Happy Independence Day: July Fourth 1776
1776 the movie: Congress May 8th 1776
Adams on Congress
The Declaration Submitted to Congress
George Carlin on Rights/Privleges
Steve Martin: I believe
Hair: "Don't put it down, best one around"
In Congress July 4, 1776
The above is the header of The Declaration of Independence one of my all time favorite pieces of writing in the English language and certainly among the most influential on me personally and perhaps on the entire world. As a result of my reverence for this document, July 4th, Independence Day, is one of my three favorite holidays of the year, not just as a time to party (although, member of the congressional committee responsible for the Declaration, John Adams, suggested that barbeques, parades, fireworks and sporting events were the best ways to celebrate Independence Day) but also as a time to reflect.
This year I won't be living up to former President Adams suggestions. I'm unemployed, many of my friends are unemployed and those who aren't are struggling financially, so, nobody in my immediate circle is throwing a barbeque this year. I don't much care for sports, my wife doesn't much care for fireworks and neither of us particularly cares for being in the crowds that gather for parades, but, I can still do the reflecting.
I will probably start my reflection by watching the movie musical 1776 a couple of times. I know I know, musicals are silly, they only appeal to a certain niche but I love it and recommend it. While it is a movie musical put together by entertainers, not a historical document put together by scholars, I love the music and the writers studied and included material from the letters and diaries of the founding fathers, so, it's about as historically accurate as a movie can be. It is however, a strange musical in that; it's about the Continental Congress of the United Colony's of America reaching the decision to declare independence from Britain and become the Continental Congress of the United States of America.
It's interesting because, that congress was every bit as divided and dysfunctional as our congress today is. As I mentioned in a recent blog post, after Jefferson wrote the Declaration, John Adams and Ben Franklin made changes before submitting it to Congress, where Congress made an additional eighty changes to it. I suppose it's lucky that they had fewer congressmen than we do. I'll be posting a couple of clips from the movie here from You Tube. In the second Adams makes complaints about Congress that will be familiar to us today. "A second flood, a simple famine, plagues of locusts everywhere, or a cataclysmic earthquake I'd accept with some despair but no, you sent us congress, good God sir was that fair?" In the third clip, Adams, Jefferson and Ben Franklin are proud of themselves and their declaration but, get into an argument about what the national bird should be. This argument is historical. Jefferson wanted the dove, to influence the nation towards peace. Franklin wanted the Turkey, a native American bird that was a source of our sustenance to show our nurturing nature. Adams wanted the Eagle to show our power. Many European nations had the Eagle for a symbol and he wanted to show we are as good and powerful as any of them. The sad part about this clip is it shows these three founding fathers triumphantly entering congress absolutely sure that their declaration will be cheered and applauded but the clip is cut too early. When they enter, the congressional secretary finishes reading the document and throws it open for debate and amendment and everyone in the congress jumps up and starts yelling and trying to get attention to get in the changes that they want. It's actually pretty funny.
The second step in my reflections will be a reading of the document itself. My favorite part of course is the second paragraph which goes like this:
"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. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world."
That paragraph expresses two really important ideas, the idea of rights, and the idea of duty towards protecting those rights. The balance between rights and duties is a difficult one and will be debated by thinking people for the rest of human existence. (I'm also going to post a You Tube clip of George Carlin talking about rights. He doesn't believe they come from God, but his take is interesting and needs to be seriously considered.)
The rights that Jefferson mentions by name are "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" none of which actually made it into the Constitution or Bill of Rights but which I think all Americans still feel to be their fundamental rights. Of course one of our big problems is that living a life of liberty and pursuing what makes us happy, may often bring us into conflict with others who hold the same rights, and so not only do we, as Jefferson says, institute government to protect our rights, but also so that we have a venue in which to deal with the imposition of our neighbors rights on us and vice a versa.
The bulk of the paragraph is about why we have the right to change our form of government if it becomes oppressive and with that in mind, eleven years later, the founding fathers created the Constitution and set it out for the public to vote on. I'll put a link at the bottom of the page to the Federalist papers which were the arguments that some of the founding fathers made in newspapers as to why the Constitution should be adopted. While there are some people today who argue that the Constitution is carved and stone, a holy and unchallengeable writ, the founding fathers made it amendable so that it would change and grow with the nation as the nation changed and grew, so that we would have a venue to express our differences and compromise, so that we wouldn't need to overthrow the government in order live, be free and pursue happiness. It provides us with a method of peacefully changing government ever two years, and it is our duty to do so. The Declaration itself argues against the foundation of a government being carved in stone.
I love this country and I love the freedoms that it allows us, and I love the methods it has given us to maintain those freedoms.
Thanks to a hub by a friend, I have been thinking about what it means to call oneself and American. The actual factual definition of an American is found in the Constitution and its amendments and has to do with citizenship. But, for most of us, citizenship is an accident of birth or population movement. I believe that there is a spirit of America though, an American Dream that we all should, and I hope do hold in common. I believe that to have this spirit means to live free. To live as we want to live, as we believe we should, without imposing that belief on others. That we should do what we want and allow others to do the same. That when our lives come into conflict with each other, that we find a compromise that allows us to follow our desires in peace. That we are willing to live up to the duty of self sacrifice even the sacrifice of our very lives in order to preserve our right, and the right of our fellows, to live as we choose. I believe that it is as simple as that and that any further modification is just us trying to justify our own lives and beliefs and get others to see things our own way. Which, we can do, so long as we don't force it on others. (I recommend the book "Democracy In America" written by Alexis De Toqueville in the 1830's. He was a Frenchman traveling the United States to learn about Democracy. He loved us.) I'm also including a video clip from Steve Martin called "I believe to show how silly we may sound when we expect others to accept the profundity of our own beliefs and one from the musical Hair, which is very sarcastic but, which I like because I remember when Hippies were thought of as subversive for being different but I thought they were heroes for being willing to follow their American Dream.
May you all have an Independence Day in which you can set aside the current fears and celebrate the blessings of liberty.