Saturday, July 04, 2015

On the Declaration of Independence, some Founding Contradictions, and Our Prospects

The Fourth of July has come around again, the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

For many the 4th is just a day for beer and grilled meat, perhaps some horseplay with loud explosives, and ostentatious displays of self-righteous patriotism.

The Declaration of Independence, as a document, is an outstanding piece of Enlightenment era rhetoric. Still, I grow wearier and wearier of the non-critical and indeed mythical retelling of our history. The politics of the independence movement, the "patriot" cause, the revolution itself and our progress as a nation are complex. It would be a tremendous gift to human progress and the prospect of liberty if we could accept the context of the day we celebrate.

The bold declaration of human equality is stirring even if its author and his cohort did not live up to it in their governance. By the time the Continental Congress was convened in 1774 there was most certainly a class hierarchy in society with pronounced inequalities in wealth and property. Those we call the 'founders' were an elite that made sure independence and revolution did not lead to actual democracy in the new republic.

In any reckoning of the American revolution, the Federalist Paper #10 authored by James Madison is required reading alongside the Declaration. On the one hand, the Declaration declares almost lyrically that government is to be an instrument for popular power (by which they secure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). Madison, in straightforward if less beautiful prose, asserts a different function for a government: to protect property and wealth from the "leveling tendencies" of popular power. It was an argument for oligarchy - the preservation of power for a small group of wealthy males belonging to the right social class.

One should not look back on the 18th century with the mind of the 21st and expect too much of the former epoch. Still, the conflict between democracy (when poor people have power) and plutocracy (when the rich have power and the poor do not) dates as far back as Aristotle's Politics.

Still, the Declaration provides a rationale in the 21st century for continued struggle, to refuse to be shamed into silence on matters of injustice, to acknowledge contradictions and envision their resolution, up to and including radical transformation of existing institutions:

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.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

When that process is led from below, not from an aristocracy but by a mobilization of strong, independent and politicized working people, there is room for the American story to take a new turn even now.

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