Sunday, July 04, 2010

For What It's Worth: a letter home on Independence Day

When our forbears mutually pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to the independence of America, they were effecting a momentous change in the world - though not the one which springs to the mind of most people. They were, in effect, making their personal commitment to the truth of the claims laid out in the Declaration. The signatories’ pledge was in the name of the United States, in Congress assembled, so that their pledge was to order their lives in a way that made (makes) the truth of the claims advanced in the Declaration plain for all to see.

Even so, a half-dozen generations of scholars in the United States have attempted with varying degrees of success to reduce the ideas of the Declaration to a minimally modified mimicry of John Locke’s formulaic for the purpose of government, and make the revolution the Declaration proclaimed to justify a mere exercise in Lockean political theory.

John Adams, who sat on the Declaration’s drafting committee and all but single-handedly carried the day for independence, spoke of the independence of America and the American Revolution in the following terms:
Who was the author...of American Independence [?]…We might as well inquire who were the Inventors of Agriculture, Horticulture, Architecture, Musick [sic]…[The] only true answer must be the first emigrants. The Revolution was [therefore] effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.
The question, “Who was the author of American independence?” wants to know in whom American independence has authority. Adams’ reply, that the only true answer must be the first emigrants, would find authority in their experience of exodus, for he describes them as emigrants, and not as immigrants. They came out of the Old World; their coming into the New, where they established a way of life, eventually allowed their descendants to say with probity, “this is good,” in describing the way of life that they had inherited, and so without reference to the king of Great Britain.

Whatever else this means, it tells us that the American mind does not express itself in others’ terms; the words it speaks are its own, though deliberately, they are not novel. America does not speak first, but is called upon to speak, and expresses itself in a way that is appropriate to the call to which it speaks:
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
A pertinent practical example of this way of thinking is to be found in in Stanley Cavell’s 2004 book, Cities of Words: pedagogical letters on a register of the moral life, precisely in his chapter on Locke:
I recall…Emerson’s accusation and confession that we no longer speak or think for ourselves, no longer say “I think,” “I am,” but “quote some saint or sage.”… [I]t follows from this loss of capacity to outface a doubt of our existence, that we in effect declare that we haunt our existence. The implications for the body politic are immediate, since if I have no voice of my own in which to express my thoughts, I cannot give my consent to be governed and our condition is that we haunt our society. It cannot hear us.
But here, could we express Emerson’s longing for America to discover itself by imagining him to declare, “Man is timid, he is afraid to say, ‘I think,’ ‘I consent,’" but instead quotes, for example, Locke?
The Declaration is not exactly quoting Locke.

Some of the words of that document are similar enough to Locke’s language to let us note and possibly – so we might understand the Founders to be requiring of us – to know the difference.

The Declaration says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident:” so that the thirteen political societies are united in claiming these truths each for its own in America; what is more, the thirteen States of America, through their representatives to Congress, are claiming that the truths of the Declaration are visibly present as ordering forces in American life, if only one will come and see for oneself.

There is no argument in the Declaration because self-evidence cannot, as such, be argued - only shown: but are we showing, by our conduct and example (as Publius a few years later would say it is our duty and our privilege and our Providentially-appointed task to show), that societies of men are really capable of establishing good government from reflection and choice, i.e. that they are not forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force, and that they do not require the chains of despotism to keep them from destroying and devouring one another?

The resolution of the 2nd Continental Congress, which, on the 2nd of July, 1776, voted in favor of Richard Henry Lee’s June 7th motion:
RESOLVED: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
The members of Congress were signing their own death warrants, and committing the states they represented to war, and all the immense expense in life and treasure that is the price of war.

To say that they did so in order to test a parlor theory of the origin of politics, is not to praise the worth of philosophy; it is to indict the founders as moral imbeciles, at best; at worst, they would be rabid, bloodthirsty ideologues.

Jefferson described the Declaration as an expression of the American mind. Though Locke is clearly present as one contributor to the sentiments of the day, the authority of the Declaration rests on its harmonizing of those sentiments, which, as Jefferson himself has just attested, is an expression of the American mind.

This is not Lockean. This is something different.

The question whether we are still commited to the task, to which our fathers pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, is one that must be front and center, now and forever, in our national and our individual minds.

This is the price of liberty.

1 comment:

Humbly Presumptuous said...

Very good. There is here a lesson not only for today Americans, but also for Europeans.
A fashionable politica concept in Europe today is that of "constitutional patriotism", meaning: we have dropped all the identitarian stress of the past on the nation, which led to the well known catastrophes; it is enough for us to recognize ourselves united by the democratic constitutions, which allow us to live in a regime of peaceful tolerance.
Constitutions, though, do little more than establish a procedural framework for the formation of consense, laying no claim to define the kind of man we should be.
In the same way think many people in America, thus endangering the very heart of the American experience expressed in the. Declaration of Indipendence. A claim is indeed advanced here to the kind of man we should be: people endowed with the kind of virtue necessary to make the Declaration true.
Democracy becomes otherwise the kind of creeping civil war I spoke about a few posts back, with the State as absolute tutor of our "life, "liberty" and "pursuit of happiness".
That is, alas, what is called tyranny.