Celebrating the Triumph of Our Liberal Revolution

Chris Hondros, Getty Images

Since there is no greater expression of liberalism than revolution, it is right that a former colony should celebrate its independence. It is also true that America and Americans have much to celebrate, even after 236 years.  And despite all the talk about rights, about liberty, the focus originally was on independence.

On July 2, 1776, the Philadelphia Evening Post put right next to the news of independence a notice about an escaped slave, putting then current ideas about rights and liberty in their proper perspective. Foreign commentators, we are told, as well as domestic, talked more about the document’s charges against the king than about the second paragraph’s self-evident truths.

It was only in the nineteenth century that an assertion of sovereignty began to be seen as a charter of rights. Says Eric Slauter from the University of Chicago. Abraham Lincoln said in 1857 that the assertion that ‘All men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain.” And we are, ostensibly, still celebrating that independence, not those rights, though we tend to see them as inseperable.

We have tended to mythologize our independence and those associating with the endeavor. But at the time, the committee that wrote this most important document, wasn’t even an important committee composed of Congress’ most important people – they were all busy in other committees writing other reports.

As Slauter reminds us, “Jefferson may have drafted the Declaration because better-known writers were tied up with other committees. In fact, the most famous man on the Committee of Five was important enough to serve on other committees as well – all except Thomas Jefferson. Sure, he was the only Southerner on the Committee, sure he was from Virginia and had an “emerging reputation” but in the end, he was also “the only member of the declaration committee without other duties…”

This is to diminish neither the committee’s nor Jefferson’s accomplishment, but a little splash of reality is not a bad thing, a remedy for dangerous levels of self approbation, the sort found in modern day American Exceptionalism. The sort sold by the Tea Party.

But the declaration, important as it is to us, was, at the time, not even seen as a legal text or a legislative act, and a “Declaration of” became a “Declaration by” two weeks after it was published. Hardly the stuff of myth. Congressional journals referred to it in what is hardly stirring language as “the declaration respecting independence” but nobody called it the Declaration of Independence.

When it appeared before the public, the printer, John Dunlap,  presented it as “A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress Assembled.” Quite a mouthful. It wasn’t until July 19 that the document we celebrate today became “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America” and it’s not like the signatories signed and then ordered it rushed into print – the document had been published six weeks before it was written on parchment to be signed. Not terribly dramatic and hardly the stuff of Hollywood.

Slauter argues that “though the now-common title suggests the text declares independence, it is perhaps better understood as a declaration of reasons or causes for why the United States of America are (or were) already independent” and that this is how “a majority in Congress understood the text.” It isn’t that the Declaration declared something that hadn’t yet taken place but rather explained why it had already taken place. As Slauter writes, “Passing references in private and public letters suggest that, to its earliest congressional readers, the Declaration rationalized and publicized rather than perhformed an action.”

So it would be wrong to say that on July 4 America declared its independence; we explained it instead. Not quite as stirring a content for a speech as what is commonly believed, and we can forgive the president in the film Independence Day (1996) for glossing over those details.  And explanation is hardly as glorious as an assertion.

It is not inappropriate that we should choose the day of explanation to celebrate our independence, serving like it did as a punctuation to a long list of misdeeds by the king and his government. And now that independence has been won there is no reason we should not, as Lincoln suggested in 1857, devote ourselves to that part of the document set aside for “future use”- liberty.

But we should keep in mind that in the minds of the signatories independence was already a done deal on July 4 and that the document we celebrate is not an act but an explanation of an act. We should keep in mind that on July 2, on the day Congress “dissolved” the “connection” with Britain, British troops were pouring ashore on Staten Island to wrest New York away from the colonies. As John Adams wrote, “We are in the very midst of a revolution, the most complete, unexpected and remarkable of any in the history of nations.”

And as David McCullough noted in his masterful accounting of that year, “Such courage and high ideals were of little consequence…the Declaration itself being no more than a declaration without military success against the most formidable force on earth.” It would hardly be remembered today had we not succeeded. John Knox was at least partly right when he wrote, “As we play our part posterity will bless or curse us.” We do bless them today, but cursing would be the least of their problems if they had lost; we might well be struggling to remember who they were.

Spirits were high in 1776, as McCullough observes. Should they be high today? We have, as a nation, reached our maturity and passed it. We are no longer a new nation except in  comparison to such ancient countries as England or France; Germany is newer and a nation only because Napoleon broke up the monstrosity known as the Holy Roman Empire. But even mature relationships have their share of problems.

But even in 1776 we had our share of problems – some familiar to us today including a rocky economy, and, of course, war. Some of the issues of 1776 would not be settled until 1865 in the wake of the most costly war in American history; some are with us still, despite the United States Constitution and the new governmental system it established in place of the old and unworkable Articles of Confederation.

Perhaps the Civil War did not permanently settle some of these issues at all; there are those who wish to undo much of the work accomplished in that war by tearing down the amendments that sealed the changes. There are those who wish to tear down the Constitution itself and return to the Articles of Confederation that were already useless in the 18th century (how much more so today?).

But these problems only make the Declaration more meaningful to us, and what we have the more dear. We should celebrate and we should remember that we could be raising toasts in honor of a king instead. But we should remember what really happened, not what we imagine to have happened or what we might wish had happened. We should celebrate our country for what it is and attach our loyalties to that reality, and not some ideological fantasy that will never see the light of day.

If there is anything more liberal than a revolution, I do not know what it is, so let us celebrate our revolution, brothers and sisters as we resist the long-delayed conservative counter-revolution that will take that independence, and those rights, away.

(This post draws on David McCullough’s 1776 (2005) and “The Declaration of Independence and the new nation” by Eric Slauter, in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson, ed. by Frank Shuffelton (2009).

26 Replies to “Celebrating the Triumph of Our Liberal Revolution”

  1. At this moment, as I wait for my godson to pick me up for breakfast, I look out at the morning sky, chalky-blue and opaque, and feel I can’t see ahead. 1776 was a year of moment. So was 1860. I can’t help but feel those years could pale into insignificance next to this, and I implore Fate that it be ordinary.

  2. HAPPY 4TH!!!

    You PoliticusUSA writers are all PAINES to the Conservative Establishment.

    From a dull moderate.

  3. Nice Hraf – A fitting commentary and reminder that in the final analysis, we are brothers and sisters. It’s too bad Republicans fail to comprehend that simple premise.

  4. We, as a country, seem to have these swings, from the right in the 1950’s scare of “Communists” to the left in the 1960’s and early 70’s. We are now swinging to the right again, but this time, the swing to the “far” right (!!!)
    The difference in the earlier swings and this swing is simple: Money!!
    Because of a far right Supreme Court, and a Citizen United decision that opened the floodgates of monied corporations, we are now in danger of actually losing our “unalienable Rights” to a monied class.
    This day is a day of reflection and celebration, it’s also a day to take stock of where we, as a country, are headed. We need solutions to some of the pressing problems in this country, and the far rights ability to silence these solutions in favor of “no solutions” is putting our “unalienable Rights” in a great deal of jeopardy and we all need to get the message out that unless we unite as a country again, become a community again, then we will be like we were in 1776, a landed Gentry of power, and the rest of us. Our future is in our hands, all our hands!

  5. If you see Conservatives as taking away rights and independence I am puzzled. What rights and independence do you mean?

    The right to display hip-grinding sexual appetites in public?

    The right to destroy an unborn child without mercy?

    The right to despise your countrymen and seek to silence/destroy them?

    Psalm 2

    Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?

    2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed, saying,

    3 Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.

    4 He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.

    5 Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure.

  6. “..let us celebrate our revolution, brothers and sisters as we resist the long-delayed conservative counter-revolution that will take that independence, and those rights, away.”

    Still very puzzled. Your well-written article leaves me with many questions.

    Why do you remark that the cons counter-rev was long-delayed? If conservatives have finally risen up it is because we can’t take the public displays of sexual preference anymore. We don’t understand the desire for anarchy in a safe and tender land. We were willing to live and let live until attitudes were Right In Our Face.

    Do you realize that you are using the unbridled force of big government to reassert your rights and independence?


  7. Kate, you say it’s well-written and thank you for that, but I don’t think you follow what I said at all…it’s rather like you acknowledge what I said and then blow past it entirely without really taking it into consideration, continuing your own “spin” or “take”.

    And seriously, a revolution against “displays of sexual preference”? You really went there?

    Liberalism is about liberty; conservatism is about maintenance of the status quo. Displays of sexual preference is very liberal – it is ultra-conservative cultures that put limits on open displays of affection, even between opposite-sex couples. Think about that for a moment.

    You think it’s wrong but it was right for a long time before it became wrong under the conservative religion known as Christianity. Your opposition to liberty does not make liberty wrong in general or even wrong specifically for the United States. My point here speaks to that – the American Revolution was, as all revolutions must be, a liberal revolution. All that is left to conservatism is a counter-revolution to restore the status quo of before the revolution.

    We don’t want your status quo. We got rid of it on purpose. Our country is not founded on the status quo but on opposition to the status quo.

    And Kate, seriously, better the unbridled force of big government (which at least gives me a vote) than the unbridled force of big corporations, which don’t.

  8. Kate is a living example of those Hammerheads I was talking about.

    Kate, if you loathe sex so much, don’t do it.

  9. Kate, you’re spewing the same old lies.

    I know a lot of gay and lesbian people. All are very circumspect in their affection for their “significant others” (in this state, they’re banned from marrying and according to something I recently read, even calling their partner their spouse) – and all (with only a handful of exception) of the LGBT people I’ve known were in long-term permanent and committed relationships. Most have been in relationships for decades… can you say the same about your own relationships? Can you say the same for the “Good Christians” around you?

    They’re circumspect because of the HATE directed at them by the “Good Christians” in this area. Some of my friends have even fled the county out of fear for their lives, just because they’re gay and hated by the churches. That’s real Christian – NOT!!!

    Kate, it’s people like you that have nearly driven me from Christ, and people just like you have driven a lot of innocent, decent, TRUE-CHRISTIAN people from the churches. You and the ilk like you have killed the spirits and souls of many people, and poisoned even more so that they cannot receive God’s love. You think you’re doing God’s will, but doesn’t the Bible say that God is not willing that any should perish – that all should come to eternal life? Why then so much effort to kill the souls of innocent people? Why the hate towards people who only want the same rights that you enjoy?

    Why are you spouting your religion on the street corners, so to speak? Are you about to start blowing trumpets? Do you REALLY think your words are Godly?

    If you do, then God help you, because you’re following the inverse of Christ… you are a contraChristian, aka an aberrochristian.

    I suggest you look at some of the non-Christians on this blog, they as individuals look more Christ-like than all of the “Good Christians” put together.

  10. “Liberalism is about liberty; conservatism is about maintenance of the status quo.”

    Clearly stated, but your definition of “liberty” and others’ misuse of the word “democracy” is not new. After recognizing your message matches others who express bitter hatred of “the rich” I guess I “blew past” your central idea. I have heard your idea often and have no interest in that destructive life-belief. It appears to be based on mankind’s oldest weakness: covetousness.

    I wanted to understand what rights and forms of independence you hold so dear.

    Mine are freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Your side is not willing to allow me either in most cases. This blog is the first I’ve not been censored from except for HuffPo.

    I am a Christian. I will speak up as Christians have for thousands of years – until we impose a darkness like N. Korea where my speech cannot be uttered. Political correctness sometimes comes close to that darkness in my daily life.

    “Liberalism is about liberty; conservatism is about maintenance of the status quo.”
    “Conservatism is about free speech and freedom of religion.”

    Can there be compromise?

    To ask collectivists to change their package to respect human dignity, self-determination, right to property and governance based on freedom of thought and personal responsibility is not possible.

  11. Guess you told me………………..

    non-hater – Count how many times you hurled insults……

    My beloved brother is gay. He does not join the dancers at the gay bars. A true Christian would not attack a gay person. There is as little true Christianity as there is common sense and decency.

  12. How many times have you hurled accusations, threats of judgement, and predictions of damnation in a forum where you are not wanted? If your brother does not engage in activities of which you disappove, goody. If you don’t want to see people dancing in gay bars, don’t go in them. And now, little Hammerhead, go find some people you approve of (and vice versa) if there are any, and don’t waste the rest of your Fourth doing this.

  13. Why then don’t you listen?

    We’ve heard your lies. Why don’t you listen to the truth?

    It might set you free of the false “Gospel”… the words that impel “Good Christians” into spewing hateful and false things towards innocents.

  14. Great post. Let’s not forget the supreme political irony that the counter-revolutionaries of today, that is, the whig-republican party, was once, from 1800 to 1865, the anti-slavery party. The democrats were once the party of southern gentlemen slave owners of which Jefferson was one. So complete was the republican political victory following the Civil war that there was only one democrat elected president between 1865 and 1912. Even Wilson, a democrat in name, elected in 1912 was a southern gentlemen and a counter revolutionary who screened the film Birth Of A Nation in the White House. Then from 1920 to 1932 republican economic policies which had been honed during the gilded age resulted in the greatest economic calamity up till then, even greater than the calamities from 1873 to 1907. It wasn’t until 1932 that Franklin Roosevelt was able to form a coalition of labor, blacks, women, and white people from the north and the south to bring an end to republican laissez-faire economics and defeat fascism in World War 2.

    Now we have come full circle. The republican counter-revolutionaries of today have painted themselves into a corner. One telling fact is that many of their hard core members are conspiracy theorists who still claim that Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower were communists. What nonsense. But then they welcome these people into the republican fold. These people who believe this nonsense should be shunned. Instead, we have Ryan Romney economics trying not only to push us back to laissez-faire economics, but heralding the new birth of a fascist corporate nation where the corporation is the new plantation.

  15. Conservatives share your hatred of corporations who only see money. Why did not the current admin prosecute thousands in the financial debacle of 2008? Why aren’t people in jail for treason for their behavior?

    Why did not Barack Obama take his leadership opportunity to lead? Why are 70% of black children born to single mothers now? I hoped sincerely that he would lead young Americans to be purposeful contributors to their culture.

    Why does the left never support tort reform? Legislators who are mostly lawyers keep getting re-elected.

    An Open Letter to my Friends on the Left

  16. I assume you are speaking to me? Can’t tell.

    If you don’t like Psalm 2, don’t shoot the messenger.

  17. Psalm 2? Like the “Good Christians”, you’ve resorted to Bible verses as if I have to obey them or something. There are atheists, pagans, Buddhists, and others on this blog, so leave the Bible pounding out.

    BTW… you come in here spewing hatred, and then say it’s non-Christian to hate gays. Well, on the latter you’re right, but you’re calling yourself a non-Christian.

    In fact, from your words, I wonder if you’re upset that the person you call a friend is gay, and thus not “available”. That would be about par for the course.

  18. When the racist bigotry of the “Good Christians” – who deny black/African-American people jobs and discriminate against them all week, and then praise Jesus on Sunday ends – then you’ll see changes in the numbers of single mothers. When there are better jobs and better treatment for the urban poor, you’ll see those numbers drop significantly. When corporations are forced to pay a living wage and not outsource all of the jobs to a place where they can keep people in debt peonage for the rest of their lives, and make them work 80 plus hour weeks for a few dollars a day… then you’ll see those numbers drop.

    The preachers have been pushing the “Personal Failure” lie for generations – it comes out of old-school Calvinist thinking which teaches “God rewards obedience with good things and punishes sin with suffering and poverty”… and the idea also is tied to the idea of the “elect” (from the early days of the Pilgrims – you could get some idea if you were going to heaven or not by how prosperous you are). The fact is, poverty is caused primarily by the greed of the rich, and by elites making bad decisions that benefit them but hurt the 99% (and if you’d actually read your Bible, you’d know this). It’s kind of hard to have birth control when you’re poor, especially with the war the Republicans and “Good Christians” have been waging on poor women. You don’t like women having sex outside of marriage? Too bad – it’s their decision and not yours. You don’t like women having children while not married – well, you have two choices. Either stop fighting against them getting help with birth control, or shut up about it and accept that you really are wanting to take away their rights.

  19. Psalm 2? Helloooo, Heathen here. Try the Nine Noble Virtues. Read the Icelandic Sagas or the Prose or Poetic Edda, but don’t sing me no psalms!

  20. “Conservatives share your hatred of corporations who only see money. Why did not the current admin prosecute thousands in the financial debacle of 2008? Why aren’t people in jail for treason for their behavior?”

    First, most conservatives accept the nonsensical trash spewed by the hard core right that corporations are godly because they are capatilistic. Second, President Obama did not go after Wall Street because he needs their campaign contributions to counter the republicans who won’t go after white collar criminals for the same reason. Pardon my cynicism.

    “Why did not Barack Obama take his leadership opportunity to lead? Why are 70% of black children born to single mothers now?”

    Are you serious? From day 1, Mitch McConnell and his crew of clowns mocked President Obama as a “rock star.” As far as single mothers go you are being disingenuous. Just like the war on drugs has been a failure, the attempt at making sure children are raised in a stable 2 parent household has been a failure. Why? Because you can’t talk the talk about family values, you have to walk the walk.

    Tort reform is a nonissue. I’m glad there are lawyers out there willing to take on corporations and other leaches who prey on the weak. The right wants tort reform to take away your right and my right at redress. If there is tort reform the true legal eagles wouldn’t take on the cases that matter.

  21. I have never seen anyone so driven by other people’s genitals as Pruritans like you, Kate. Sniffing them to find out what sort of pleasurable sensations, if any, they’ve been experiencing over whom, what, why, and how often, appears to occupy all your waking hours and drive all your political decisions. Our country is not so “tender” it needs your censorship to survive. In fact, if Pruritans like you had had their way, Walt Whitman could never have uttered a word about it.

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