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Dr. Andrew T. Seeley: The Declaration of Independence — Image or Shadow?

Posted: February 23, 2021

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By Dr. Andrew T. Seeley
President’s Day Lecture
Thomas Aquinas College, California
February 19, 2021

 

“It’s Fourth of July, and on this day somebody’s got to read the Declaration of Independence. It looks like I’m elected, so hold your hats, boys; I’m going to read it.”

Laura and Carrie knew the Declaration by heart, of course, but it gave them a solemn, glorious feeling to hear the words. They took hold of hands and stood listening in the solemnly listening crowd. The Stars and Stripes were fluttering bright against the thin, clear blue overhead, and their minds were saying the words before their ears heard them.

— Little Town on the Prairie

 

And you do see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of implements, and statues of men and figurines made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

And is there anything surprising in one who passes from divine contemplations to the evil state of man, misbehaving himself in a ridiculous manner; if, while his eyes are blinking and before he has become accustomed to the surrounding darkness, he is compelled to fight in courts of law, or in other places, about the shadows of the just, or the images of which they are shadows, and is endeavoring to meet the conceptions of those who have never yet seen absolute justice?

—The Republic

 

I love reading great books. Every time I return to a great book, I see something more in it. I find that every word, every phrase, is carefully chosen. Often I can see that they are significant long before I grasp their significance. Puzzling over them leads me to revelations about the book and about the author’s grasp of reality. Its words then stick in my heart-felt memory, called to life at unexpected times as I consider reality itself.

I am here tonight to talk to you about one such “book,” or in this case, a solemn declaration. The founding document of our own country, commonly known simply as the Declaration of Independence. I think it is fitting and right to do so. The day which is the occasion of my talk tonight is still officially named Washington’s Birthday. In July 1776, our Founding President waited impatiently with his troops for news that the Continental Congress had finally declared independence from Britain and liberation from King George. He had the text of the Declaration read to his troops on July 9. It aroused such enthusiasm that they toppled the King’s statue in Manhattan. He held his men and his country together for seven long years “in support of this Declaration”.

It has also been linked closely with Abraham Lincoln. His devotion to the Declaration is credited with re-founding our country. “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence,” he declared at Independence Hall. He was on his way to assuming the Presidency, in a time of the greatest crisis our country has faced. So far. The events of the past year have shaken our country to its foundation. They suggest that we are facing another great crisis, and we must fear its outcome. For, as in Lincoln’s day, the foundation itself is being rejected.

Practical necessity has also played a role in determining the subject of my talk. Three weeks ago I was honored to be asked to give the President’s Day Lecture. Not a lot time! I had to pick something I had already thought about a lot. I have been thinking and writing and speaking about the Declaration for over 25 years, since I worked with David Quackenbush and Richard Ferrier on the Alan Keyes for President campaign. Ambassador Keyes’ speeches led to hundreds conversations about the Declaration and America, while were tromping around the county, or at the Ferriers’ for Sunday brunch, before the hymn sings began.

I think it is also appropriate for you. I hope to show tonight that the Declaration of Independence is an important source of political wisdom, one particularly ordered to our polity. If our republic is to survive your lifetimes, it must be, as in Lincoln’s day, re-founded on a commitment to the wisdom found in the Declaration. Our House is once again divided, for the foundation has been undermined. Some say the Declaration was written, not for all men, but only for white men or British citizens. Still others say that Lincoln made the Declaration assume a role never intended for it, one it cannot bear. Others say it proclaims the errors of authors like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. The crises we are suffering, so they say, are really just the result of the kind of radical individualism and rejection of a real common good implicit in the Declaration.

I will put tonight’s question in the language of the Republic: Is the Declaration an image or a shadow of an image of justice? In his famous cave allegory, Socrates suggests that most men get their notions of justice from focusing on the human events that excite their fellow prisoners. In other words, in today’s lingo, from what is “trending.” In the allegory, shadows are cast on the wall of a cave by a fire that shines on “implements,” “statues of men,” and “other figures” that the prisoners by and large never see. Fights about justice in the law courts are always played out in terms of these “shadows of the just and of the images of which they are shadows.” I think between “shadows” and “images” is important. In ordinary life, people often judge what is just by looking to the corrupt way popular leaders (“the respectable”) live. They might also reference the ideals a society honors, in times of corruption only with their lips. How much of the destruction of the moral fabric of our country which has taken place in my lifetime has been justified in the name of “freedom”! How much in Socrates’ time was justified in the name of the gods and heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey? In the Cave story, Socrates imagines that the first step in freeing a prisoner consists in compelling him to look at the implements, statues, and figurines that immediately cast the shadows. Are the ideals proclaimed by our society really images of what is really just? Socrates put the Iliad and Odyssey on trial and condemned them because of how they depicted gods and heroes. Homer’s works are so filled with bewitching shadows that they must be banished from a good Republic.

A liberal education is meant to free the future leaders of society from the shadows that dominate daily social and political life. Most people never really question the views they absorb from those that surround them. A classical sort of liberal education directs students to consider not the daily shadows, but the ideals traditionally upheld by their society. Homer’s text formed the basis of Greek education; Virgil’s Aeneid was Augustine’s nightmare and delight. But Socrates wanted more than a mere classical education. He wanted to drive the young beyond the images to the realities they are supposed to represent. The wise man should come to know true justice. When he returned to the Cave, he could recognize the images for what they were, and judge how faithful or unfaithful they were to their originals. This is a dangerous enterprise. Once the young — that is those under 50 — get a taste for questioning and judging their traditions, they are as likely to turn on their societies as to be their saviors, unless they develop the patience and endurance real knowledge demands. In the Apology, Socrates warned the Athenians, “You will have more critics, whom up till now I have restrained without your knowing it, and being younger, they will be harsher to you and will cause you more annoyance” (Apology 39d). The wise ruler should not simply destroy the images; he should purify what is authentic from any shadowy elements, or cause more perfect one to be produced.

I started with excerpts from both Little Town and The Republic because I think Socrates would recognize the awakening 15-year-old Laura Ingalls Wilder’s awakening that Fourth of July. Listening to the Declaration of Independence, hearing its echoes in her heart, she first conceived justice.

No one cheered. It was more like a moment to say, “Amen.” But no one quite knew what to do.

Then Pa began to sing. All at once everyone was singing:

“My country, ‘tis of thee Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing…
“Long may our land be bright
With Freedom’s holy light,
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God, our King!”

The crowd was scattering away then, but Laura stood stock still. Suddenly she had a completely new thought. The Declaration and the song came together in her mind, and she thought: God is America’s king.

She thought: Americans won’t obey any king on earth. Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences. No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself. Why (she thought), when I am a little older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn’t anyone else who has a right to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good.

Her whole mind seemed to be lighted up by that thought. This is what it means to be free. It means, you have to be good. “Our father’s God, author of liberty —” The laws of Nature and of Nature’s God endow you with a right to life and liberty. Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God’s law is the only thing that gives you a right to be free.

Should we philosophers, who strive mightily for wisdom, rejoice in this story? Or should we warn her, and all the other millions of young Americans inspired by the Declaration over the last two and a half centuries — “You are not seeing justice, but a bewitching image full of shadows that blind you to what justice really is?” This is not an idle question for us. The growing classical school movement is now educating hundreds of thousands, if not millions of idealistic souls, who can play a vital role in the struggle to recover our nation. Should we fear that the Declaration and the founding ideals will only insinuate modern errors into their souls?


Before addressing this question, we need know the text itself well. I always begin serious study of a text by trying to outline it. A first look at the Declaration suggests five parts. The first paragraph stands as a preamble; it explains both what the Colonists intend to do and why they think they have to write about it. They intend “to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another [people] and to assume among the powers of the earth, [a] separate and equal station.” Such a momentous action should be justified in a solemn and public way. The preamble is followed by the portion of most interest to philosophers beginning, “We hold these truths.” Then comes a list of charges against King George, followed by a couple of paragraphs about how the colonists have reacted to the King’s crimes, and finally the solemn declaration itself.

Dividing a great text into five co-equal parts is usually too many to reveal the movement of thought. The language of the last paragraph suggests a way we might reduce this number.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare. …

Representatives, in Congress, assembled, Judge, Authority: This Notice has the mark of lawyers all over it. Small wonder: the Declaration was written by an attorney, reviewed by a committee including two other attorneys (John Adams among them), and signed by 25 attorneys. The clause establishes the authority of the signers — they are representatives, duly assembled, acting in virtue of a recognized authority. The declaration itself is being “solemnly published,” like the banns before marriage, which are published to make sure no legal impediments exist.

We find legal language earlier as well, in references to “Law,” “Right,” “Just,” and especially the list of formal charges against the King. All of this suggests we look at the entire text as a formal legal document, carefully crafted by very smart attorneys. In that light, the middle three sections come together to form what might be called an attorney’s “brief,” or written presentation of a legal argument. The signers know their opponents will accuse them of injustice. They must make the case that their bold actions are just.

Attorneys make arguments like this by first identifying the laws and rights that pertain to their case (quid iuris). Then they show that the particular facts of their case should be judged according to those laws (quid facti). We can see the turn from quid iuris to quid facti here:

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. … The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

The two paragraphs following the charges affirm that the Colonists have tried to settle with their adversaries on the way to court. They appealed to both the King and their British brethren, hoping to bring a peaceful end to the King’s injuries and usurpations. Attorneys know efforts at reconciliation are important to convince the judge that their clients really wanted a peaceful resolution.

Three parties are involved in this case — the Colonists, the King, and their British brethren. In the language of the last paragraph, “The good people of these Colonies,” “the British crown,” and the “State of Great Britain.” The Colonists claim that the action of the King and the inaction of their British brethren have absolved their allegiance to former and dissolved their connection to the latter. The Colonists are therefore legally justified in now acting as Free and Independent States.

This is complicated, and it becomes more complicated if we realize that a fourth legal entity is referenced in the document, though it is not considered a party. This is the British Parliament. The Declaration accuses the King of having “combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws.” The Colonists utterly rejected the idea that the British Parliament had any legislative authority over them. They were ruled by the King and their own representative assemblies, and had been since the time of their “emigration and settlement” in the New World. Parliament ruled over the British in collaboration with the same King. In the eyes of the Colonists, the Stamp Act of 1765 was the equivalent of the United Nations pretending to pass legislation to curtail our carbon emissions. If our President, without the authority of Congress, began enforcing such legislation, we should be prepared to revolt. I think this is the most serious charge against the King. It is the first issue they raise with the British — “We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us.”

Allow me then to redo the outline. The Declaration is written in the form of a legal brief that defends in legal terms the action the Colonists are undertaking. It begins with a paragraph explaining why they feel the need to make a public case, then follows the defense itself, and lastly the now justified declaration of freedom and independence. The defense consists of three parts — a general statement of right to act (quid iuris), evidence that this right applies to the Colonists in their relationship to King George (quid facti), and a witness to the Colonists’ efforts to “settle with their adversaries on the way to court”.

Now let us take a look at the most famous, most studied section of the Declaration — the one that establishes the right and duty to overthrow a government. It is difficult. Every clause seems to contain terms or phrases pregnant with meaning and ripe for question and misunderstanding. What is meant by “men,” “rights,” “self-evident,” “equal,” “unalienable,” “pursuit of happiness,” “consent”? I am not going to discuss or even mention most of the controversial points in it. I will focus on just two — “People” and “Government.” I think understanding their relationship is the key to unlocking the full meaning of the Declaration.

What is a People?[1] Let’s begin by looking closely at this claim: “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.”

A lot is said here about the People. They are the primary agents for altering, abolishing, and forming government. They are to make sure that the Government has their safety and happiness for its end. It’s a fair presumption that they are also the subjects of the Government. Thus the People is Agent, End, and Matter. This is true whatever form of Government they choose to establish. That form will vary, depending on how the People think they can best judge their safety and happiness. It might be monarchy, or an oligarchy, or a democracy, or some blend of them all. The People also have Rights. They have the right to set up government. In the charges against the King, we learn they have “the [inestimable] right of Representation in the Legislature.” The People also have Authority, and can delegate that to their Representatives.

These claims raise questions. For they assume that the People are prior to and can continue to exist through changes in Government. The People can act without government. They do so when they alter a government. Apparently, the People can even make laws without Government:

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

This is not optimal, it is much better for Legislation to be enacted through Government, but it is possible.

That a People can act without a government, and even exercise legislative powers, seems incredible. But then we might reflect on the Shire, whose inhabitants lived in quiet peace without any real government. Government and its rules represented the worst threat they had ever faced; their heroes scoured it from the land. Or if Tolkien isn’t good enough for you, how about the Houyhnhms, Gulliver’s ideals of virtue? Or Socrates’ first republic, the city of pigs. Utopians seem to imagine the best life in this way — decent, respectable, joyful societies without governors, policemen, law-courts, taxes.

Have such societies really existed? Not happily, I’m afraid, but really. This is what we see in the Book of Judges — a People made of Peoples, who have a Law, and Judges, but no real Government. We also see why they were not content to live in this Utopia. Without a government, they were indeed exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within. Eventually, they decided they can’t live like this. They demand a real government: “Now appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations.” Samuel warns them that the King will set up his armies and household, and he will take, and take, and take. “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

I think we have another instance of an ungoverned People in Herodotus’ account of the origin of the Medean Empire. It’s a good story. After they had thrown off the yoke of Assyria, the Medes lived as a free people. They had no ruler, though they had a common understanding of justice. But lawlessness was rife. A prominent man realizes his great opportunity. He offers himself as an arbiter, someone who will hear disputes and give his judgment. The arbiter has no power to enforce his judgments. The parties swear beforehand to abide by his judgment, but he cannot make them. This man, Deioces, deliberately gives scrupulously just judgments to make himself indispensable. Once he had the people hooked on his justice, he refused to give any more judgments unless he got something out of it. They consent. Listen: “‘Since we cannot go on living in the present way in the land, come, let us set up a king over us; in this way the land will be well governed, and we ourselves shall attend to our business and not be routed by lawlessness.’ With such words they persuaded themselves to be ruled by a king.”

We can see why a free People would decide to institute government. As the Declaration asserts, men apart from Government are not without Law, they are not without Rights. Like a bride with a dowry, individuals are endowed by their Creator with Rights. They naturally form societies, or Peoples, with their own more or less perfect understanding of God’s law. They usually have some customary procedures for solving disputes that arise among them. But this is not a secure setting, and so to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

I have said that Men naturally form societies, apart from Government. The Declaration does not really state this, though such an idea fits naturally, I think, with the idea that People is prior to Government, can exist without Government, and have legislative authority. The appeal to the British people suggests that natural connections have a political importance. The British are “brethren,” tied to us by consanguinity. They were also bound to us by “correspondence” and other connections of societal intercourse. Because of this, the Colonists did not want to separate from them. They were loath to do it, they tried everything they could to avoid it. But they finally had to “acquiesce in the necessity.”

In the second Federalist, John Jay elaborates on the sort of pre-Governmental connections that make Americans naturally one people.

With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people — a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence. This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.

The Declaration teaches that Government is only instituted because individuals are not secure in their rights. Once instituted, however, its end is not only to secure those rights, but also to bring about the People’s happiness. Strikingly, the Preamble to the Constitution does not mention Rights explicitly. The People wanted their Government to bring about Union, Justice, Tranquillity (isn’t that a lovely choice of vocabulary?), Defence, General Welfare, and the Blessings of Liberty. The Framers chose not to include a Bill of Rights, because they thought it would just invite excessive government. The People thought otherwise, and insisted it be added immediately in the form of amendments. Wisely or unwisely, it was their Right.

Of the ends mentioned in this Preamble, most seem common to any form of government. All seek union, justice, and the rest. The “Blessings of Liberty” is peculiar to a democracy. Other regimes have other highest goods — Virtue or Wealth or Honor. Canadians want the blessings of “peace, order, and good Government.” Americans wanted, not liberty itself, but the blessings that flow from Liberty. What is meant by Liberty is way too much for tonight, but the Declaration suggests that both political liberty and personal liberty are intended. By political liberty, I mean that all citizens not only have a government but participate in governing. For the people of the Declaration, this is especially achieved through Representation. More than this, the People experience liberty when they act collectively but apart from Government. Perhaps I should call this “public liberty.” By personal liberty, I mean that individuals, as much as is consistent with the good of the whole and of their fellows, choose for themselves how they will live. In this sense, a Free Government is one which maintains as much as possible that natural liberty which preexisted government. In that beautiful moment, when the truths of the Declaration first opened up for her, Laura realizes that she will live her whole life freely. Her happiness will be determined by her own choices — her friends, her spouse, how she will raise her children, what schools they will go to, or will she educate them at home, or perhaps join with others to found a school that will be the best they can make it.

————

I am now ready to make my case that the Declaration is indeed an image of justice, one that helps the Lauras of our nation to see Justice in the goodness of its truth and beauty.

1) First of all and directly, the Declaration guides us in the most difficult decision any People have to make — shall we alter or abolish our current form of government? The Declaration makes it clear that, when we have to take such a momentous step, we must still act according to law; we must not descend into a Hobbesian/Thucydidean state of chaos and violence. We must govern ourselves by justice, duty, prudence, and courage, according to the laws of God. In “On Kingship,” St. Thomas says that, when tyranny proves unbearable, the right to remove him belongs to the multitude (ius multitudinis). Perhaps Thomas Jefferson was aware of the text from St. Thomas, either directly or through Cardinal Bellarmine:

If to provide itself with a king belongs to the right of a given multitude, it is not unjust that the king be deposed or have his power restricted by that same multitude if, becoming a tyrant, he abuses the royal power. It must not be thought that such a multitude is acting unfaithfully in deposing the tyrant, even though it had previously subjected itself to him in perpetuity, because he himself has deserved that the covenant with his subjects should not be kept, since, in ruling the multitude, he did not act faithfully as the office of a king demands.

The Declaration gives us guidelines for exercising that right in justice and virtue.

2) The Declaration teaches us more forcefully than any previous political document that the fundamental rights of individuals do not depend on Government, nor do they depend on being citizens of a particular people. They depend on God and Nature alone. The Declaration drives us to extend justice to our fellows, to resident aliens, to those enslaved, to foreigners.

3) By carefully distinguishing the People from the Government, the Declaration ensures that we do not mistake governmental activity for public life. The common good exists not merely in actions led by government, but in all of the wonderful free associations that de Tocqueville admired so much in the American polity. Next door to the buildings in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where I met my lovely wife, lies Harmony Hall, home to the national headquarters of the Barbershop Harmony Society, affectionately known as the SPEBSQSA (Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America). What government would ever think of that? Yet what a blessing for its 22,000 members, and all those who have been lifted up by that kind of music! This is just one of millions of independent organizations that enrich the common life in our nation. Rights to pursue such activity are “retained by the People” through the 9th Amendment. The 10th Amendment ensures that the Powers to effect such activity are retained by the People in their national capacity. This is what Americans have died for.

Of course, what I have termed “personal liberty” must be found in every legitimate form of government. Men must have room to make decisions for themselves if they are to have any chance of happiness. This is why Leo XIII affirmed that private property is a natural right. This is not in any way opposed to the idea of a common good; the virtuous use of private property, especially when generally found in the populace, is itself a great common good. America is unique in that we expect the greatest of common goods to come through the free “non-governmental” activity of the People.

Why do defenders of a common good political philosophy attack the Declaration, or at least feel they can at best apologize for its tenets? I have not thoroughly researched this, so I won’t say. I can, however, say why it might be hard for us.

1) It is hard to conceive of liberty as anything other than a means to an end. The idea that liberty is sacred and worth dying for is difficult today. Partly this comes from the shadows of liberty that have dominated screen and page for the past 50 years. Justice Kennedy cast this into an implement fit to lift above the wall, when he enshrined his dictum in our law: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This rightly disgusts us.

2) We are not attorneys. We do not know the great development of legal wisdom to be found in our traditions, from the Code of Justinian through the Decretum of Gratian through the great works of Coke and Montesquieu and Blackstone.

3) We are not historians, and so have not thought carefully through the development of right and compact theory as they took shape in the medieval Church, extended themselves into the political realm through documents like the Magna Carta, were received into the common understanding of Protestant clergymen, and were perfected through nearly two centuries of political experience in the American colonies.

4) We are not statesmen, and so have not really governed. Though Socrates was not a statesman, his regular conversations were with people active in public life; he knew it well. Plato involved himself in guiding political reforms (unsuccessfully). Aristotle taught Alexander, while living in the midst of the court of Macedonia. He also thought through the details of the political arrangements of over 150 Greek cities.

5) We are philosophers, and so we want to unite everything in grand ideas. We naturally read the Declaration in the light of other philosophers, especially the moderns like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. We are especially likely to do this because the Declaration embraces authentic modern developments in political theory and practice. It is good to remember that Thomas Jefferson pointed to Aristotle and Cicero, along with Locke and British statesman Algernon Sydney, as significant authors who formed the American mind.

I hope that, by making ourselves aware of our limitations, we can realize how much work we need to do if we are going to come to sound political judgment about a work like the Declaration, or a regime like America. It would be good if we could replace philosophical/conservative skepticism toward it with piety. Such an attitude would help us to make major contributions to our regime in its current and future turmoil. For we are dedicating our lives to seeing reality outside of the Cave, in light of the True Good that illumines and beautifies. As we progress, we can grasp images like the Declaration for what they really are. Insofar as we are educators, we can turn the minds of our students toward it, and help them to see its beauty, and use it to catch a glimpse of the reality most will not see in their lifetimes. The growing movement in classical liberal arts education, one that this college helped to spawn, needs us to perform this role, and to fight against those who are blinding the young.

The new Lauras of our nation need us. The excerpt I read shows that Laura’s new conception of justice, as beautiful as it is, falls short of the complete vision that the Declaration presents. She sees the demands of justice that personal liberty places upon her, and her heart thrills at the noble challenge. But she does not yet see or at least express the intimate connection between her liberty and that of the People to which she belongs. I think the man who read the Declaration might even be farther than her from bringing authentic American ideas like that to consciousness. Before reciting the Declaration, he shared his own thoughts about the significance of their Fourth of July celebration.

This is the day and date when our forefathers cut loose from the despots of Europe. There wasn’t many Americans at that time, but they wouldn’t stand for any monarch tyrannizing over them. They had to fight the British regulars and their hired Hessians and the murdering scalping red-skinned savages that those fine gold-laced aristocrats turned loose on our settlements and paid for murdering and burning and scalping women and children. A few barefoot Americans had to fight the whole of them and lick ‘em, and they did fight them and they did lick them. Yes sir! We licked the British in 1776 and we licked ‘em again in 1812, and we backed all the monarchies of Europe out of Mexico and off this continent less than twenty years ago, and by glory! Yessir, by Old Glory right here, waving over my head, any time the despots of Europe try to step on America’s toes, we’ll lick ‘em again!”

Hurray! Hurray!” everybody shouted. Laura and Carrie and Pa yelled, too, “Hurray! Hurray!”

Well, so here we are today,” the man went on. “Every man Jack of us a free and independent citizen of God’s country, the only country on earth where a man is free and independent.”

Stirring as they were, his words were only a shadow of the Declaration. Don’t Tread on Me! Traditionally, we Americans have been quick to defend our rights. We are pugnacious and indefatigable against tyranny. We are quick to sympathize with victims of oppression, with underdogs. These are native strengths, but they are not yet virtues. We can easily forget natural equality when what we want tempts us to tyrannize others. We can be slow to recognize that, though free, we are not independent of the American people. We do live in dependence on our fellows. In a very real sense, we are parts of a great People. Its good is greater than any individual good, though not opposed. In fact, its good is among the greatest goods any one of us will ever know.

The Declaration of Independence founds our nation on such truths. As citizens of this republic, liberally educated Americans have a great duty of piety and patriotic love — to free as many prisoners as we can and to turn them to embrace the authentic goods it proclaims.

Like Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, we find ourselves in very dark times. We face darker times ahead. By doing what we can, according to the light we have been given, with “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence,” one day we might be blessed to find our Shire scoured and in peaceful enjoyment of the Blessings of Liberty, and we, like Samwise, pledged to “keep alive the memory of the age that is gone, so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more.”

 

[1]    I am indebted for the beginning and some of the progress of my thought on this question to Dr. Michael Platt.

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