Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Abraham Lincoln spoke these words in Springfield, Illinois on June 26th 1857, nearly 162 years ago:
“They [the signers of the Declaration of Independence] did not mean to assert the obvious untruth that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right; so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.”
They are part of a continuum in the development of his philosophy of liberty and how he understood the words of the Declaration of Independence, and how he believed that the authors 0f that document understood the words that set the United States apart from all other nations. The words “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal” were revolutionary for their time and the Jefferson understood them in that manner.
Though at the time they words of the Declaration only applied to white men, the words and writings of many of the founders were uncomfortable with the actual condition of black slaves as well as Native Americans. The had enough integrity to understand that what they wrote was a proposition that had universal implications which were not yet realized and would take time to happen. Those who mocked the document, the proposition, the founders, and the new nation understood that as well. It was a watershed moment for all of Europe was still under the control of Kings and despots. Thomas Jefferson understood how these words threatened despotic rule around the world and in 1821 he wrote to John Adams:
“The flames kindled on the 4th of July 1776, have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary, they will consume these engines and all who work them.”
But this was something that the people of the United States would have to wrestle with for decades before the most glaring aspect of inequality, that of slavery was overthrown. Frederick Douglass understood the importance of the Declaration even as white Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line crafted compromises that left blacks in slavery and gave unfettered access for slave owners to go to Free States to recover their human property. In 1852 he wrote:
“I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.”
It is that ring bolt and it must be understood in its universal application and people in the United States and in countries which have embraces some portions of the concept and fight for it, otherwise it could be lost. Harry Truman noted this danger in 1952 when he said:
“We find it hard to believe that liberty could ever be lost in this country. But it can be lost, and it will be, if the time ever comes when these documents are regarded not as the supreme expression of our profound belief, but merely as curiosities in glass cases.”
Today the rights, protections, civil liberties, and opportunity to advance themselves of Americans are being rolled back in a manner that a few decades ago most of us would have found unimaginable. They are under threat many ways, too many to mention today and they must be continually fought for or we will lose them.
On this Independence Day we are witnessing an American President commandeering the holiday for his own aggrandizement and making it a display of military power versus the understanding that our independence was founded on the proposition on a proposition, an ideal yet to be fulfilled that “We Hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The symbolism of what the President is doing, shrouding the Lincoln Memorial so the statue of Lincoln is not visible from the Capital Mall, spending millions of dollars on military displays and flyovers, and making it a celebration of him is what men who are bent on establishing authoritarian rule have done for millennia. The best seats are reserved for his family, friends, diners, and V.I.P.s something that mocks the words of the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.
General Martin Dempsey, the former Chair Of the Joint Chiefs of Staff noted: “It used to be we stood for ideals,… Our national pride wasn’t based on the power of our military or how dominant we are over others.” Retired Marine General Anthony Zinni said: Put troops out there so we can thank them – leave the tanks for Red Square.”
The President is turning the celebration of our Independence on its head. But that is not surprising because for him this is not about patriotism but his own power and the use of nationalistic images of American power as an expensive substitute for the ideals that he does not believe in. Instead of being a display of patriotism this is going to turn in to a display of toxic nationalism.
Historian Timothy Snyder warned us when he wrote:
“The president is a nationalist, which is not at all the same thing as a patriot. A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us that we are the best. A nationalist, “although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge,” wrote Orwell, tends to be “uninterested in what happens in the real world.” Nationalism is relativist, since the only truth is the resentment we feel when we contemplate others. As the novelist Danilo Kiš put it, nationalism “has no universal values, aesthetic or ethical.” A patriot, by contrast, wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves. A patriot must be concerned with the real world, which is the only place where his country can be loved and sustained. A patriot has universal values, standards by which he judges his nation, always wishing it well—and wishing that it would do better.”
But the issue is greater than the President. Many Americans have either forgotten or are willfully ignorant of what it is to be a patriot. Many Americans are becoming less knowledgeable about our own history while embracing authoritarian concepts completely antithetical to the ideals of the Declaration, and the understanding embodied in the preamble to the Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
George Will rightly understands that the situation at the present time is tenuous.
“The equilibrium of James Madison’s constitutional architecture is currently in disarray, with congressional anemia enabling presidential imperiousness, the architecture was designed to “secure” — the crucial verb in the Declaration’s second paragraph — the natural rights the Declaration affirms.”
Judge Learned Hand, probably the most brilliant American jurist never to sit on the Supreme Court wrote something very pertinent to our day:
“Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. The spirit of Liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of Liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of Liberty is that which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.”
I am afraid that the spirit of liberty is dying in America, it certainly has in the Republican Party and I am not too sure if the Democratic Party is that far behind.
As Independence Day passes I will continue to write about this subject even as I write about other subjects including civil rights, the Holocaust, Gettysburg, and other historical and political subjects.