Even the most crass and politicized fireworks demonstration evokes that eternal pride in the promises of freedom that were made in the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and then enumerated 15 years later in the Bill of Rights.
It is the promise and long-evolving guarantee of those unusual civil liberties — not democracy or capitalism or any of the other verities of western prosperity — that set us apart from the other nations of the earth in 1776 and still do in 2007. It is what makes the American celebration of national independence different from all others.
It is what moved Thomas Jefferson to have engraved on his tombstone not that he was the third president of the United States or the sponsor of the country’s great expansion, but that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty, which set out in more detail one of the central freedoms on which the country was founded.
Think what courage it took in 1776 to declare such freedom.
Jefferson’s signature was not appended to the end of the ringing denunciations of King George and the pronouncements of liberty that he wrote (he was miffed that the Continental Congress had “mutilated” his version), but his name had already settled on the British lists for treason two years earlier for writing and publishing the surly “Summary View of the Rights of British America,” in which he lectured the king: “Let not the name of George the third be a blot in the pages of history. The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.”
He proceeded to enumerate the ways in which the king was dishonest and violated the natural rights of people in America.
The popular slogan in America was that people were enslaved by the crown, but Jefferson and the Congress avoided the term in the Declaration of Independence for the vaguer word “tyranny,” aware that the British were fond of pointing to our hypocrisy when we invoked the natural law of individual freedom and complained about being “enslaved.”
Jefferson was already conflicted about the hypocrisy, having asked the Virginia assembly to allow him to free his own slaves and getting locked out for his trouble.
All those wrongs enumerated 231 years ago and the rights formulated into the Constitution 15 years later have been a long time actually getting fixed. After 231 years, we are still, little by little, for one and then another group of people, making the rights envisioned by Jefferson and the Continental Congress real. Slavery, racial segregation, male suffrage — they were not the last wrongs vanquished by the evolving perfection of natural law.
Every generation discovers anew the fruits of bigotry. The battle now is over discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the beautiful system of American justice will soon resolve that, too.
Were he alive today, Jefferson might be troubled by contemporary excursions from the rights he envisioned and that were enshrined in the Bill of Rights. President Bush would not get a good grade.
But the Declaration of Independence also complained that King George was obstructing the “Laws of Naturalization of Foreigners” and preventing people from coming to American shores and becoming citizens as was their right under the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.”
On that score — who knows? — Jefferson might even compliment George W. Bush and Democratic senators (notably excepting Sen. Mark Pryor) for the immigration bill that perished last week.
But the men who meddled with Jefferson’s great screed and then signed it would no doubt agree that it has been a great run and would join the chorus, “Happy 231st.” And may there be many more and better.