Tomorrow, most Americans will put aside their partisan differences to celebrate the 237th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. They will festoon themselves in flag-covered clothing, eat prodigious amounts of grilled food, purchase unnecessary merchandise because it is on “sale,” and end the day by blowing things up (or, at least, watching fireworks). This, of course, is how it should be. On a deeper level though, Independence Day is the American holiday established to celebrate the America that could have been, rather than the one that we have.
If you put aside the most glaring omissions of the Declaration of Independence, and grant a generous interpretation of “all men” as literally meaning “all of humanity,” the document stands as a high-minded ideal of how to organize a society and government. Figuratively speaking, the Declaration stated to the world, “Our current rulers do not rule by our consent, or in our best interests, and since we believe we are all equals, we wish to do this for ourselves.” Unfortunately, the America that could have been never made it past the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration was an important tool in generating support among the poor for the rebellion of generally well-off colonials against their British rulers. The Declaration listed a number of grievances against King George III, all aimed to bring disparate groups of colonists together under the banner of the Revolution — and to do it just long enough to separate the colonial ruling elite from the tyranny of the British Empire. If you have trouble believing that the American Revolution was, at its heart, one group of elites fighting another, you should remember that 69 percent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were at one time officeholders under the authority of the British Crown.
The ink was barely dry on the document severing the colonies from the tyranny of the monarchy when many in the lower classes saw a new boss, same as the old boss, now controlling them. This is true of perhaps all political revolutions, but in this one at least, the seeds of an ideal took root in surprising ways.
Unfortunately for the elites, what often happens when the masses are suddenly mobilized in one direction against one enemy is that they often internalize the rallying cries to a far greater degree than the elites intended. The desire of the American people to continue to fight for the rights of “all men” — from African Americans to women and gays — is the true crowning achievement of the American Revolution.
In Boston, only a few days after the signing and reading of the Declaration, the Boston Committee of Correspondence called for a military draft. Riots broke out when it was learned that the wealthy in town could buy substitutes for themselves, leading to cries of “Tyranny is tyranny. Let it come from whom it may!” Perhaps these early rioters thought the upper-class revolutionaries were RINOs (Radicals in Name Only).
Following the end of the war, soldiers were further incensed when the Continental Congress voted to give half-pay for life to officers in the Army who served in the Revolution, while making no such payments to the common soldiers. George Washington personally ordered the execution of two of these angry soldiers “as an example” to others.
The lesson learned by the poor, then and now, is plain. National cohesion, under the auspices of patriotic duty (whether it be a revolution against an oppressor or defense against a common enemy), is fine and good when the comfort of the few are threatened by another elite. After the threat is gone, however, and the masses realize they are again serving at the feet of their “betters” instead of standing with them as “equals,” the elites begin to foster racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual division among the masses. What threatens the upper class the most is any reminder that there is an upper class to threaten.
As each new generation grows up in America, it seems that the egalitarianism of the Declaration of Independence comes closer to being realized. Sadly, though, these changes come solely in terms of suffrage or in terms of other civil rights but rarely in terms of economic rights. The American electoral system grows a little more inclusive every few decades, taking in more and more people and legitimizing what George Carlin would call the “illusion of choice,” the idea that we have freedom to choose our rulers as though they were not all already owned by the moneyed elite.
In fact, the only real egalitarianism and equality preached to us from on high is how we should all “have skin in the game” and “share the debt” of our nation. There’s even a convenient little debt clock that tells us exactly how much of our national debt we are each responsible for. There’s no such device to tell us how much of our nation’s wealth we should all share in. The very idea of that is beyond the pale.
Today, whether it’s the Tea Party (although they were largely absorbed into the Republican Party) or Occupy (who have largely managed to avoid being absorbed into any sort of political movement), Americans continue to take up revolutionary ideals and run with them. We do not have to agree with all of them, but it is important there is an honest airing of intelligent and creative ideas, especially the ones that fall outside the accepted boundaries of our normal political debate. This, too, is how it should be.
That is what we should celebrate. Not the false togetherness of “my country, right or wrong” but the true patriotism of the family of all people working together and not allowing false divisions to keep us apart.
It worked to start a nation. Perhaps it can work to reboot an ailing one.