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Rethinking July 4th

By Elvin Lim


Yesterday was Independence Day, we correctly note. But most Americans do not merely think of July 4 as a day for celebrating Independence. We are told, especially by the Tea Partying crowd, that we are celebrating the birth of a nation. Not quite.

Independence, the liberation of the 13 original colonies form British rule, did not create a nation any more than a teenager leaving home becomes an adult. Far from it, even the Declaration of Independence (which incidentally, was not signed on July 4, but in August), did not even refer to the “United States” as a proper noun, but instead,  registered the “unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” And that was all we were in 1776 – a collection of states with no common mission, linked fate, or general government. This was the understanding of the the Franco-American treaties of 1778, which referred to the “United States of North America.”

America was not America until it was, well, constituted. The United States of America was born after the 9th State ratified the US Constitution, and Congress certified the same on September 13, 1788. So we should by all means celebrate the 4th, but confusing Independence with the birth of a nation has serious constitutional-interpretive implications. If the two are the same, then the Declaration’s commitment to negative liberty — freedom from government — gets conflated with the Constitution’s commitment to positive liberty — its charge to the federal government to “secure the Blessings of Liberty.” The fact of the matter is that government was a thing to be feared in 1776. Government, or so the revolutionaries argued, was tyrannical, distant, and brutish. But it was precisely a turnaround in sentiment in the years leading up to 1789 — the decade of confederal republican anarchy — that the States came around to the conclusion that government was not so much to be feared than it was needed. This fundamental reversal of opinion is conveniently elided in Tea-Party characterizations of the American founding.

It is no wonder that politicians can get American history so wrong if we ourselves — 84 percent, according to the National Constitution Center’s poll in 1997 — actually believe that the phrase “all men are created equal” are in the Constitution. Actually, quite the opposite. Those inspirational words in the Declaration of Independence have absolutely zero constitutional weight, and they cannot be adduced as legal arguments in any Court in the nation.

Nations are not built by collective fear. Jealousy is a fine republican sentiment, especially if it is directed against monarchy, but it is surely less of a virtue when directed against a government constituted by We the People unless jealousy against oneself is not a self-defeating thing. What remains a virtuous sentiment, in monarchies or in republics, however, is fellow-feeling, a collective identification with the “general Welfare.” America can move in the direction of “a more perfect Union” only if citizens can come to accept that the Declaration of Independence was the prelude to the major act, and not the culminating act in itself. At the very least, we could get an extra federal holiday in September.

Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.

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