04 July 2010
The American colonies' independence from Great Britain became fact on July 2, 1776, when the Continental Congress voted to declare independence, but the United States dates its birth to two days later, when the declaration was signed and promulgated. How many Americans, by comparison, can come that close to naming the day when the Constitution was signed or published or ratified? Despite some disclaimers from back when revolution had a bad name, Americans on some level still see themselves as a revolutionary people. And despite widespread reverence for the Constitution as a charter of limited government, Americans are more inclined to celebrate rebellion than commemorate the actual formation of their nation-state. To some extent, that may be because people would like to obscure the origins of our powers and liberties in the original reasoning of the Framers. They'd prefer that we think of the Constitution (and the Declaration) as some sort of revelation, if not divine than at least irreproducible. There's an inclination to think of the Founding as the final word on the powers of government and the rights of citizens, no matter how much history proves them wrong and the Founders intended otherwise. Rather than a revelation, they might think of it as a discovery rather than an invention, a deduction of the existence of eternal truths or natural laws. Some Americans would like to downplay the creativity of the Founders, and the license for creativity they gave to their successors, because they fear what the present or the future might create. But the same people, as far as I can tell, don't question the regular celebration of a primal act of rebellion. They don't seem to worry that it will inspire fresh rebelliousness. They don't mind that the Glorious Fourth reminds us that our loyalty to any state or government is always provisional. Maybe that's because the Declaration serves as a safeguard. It's seen as the real founding act because it states reasons and offers justifications, whether by appealing to natural rights or detailing specific abuses of royal and parliamentary power. It's treated as if the Revolution itself wouldn't be valid if the principles of the Declaration weren't absolutely true. Its appeal to a Creator is comforting to those who might worry that people might rebel for any old reason. They see it not as a precedent but as a limit on future revolutionary aspirations, as if the Declaration set a standard determining whether revolutions anywhere or at any time are legitimate or not. But if the Continental Army had driven the Redcoats and Hessians into the sea the United States would be just as free, even if Jefferson had never written a word on the subject. The colonies' grievances and resolutions predate the justifications of the Declaration which, however sincerely composed, were meant as propaganda for Americans and foreigners ("a candid world") alike. The Declaration is also shaped by the specific conditions of the colonies' former dependence on Great Britain; revolutions under different circumstances need not conform to the events of 1776 to earn legitimacy. I don't mention any of this to disparage the Declaration of Independence, but to suggest that the great document is not the American Revolution unto itself. If we want to understand why the colonies rebelled, and why they were right to rebel, we really ought to do more than read a single document. However much we revere the Founders, we shouldn't simply take their word for it all. Now go enjoy those fireworks.