July the Fourth, Two Thousand Twenty One
Each year that I write this blog I get excited about the Fourth of July. Knowing the blog is published on a Wednesday, I typically check the calendar around the beginning of June to see what day the Fourth falls on that year. Six times a decade I sigh as I realize that the Fourth does not, in fact, line up squarely with my blog’s self-imposed publication date. This year, of course, was no different. This leaves me with the conundrum of whether it is better to publish the Fourth of July blog before the Fourth or after it.
As you can see from this posting, I made the decision to do a 2021 Fourth of July postmortem.
There is a myriad of different days that have meaning for Americans. Our register of national holidays shows we indeed have varied interests as a country and choose to honor certain events and people we believe serve as totems for our progress towards a “more perfect union.”
However, nothing, in my opinion, is as philosophically transcendent as the Fourth of July. Not because it is our nation’s “birthday” (incidentally, one that is entirely debatable). The ratification of the Constitution is just as significant, if not more so, and one could just as easily make a valid argument that the modern “nation” of the United States did not come about until General Lee’s surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Court House 89 years later. Maybe the fact that we even do debate the “age” of America is an homage to our French allies during the Revolution, and it also has a French “diplomatic” quality. The Grande Dame that is our country may have a recognized birthday, but her age is somewhat ambiguous.
There is something unique about the Fourth of July that bears further reflection. It has, indeed, become synonymous with our “nation’s birthday” and helps us track our progress. During the Roman Republic, consuls would hammer a single nail into the ancient door at the Temple of Jupiter to mark the passing of another year. The growing relief of iron springing from that door showed the citizens of Rome not only the continuity of their Republic, but also the historical tendons that bound them together with past generations.
Perhaps the fireworks, barbecues, and memories of the shared experiences of Americans throughout this land year after year bear some similarity to those nails hammered into a god’s temple door.
But, as we go deeper, there is perhaps a more transmutative event we are celebrating that calls out for our focus.
The establishment of the United States is based on a belief that we became a “nation” upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I do take issue with that. We were not a “nation” upon the signing of that document. We were still simply a collection of nations. We did share one thing in common, however: a desire to be free from the British Empire.
To that end, the Continental Congress assigned the drafting of the Declaration to Thomas Jefferson, assisted by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. They, however, were not alone in their deliberations. The ghosts of John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Cicero, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and countless other “great thinkers” spoke to these Framers through their expansive personal libraries.
The Declaration, to me, is the single-most important document generated in Western Civilization (due deference being given to the Decalogue and the Bible). Yes, I know that is a tall statement, but I believe it to be true. The Magna Carta served as a great leap forward in our understanding of an individual’s relationship through their representatives with an established government. The Declaration outlined the fundamental position of servitude of the government, and firmly established “the people” as the group en masse in control. But it did more than that… it drilled down right to the supreme power of the individual.
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Amongst these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
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This Fourth of July let’s take a moment to really examine those bolded and underlined words in the preceding paragraph. I believe the true magistracy of the Declaration can be boiled down to these four words:
What was the point of this statement? Jefferson could easily have written we hold these truths to be valid, or enforceable, or paramount. His choice of the phrase self-evident was not laziness or a colloquial turn of phrase. It was, as was the rest of the Declaration, carefully thought out. A truth that is self-evident requires no empirical proof. It is absolute. One does not arrive at the conclusion through deliberation, one begins with a prior knowledge of its validity. By holding the forthcoming “truths” in the Declaration’s following sentence of self-evident, Jefferson (and his inspired advisors, both contemporary and historical) took the debate of their legitimacy off the table. These truths were now universal, timeless, and beyond modification or annulment.
The rights Jefferson identified in the Declaration were not transient rights. They were inalienable. They also were not a result of a social construct; they were rights bestowed upon “man” by “man’s” Creator. The absence of the word God is also instructive. Creator means God to us. But it also means Allah, the Great Sky God, Gaea, Jupiter, Zeus, the Celestial One or, for some, the Pastafarian Spaghetti Monster. The point was not to proselytize a particular religious cosmology; the point was to acknowledge that the “man” was something more than a simple biological organism that had crawled out of the ooze more dynamically than our fellow terrestrial brethren. “Man” was a unique creation of the Creator and, thus, had been enhanced with rights. Some of those rights we simply are not able to transfer to others for administration on our behalf. Some we can, sure… but others are unique to us as individuals. These are the rights that make us uniquely human and, thus, are the rights we as individuals are stuck with, like it or not. It would be impossible for an individual to surrender her right to liberty to the government for her benefit, just as it would be impossible for an individual to surrender her pursuit of happiness to the government for some centralized regulation. These rights are so unique to the individual, they can never be surrendered.
No doubt many of you have taken note that I put the word “man” in quotes and referred to our subject in the last sentence as a female. Were the Framers “sexist” in the use of a male-gendered document? Who knows… honestly, who cares?… They existed in a time when the male gender dominated in the use of language and, for that matter, in the structure of the polity and society. Though I suspect Jefferson, in particular, would look at our more gendered balance usage with a degree of admiration… but hey… that is me.
This is an extremely important word. The “list” that Jefferson lays out (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) is not an exhaustive one because of the inclusion of this glorious word amongst. These three rights were simply the ones recognized, or known, by the Framers at the time of the drafting of the Declaration. In an act of extreme humility, the Framers acknowledged their understanding of the universe was limited by their time in history and bound by their limited understanding of the human condition. As the Framers put their signatures on the Declaration, they realized that as humans grew in conscience and understanding, other rights that were not known at the time of the signing might be discovered and be just as valid and inalienable as the famous big three.
While the Fourth of July this year already retreats in our rearview mirror, I urge you to take some time (perhaps with a glass of Lagavulin… this 16-year is quite nice) and reflect on that grandest of animating principles, the Declaration of Independence. While we may debate on when the United States “became” a country, one thing needs to be reaffirmed year after year…the Declaration is the result of the noblest of human endeavors, and the principles that emanate from it, are the greatest single statement of human dignity ever articulated.
Happy belated birthday, America!