It seemed appropriate, maybe essential, to set aside all the nationalistic fervor of this day and revisit the inspiration for the coastal fireworks and flyover-country parades. I couldn’t remember if there was anything in a literate document, penned by an educated and high-minded slave owner, to celebrate. This isn’t the place, and these aren’t the people, so open to possibility as it all was 236 years ago. So I pulled out volume 3 of Joy Hakim’s wonderful History of US, From Colonies to Country 1710 to 1791 (second edition), and read the Declaration of Independence. Not exactly ‘read it and weep’ but close.
Here’s food for thought, the beginning of the second paragraph: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Absolute treason. Tossing off the yoke of oppression–and institutionalized greed–to claim that people are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A pity it didn’t just say “happiness” and let us skip the pursuit. And a greater pity that it was all about those white men, back in the day. Very self-serving and short-sighted. But mainly sad, so sad to read this and wonder what happened to all that gutsy optimism, to the idea that people could represent themselves and create a fairer, better world. Exceptionally bold to declare that, should a government improvidently ignore the right of the people to live free and pursue that happiness, those people also had the right to alter or abolish the offending government.
There is much in the original fourth of July document that seems like ancient history today–warnings about standing armies, depriving the accused of the right to trial by jury, transporting people overseas to be tried for pretend offenses. Jefferson may have denied his own transracial family but he was prescient in his concern for other injustices. We watched the fireworks over the Hudson River on TV–no tolerance for the craziness and crowds of the riverbank and, alas, no convenient friends with rooftops for civilized viewing. The event was a gigantic lovefest dedicated to the military. I have a lot of empathy for those who wear uniforms, go to pointless wars to be emotionally brutalized, maimed and killed, suffer all this on skimpy salaries and inadequate family housing. But when was the fourth of July ordained as a festivity to extol our standing army–and navy and air force and all the other warriors who are part of a vast military machine? When did war and its trappings begin to define America? Whatever happened to “consent of the governed”? And when did corporations earn the right to the pursuit of happiness? One assumes corporate happiness equates to profits at any cost, legislative influence for the right price and outrageous executive compensation.
Hakim’s book details more than half a tumultuous century leading up to July 4, 1776 and concludes with the drafting of the Bill of Rights. It’s fascinating reading, even if you think you learned it all in history class. You did not. And reading it again will make you think hard about the history we are making now. The end of the book includes the U.S. Constitution. But I confess I didn’t read it. I couldn’t.
From Colonies to Country: 1735-1791 A History of US Book 3 Joy Hakim | Oxford University Press 1999