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Top Ten Things You May Have Forgotten About The Declaration of Independence
1. It's the "Declaration of Independence," not the "Declaration of World Domination."
Just in case anyone in the current White House forgot.
2. According to the signers of the Declaration, it's okay to care about what the rest of the world thinks. The very rationale of the Declaration is that when folks do something as momentous as dissolve existing political bonds, "a decent respect as to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."
3. According to the signers of the Declaration, government is a Good Thing. It's what enables us to "secure these rights" of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
4. The second paragraph of the Declaration is almost entirely inspired by John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, especially the assertion of the right of revolution and the principle of justifying government by consent of the governed. That's very important. Notably, however, the Declaration does not state that we have an "unalienable Right" to property.
5. Nor, related to this, do we have a right to be free from taxation as such. Instead, we have a moral right to be free from taxation "without our Consent."
6. It turns out that the signers of the Declaration were big fans of the "benefits of Trial by Jury" and opposed to "transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences." Fortunately, the federal appeals court which earlier this week ruled that the Bush Administration has wrongly held a Chinese Muslim in Guantanamo Bay for six years agrees. Many similar cases regarding Guantanamo prisoners are expected to be heard in coming months in the wake of last month's restoration by the Supreme Court (over the Bush Administration's protests) of the detainees' habeas corpus rights.
7. The signers of the Declaration took it as a complaint that King George was "transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries" to fight against the colonists. Evidently they didn't realize what a fine, upstanding job those Blackwater people are capable of.
8. The Declaration also complains of the use of "Cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages" by the crown. It's hard to say exactly, but that sounds like the signers probably thought that torture and other forms of "Cruelty" were an unconditionally bad thing.
9. What's not hard to say is that at the heart of the Declaration is an assertion of a universal right to self-determination. One nation should not dominate another, nor should it interfere in another's affairs. The specific list of offenses in the Declaration is a reminder that occupation of one people by another is bound to lead to a series of abuses. This is an important thought to keep in mind as America enters its sixth year in Iraq. The Iraqis at this point probably could put together a pretty long list of abuses committed by occupying Americans if they wanted to, the most damning of which is our utter incompetence in assembling a functional new government.
10. Finally, and this may be heresy, by declaring the "self-evident" truth that "All men are created equal" did not in itself make it so. Equality and liberty are just words on paper if they are not realized in practice. Doing that in the American case required not just throwing off the British yoke, but also establishing a constitutional form of government, and then filling in a few "minor" details along the way....such as adding a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, ending slavery, enfranchising women, recognizing the rights of labor, ending Jim Crow and legal discrimination, starting to establish civil rights for gays and lesbians, making public spaces accessible to the disabled . . . None of those things would have happened-not even the Bill of Rights, as University of Richmond historian Woody Holton reminds us in his recent book Unruly Americans-without the loud, committed and engaged struggles of ordinary people willing to challenge elite groups and established customs.
That's why discussions of the Declaration of Independence like that offered this week by neoconservative guru William Kristol (one of the geniuses who brought you the Iraq War) celebrating the Declaration as an exercise of leadership by brave elites are not so much wrong, as wrong-headed.
The bald statements of a right to self-determination, the assertion of human equality, and the assertion of fundamental rights which government must respect contained in the Declaration are all important for their own sake. But we don't get self-government, the realization of equality, and the protection and the exercise of liberty simply by declaring it; we get it only through sustained civic engagement with and oversight of government.
So by all means, just as Kristol suggests, make it a 4th of July tradition to break out the Declaration and read with your friends and family what old TJ had to say 232 years ago. But don't expect to find a document sanctioning a view of the world that so it's okay for some countries to dominate others, by invasion and occupation if necessary, or okay to simply ignore what the rest of the world thinks. The entire theme of the document is anti-imperialistic to the core, repeatedly voicing the thought that it's unnatural for one group of people to try to rule another (especially from a long distance).
And don't take it for granted that the grand but imperfect political experiment set in motion 232 years ago-the idea that you could achieve meaningful self-government across an expansive territory-cannot yet fail. It might, if we let elites (especially deranged neoconservative elites) rule in our name, and if we forget that as soon as we fall into the belief that politics and the work of governance are someone else's business, we cease to remain our own masters.
Thad Williamson is assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and an associate of Dollars & Sense magazine.