fathers lobbed at King George was so exhaustive and assaultive, it makes the rhetorical fights we have today on cable and on the campaign trail seem like bean bag.

“The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations,” the patriots wrote forcefully. “All having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”

The authors then tick off the repeated injuries. The King ignored their laws. He behaved as a tyrant, dissolving the legislature because they opposed him with “manly firmness.” He interfered with the colonies’ desire to expand their population by naturalizing new citizens. He created a judiciary that was beholden to him for their appointment, and even their paychecks.

He imposed taxes without the taxpayers’ consent.

It’s impossible to read – and, importantly, to hear – those words now and not take note of how they echo in our current day debates.

Fights over the role of the judiciary? Listen to the howls of protest from all sides after last week’s Supreme Court health care decision. Watch how much effort it takes for any president to get judicial nominees confirmed.

Naturalizing citizens? Think back to a time when immigration was considered a general good. Now, the Carnegie Corporation has to take out full-page newspaper ads to sing the praises and contributions of Americans born elsewhere. Echoes.

Mandates? Taxes? It’s all there. So, too, is an acknowledgement that this was a declaration written by the landed gentry at a time when it was perfectly acceptable to rail against “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

We are all creatures of our times. The Founders were certain that the King “have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity.”

How interesting that 187 years later, Martin Luther King, Jr., imprisoned in a Birmingham jail, shared that same frustration, writing: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Echoes.

If living in these times and reading what the Founding Fathers wrote reminds us of anything, it is how messy this idea of democracy is. Whether in Egypt or Libya or France or Mexico, elections and their surrounding debates often yield unexpected and raucous consequences.

No one knew that better than the 56 men who signed the Declaration. They were at war, and they were in peril. I was reminded while watching Ray Suarez interview Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnese, the authors of “Signing Their Lives Away,” on the PBS NewsHour this week.

Those who gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of  1776 – including Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin -- did not complete signing the document until five years later. They knew they were committing treason. Five were later imprisoned during the war.

(US Archives)

But, they wrote of the British, in the little-noticed body of the Declaration: “We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence…. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.”

For this, they pledged “to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

This was no statement, no falsely equivalent debate, no negotiated pact. This was a declaration of consequence. We don’t get those much anymore.


Photo Credit of King George III: National Portrait Gallery


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