Roots of 4th are Radical
Published on Sunday, July 4, 2004 by the Madison Capital Times (Wisconsin)
Roots of 4th are Radical

Of all the troubling trends in contemporary discourse, the most disturbing is the growing acceptance of the theory that conservatism is somehow associated with patriotism. To be sure, conservatives can be patriots. But there is nothing in the ideology that would make its adherents better representatives of American ideals.

Yet, as this Fourth of July weekend approached, members of the Bush administration, along with the Republican National Committee and its amen corner in the media, were busy once again spinning the lie that conservative economic, social and foreign policies were somehow more "American" than progressive approaches that show respect for economic and social justice and international cooperation.

In effect, the conservative "logic" goes, if you do not support tax cuts for the rich, unreasonable limits on a woman's right to choose and unilateral invasions of other countries, you're not a patriot. By this reasoning, Michael Moore, who would have fit quite comfortably into a gathering of this country's revolutionary founders, is "un-American," while a son of privilege like George W. Bush, whose regal sense of privilege owes a lot more to King George than Benjamin Franklin, is somehow considered to be more patriotic than Moore.

If Tom Paine and Patrick Henry were around this weekend, they would be waiting in line to see "Fahrenheit 9/11," not attending a Bush-Cheney rally. But Paine, Henry, Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were the rabble-rousing radicals of the revolution. Surely, there were more cautious and, yes, conservative patriots - the banker, Alexander Hamilton, comes to mind.

The point here is not to suggest that conservatism is anti-American. That would be as absurd as the claim that liberalism is anti-American.

Rather, the point is to remind Americans that there is something unseemly, not to mention bizarre, about the claim that conservatives are better patriots than progressives.

The country that was started by a band of radicals 228 years ago was not a conservative project. America was founded in revolt against the existing order, in militant opposition to colonialism and imperialism. The originators of the American experiment were imperfect players - too many of them failed to recognize that slaveholding was a sin, and that economic elites were as destructive as royal elites. But they did recognize that self-determination was the essential element of freedom, and that colonial rule was antithetical to democracy - a subtlety that the current president has yet to grasp.

It was Jefferson who frequently reminded his fellow revolutionaries that they needed to avoid falling into the same traps as the elites and imperialists against whom they revolted in 1776. And, on this Fourth of July, it is right to remember Jefferson's final interpretation of the American revolutionary ideal.

When asked on the 50th anniversary of the first Fourth to address its radical legacy, Jefferson wrote, "May it be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.

"All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God. These are the grounds of hope for others; for ourselves, let the annual return to this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them."

© Copyright 2004, The Capital Times