Thursday, July 02, 2009

We hold these truths to be self-evident

John Adams was of the opinion that on July 2 every year, the American people would celebrate the momentous occasion of their Declaration of Independence from Great Britain with fireworks, parades, and other festivities.

He thus became the first American president - far before his election or even the existence of the office - to misjudge the power of oratory. The Declaration was such a tremendous document that we celebrate the date of its adoption, July 4, rather than the formal act of separation that the Continental Congress ratified two days prior, on this date 233 years ago. Even the title of the post comes from Jefferson's soaring pen, rather than the actual event of the Colonies declaring their separation from England.

Adams was no mean orator himself, of course. He and Jefferson were also great friends, despite a long break caused in large part by their differing political theories and the practical tensions that resulted. [Sheila (who else?) has a comprehensive overview; just click her obsession links: the Founding Fathers and Alexander Hamilton.] The break is perfectly understandable. They took such questions as how to govern very seriously indeed. They had to. In their case it wasn't a question of arguing about a small pet program or the best method to appropriate the funds to build a bridge somewhere, it was literal life and death for millions, and the very power of self-determination for the rest. And they saw themselves as not just acting on their own behalf, but on ours, all these years later; and in a small way on the behalf of people all over the world, as an example of how it could truly be done, as a pattern of liberty.

To that extent they have succeeded perhaps far beyond their own hopes. (Adams once said that all democracies are short-lived and eventually murder themselves.) If hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, then every dictator and would-be tyrant in the world bows in homage to the might of the ideas laid out in the United States Constitution: every last one of them clings to many of the external trappings of representative democracy even when they, like Mao's ubiquitous portraits, are paper-thin coverings. Ahmadinejad and Chavez and Castro are all "elected" presidents, and so was Saddam and the latest example, Honduran president Manuel Zelaya.

Even during that long break Adams and Jefferson remained committed to their country and the liberty of its citizens. That committment drove them apart, but provided a common ground on which they both stood. In Adams' words: "Swim or sink, live or die, survive or perish, [I am] with my country. You may depend upon it." And Jefferson shared that desire.

This is a very long-winded way to point out this wonderful post from Ms. Sister at the Coalition. I can think of nothing further apart than Adams' statement above and the distressing sentiment Ms. Sister deplores, where people finally feel comfortable to display their flag only when their side is on top - the sentiment so ably described by Michelle Obama after her husband was nominated by his party to run for President: "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country." I have no doubt she told the truth, but I can't possibly ascribe the word "love" to any such sentiment - it's boggling to imagine a love of country (or pride in it) depending wholly on whether or not it wants your husband to run it.

To be entirely honest, I'm sick of having to defend one Administration or deplore another. I must not let any such thing get in the way of being an American and doing whatever little I can to make it happier and healthier. One more time, Mr. Adams, if you please:
I think instead of opposing systematically any administration, running down their characters and opposing all their measures, right or wrong, we ought to support every administration as far as we can in justice.

(Source of the Adams quotes? Of course!)

If President Obama ever does manage to do the right thing by liberty in general or America in particular I will be very happy indeed. In the end I want America to be free. That should be the ultimate aim of every Administration and every officeholder. Given that freedom, we can handle the pursuit of happiness quite well on our own.

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