America the unique

Oftentimes, in public discourse over current divisive or polarizing issues, comparisons are thrown up with other countries. On matters such as gun crime, or taxation, or health care, it’s easy to present statistics from nations elsewhere and portray the variances as persuasive to the partisan point. Sometimes, in some ways, such contrasts contain some validity.

But the inherent problem in all comparative analysis invokes the old fruit cliché, and its justified invalidation when differences in the subjects compared are too great. Practically put, it’s impossible to ever have an “apples to apples” comparison between the United States and any other nation on earth.

The holiday on next week’s hump day highlights this truth.

There simply is not now and has never been another democratic republic of our geographic size or population or age, self-chartered and self-governed according to the set of principles, morals and social precepts that culminated in our Declaration of Independence.

In addition to America the Beautiful, we are America the Unique.

We’re the third most populous country—and none of the other top 10 remotely resemble us in form of social construct and constitutional governance. That’s primarily because none of them have our history. Indeed, most other countries have histories that run completely at odds with ours regarding life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Our singularity is not a slam against other nations, but rather a celebration of distinctive national achievement, albeit one that falls short of the ideal in preserving the ideas that delivered it.

Business leaders today see value in employees understanding the corporate core values and “living the mission” of the organization. But if all a CEO did toward that end was host an annual picnic, few would expect much in the way of results.

Those businesses that excel in that regard do much more: They take a practical approach involving multiple communication channels, from posters on the wall and pocket guides, to accountability measures that improve work habits to align with company values.

By the same token, there is supreme value to the republic in our citizens understanding the core values that produced our independence.

The festivities each Fourth of July can commemorate and celebrate our core principles and self-evident truths, but it is not enough to perpetuate them.

Businesses encourage employees to be able to recite a 30-second “elevator speech” about the company. How many Americans can summarize the Revolution so concisely? More alarmingly, how many would misstate the matter entirely?

“What do we mean by the American Revolution?” John Adams wrote in a letter in 1818. “Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and the hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations …

“This radical change,” he said, “in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.”

But what brought on that change? The piece of paper adopted in Congress on July 4, 1776, wasn’t the spark; it was, as titled, a declaration and explanation.

Many people don’t want to be bothered with “getting into the weeds” of the philosophers and thinkers—some from antiquity—who shaped the founders’ views. Likewise, many employees get annoyed with so much focus on vision, mission and core values, when there’s actual work to be done.

The key in both instances is that knowledge and understanding are critical to performance.

Part of our political polarity today stems from fundamental misunderstandings about the spirit of liberty as conceived in colonial America.

Indeed, it’s impossible to understand how radical our nation’s notion of liberty was without first understanding what it was before to other nations and other civilizations. Without appreciating the longstanding social orders of royalty, nobility and commons, and the traditional relation between law and divine right, it’s difficult to fathom the full attainment of freedom achieved by the American colonists.

Even the word “constitution” conveyed an altogether different meaning in 1760 than it does for us today. Comprehending how that word evolved from its common definition then as describing the entwined existence of a political system to a limiting charter of government power in 1787 is central to grasping American liberty–and its need for fervent protection.

We take the world we live in for granted. Our plenty is an anomaly among the world’s hungry billions; intellectually we might know of starving peoples in faraway places, but it is disconnected from our daily consumption, as evidenced by our sizable BMI statistics.

We take our liberty even more for granted.

There are tens of millions of people trying to reduce their weight, and countless weight-loss programs and speakers and websites and documents to assist them. Were that even half as many people sought to truly understand the radical change in Americans that produced the United States!

Mention Algernon Sidney or Cato’s Letters at your cookout next week and gauge the blank stares. Better yet, commit to yourself to Google them (both were foundational to the Revolution). Even if you only read a little, you and your holiday spirit will be better for it.


Spirit of ’31

There is something momentous about a large and diverse population aligning along a universal plane of thought.

That’s what still happens every Fourth of July in America.

It was visible in Facebook feeds from sea to shining sea, which featured quotes, photos and videos honoring our national birthday. Posts were as varied as people themselves, and all highlighted what so proudly we hail. Some posted snapshots of their families adorned in red, white and blue. Some filmed fireworks. Some shared famous speeches or essays.

Every expression centered around the same theme, whether comic or romantic or dramatic. The love of liberty evokes the full spectrum of spillover emotions; the tear erupting from joy and hope is no less damp than that born of sympathy for struggle and sacrifice.

All were encompassed in achieving our Revolution; all are enshrined in our remembrances.

Nearly two-and-a-half centuries after Thomas Jefferson’s declaration was adopted, Independence Day still harmonizes us to the common chorus of patriotism on parade.

John Adams predicted as much, with uncanny accuracy. He foresaw a national anniversary festival “with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.”

The only smudge on his crystal ball obscured the date; Adams thought it would be July 2, when Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. It wasn’t technically adopted until July 4.

One notable and unexpected observer of a Fourth of July celebration in 1831 was a young French fellow who would, seven years later, publish a book chronicling his stay in America and his observations on our democracy.

The pen of Alexis de Tocqueville was not idle during his visit, and in addition to abundant notes Tocqueville also wrote numerous letters to his family in France. Those personal messages, contemporary to his daily activities as a visitor, are easier reading than his scholarly masterpiece work detailed with analytical scrupulousness and annotation.

The voyage across the Atlantic took 35 days, and a month at sea in those days and conditions is essentially incomprehensible for us today.

Tocqueville kept up his spirits, however, and shared stories of the adventure. Writing to his mother, he described his fellow passengers: “We didn’t really mingle until the sixth day, when everyone crept out of his hole. … I should like to acquaint you with the inhabitants of our little world, who, not counting a cow and a donkey, number exactly 181 by my reckoning, 30 housed in the cabin section, 13 in steerage, 120 in the bow, and 18 crew.”

When Tocqueville arrived in New York, he immediately began sharing his revelations regarding American propensities about work ethic, hospitality and food consumption.

He noted that the typical day began early with a couple hours of work before breakfast at 8.

“[W]e were quite surprised at first to see women appearing at the breakfast table with faces carefully made up for the day,” he wrote on May 14 to his mother. “We are told that this is customary in all private houses. Paying visits to a lady at 9 in the morning is not thought improper. …

“[W]e are still baffled by the sheer quantity of food that people somehow stuff down their gullets,” he added. “Besides breakfast, dinner, and tea, with which Americans eat ham, they have very copious suppers and often a snack.”

In another letter the next day he reported the “incredible contempt” Americans had for distance on this sprawling continent.

Navigation on “immense” rivers and canals in America made travel consistently possible at “4 leagues an hour [12 knots],” he wrote. “Thus, people do not say that one is 100 leagues away from one’s destination, but 25 hours.”

In June, while visiting Sing Sing (Tocqueville’s official purpose in visiting America was to study prisons), he wrote to his father that “this population is one of the happiest in the world.” He credited American contentment to a universal spirit of industry that left no time for “troubling the State.”

“The more I see of this land, the more convinced I am of this truth,” he said, “that there are virtually no political institutions radically good or bad in themselves and that everything depends on the physical conditions and social state of the people to whom they are applied.”

On July 4, 1831, Tocqueville was visiting Albany for administrative meetings, and encountered the state capital’s celebration of the 55th anniversary of American independence.

The parade and ceremony culminated in a large church, where the Declaration of Independence was read aloud in its simple language (he characterized the reading as “in no way a theatrical performance”). But the effect he beheld awed and astonished him.

“It was as though an electric current moved through the hearts of everyone there,” he wrote in a letter.

“In this turning of an entire nation toward the memories of its birth, in this union of the present generation with [a previous] one … with which, for a moment, it shared all these generous feelings, there was something profoundly felt and truly great.”

Goosebumps in July continue to be a uniquely American tradition. May it always be so.

The previous Declaration

“Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great…”

These words probably ring vaguely familiar, with the holiday approaching on which we celebrate our nation’s founding.

However, those sentences aren’t part of the Declaration of Independence.

They come from a previous declaration, issued in a previous July by a previous Continental Congress.

They are found in the July 6, 1775 document titled “Declaration of the Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms.”

This document is a crux that connects two of the most influential distinctions of exceptionalism that would define the American Revolution.

A full year before dissolving the union with Great Britain, the colonists declared themselves left with no option but to meet tyrannical force with force in an attempt to preserve that union.

“Tyranny” is a word rooted in the cruel brutality of antiquity; by the 18th century its meaning was refined philosophically to regard government oppression in the Colonial context.

In 1775 America, the greatest tyranny perpetrated by the British wasn’t standing armies, or corrupt magistrates, or violations of civil rights (though all those and more were indeed grievances against the ministerial governance of the Crown).

The act of tyranny that drove the deepest wedge between Mother Country and Colonies was taxation.

A decade earlier, James Otis had popularized the phrase “Taxation without representation is tyranny,” which had been an Irish complaint for a generation, in response to the first direct tax on the colonists (rather than their trade) via the Stamp Act.

That legislation was ill-advised from the start, but circumstances at its onset seemed logical enough. The English treasury was depleted and awash in debt after the French and Indian War, and British troops in America were costly to maintain.

London had a simple view: with empty coffers to be filled, shilling-signs aplenty glittered from across the pond.

Typical of the aristocratic arrogance bred from centuries of Eurpoean royal reign, the English expectation was blind subservience to confiscation (as duty to King) from the common laborers toiling in the New World.

Nobody, not even the leaders of the various colonies—who had bickered amongst themselves more than with England—could have predicted the ubiquitous protests that flared across America.

In every village, borough, county, township and municipal corner of the colonies, mobs independently organized and planned riotous resistance to the Stamp Act, so that by the date it was supposed to go into effect it had already been nullified.

In light of such developments, parliament wisely repealed the Act, and in doing so inadvertently but innovatively altered the course of the Revolution.

Had England stuck to her guns on the Stamp Act, the fighting war likely would have broke out in 1765, when the initial thoughts and passions surrounding independence were still at a flash point.

It’s noteworthy of the colonial character that, even in time of great property violence and ardent threats and discord in 1765 over the Stamp Act, no loss of life occurred.

No royal official, no rioter, no British soldier, no Stamp Act supporter was killed.

That bloodless rejection of Great Britain’s authority sparked a decade of deliberation and debate, which proved invaluable.

Americans spent the next 10 years exploring and developing ideas about individual rights, natural law and self-government. By the time fighting did break out in 1775, colonial democratic philosophies had matured and galvanized.

Those percolating years provided, in the words of American historian Page Smith, “time for the creation of a remarkably well-articulated set of political principles, and for the training of an unusually gifted group of leaders.”

Both distinguished the colonial rebellion from other revolutions, which grew more radical from start to finish. The French revolution proceeded from Girondists to guillotines; the Russian revolution from Menshevik methodology to Bolshevik massacre of the Czar’s family.

The American revolution ignited with Stamp Act riots, but grew more moderate, culminating in a Continental Congress that was resolved, but cautious rather than reckless.

Ruminating in his retirement, John Adams observed as much in an 1818 letter.

The Revolution was effected before the war commenced,” he wrote. “The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations…

“This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”

The 1775 Declaration of Taking Up Arms was hinged to a second extraordinary stroke of favorable fortune, which was the appointment of George Washington as military commander.

The document was the official statement justifying the Congress’ assumption of power over the various colonial armies then skirmishing with the Redcoats.

It was an important act of unity by the colonies, laying the foundation for the independence declaration of the united states. Washington had the document read aloud to his troops.

His wartime experience coupled with his singular leadership skills and dignified demeanor were irreplaceable and indispensable in bringing order and discipline as a fighting force to a rag-tag militia, from which few were trained to command and none to obey.

Our Independence Day celebrates a truly exceptional national origin. Enjoy it!

Unpopular facts

One of the unique aspects of the American Revolution is that the separation of the colonies from England was not only born of logical and practical objections to the Crown’s rule, but also eloquently expressed for the world to understand.

So many revolts are little more than exercises in discontent: a mishmash of rebels with diverse axes to grind, who are united only against a perceived common enemy—not for any real common cause.

Little wonder so many revolutions wind up creating change, but not progress.

The successful results of our own revolution then are not a product of tactics (armed rebellion) but rather of objectives, conceived by highly educated men and built on self-evident truths.

The representatives of the United States in 1776 openly declared the reasons behind their political dissolution from Great Britain, proving their arguments by letting “facts be submitted to a candid world.”

Those facts, detailing 28 separate examples of governmental oppression from the British monarchy, make up the majority of the Declaration of Independence.

The role of truths and facts cannot be overestimated in their contribution to our achievement of independence and creation of the world’s longest surviving and leading democratic republic.

That’s why it’s puzzling that in all the news coverage surrounding the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo., facts get pushed to the back seat while protests ride shotgun next to some “feeling” of injustice driving the whole circus.

Facts aren’t always popular, but they’re still facts.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for a cogent, well-written “Declaration of Injustice” rebutting the grand jury’s decision on the merits to emanate from the mobs of protesters taking to the streets.

Several television reporters remarked on the difficulty in getting protesters to speak on camera at all. In the rare instance someone walking with the groups has spoken up, it hasn’t been to bring forth any recitation of facts.

“Our voice will be heard,” one protester said.

It’s perhaps not surprising in this day and age of ubiquitous communication that volume seems more important than content, but that doesn’t change the reality that being heard doesn’t matter if one has nothing to say.

Self-evident truths from Ferguson are being ignored that must be addressed before any real progress is possible.

First of all, no protester Monday night could have read even a tiny percentage of the grand jury evidence released supporting its decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.

Protesting from a point of total ignorance is unlikely to be effective.

“Hands up, don’t shoot!” protesters chanted, even though the facts are clear that Brown did not have his hands up when shot and refused to obey the officer’s commands to get on the ground.

Rumors that Brown was shot in the back still circulate, even though three autopsies revealed that all bullet wounds were to the front of his body.

Brown is represented as an “innocent” teen even though video evidence shows him robbing a market just minutes before his encounter with Officer Wilson, and the toxicology report indicated possible impairment from recent marijuana use.

For all the hyped-up media coverage, journalism has earned a black eye this week for not seeking out the facts, much less reporting them.

At the press conference, three different journalists (so-called) asked Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch how the grand jury voted, even though a rudimentary Google search of Missouri law would have enlightened them to the fact that such votes are statutorily secret.

Hardly any reporting has correctly identified Brown as a suspect, which created an entirely different relationship between he and the police officer. Police have a duty to detain and pursue suspects that does not exist for random encounters with regular citizens.

Brown’s parents’ expressed disappointment that his killer would face “no consequences for his actions” was headlined on every TV channel. Yet the same channels and reporters have been church-mouse quiet about the bad, often tragic, consequences that arise from strong-arm stealing from a store manager and assaulting a police officer.

Brown’s close-range hand wound is consistent with the officer’s contention that there was a struggle for his service weapon. The fact is that any time a criminal manages to take a gun away from a police officer, that officer’s life is in instant danger.

Protesters claim “injustice” because the grand jury didn’t find “probable cause” to charge the police officer with a crime.

Of all the things worth protesting today, the protection of liberty that says the government must present facts and evidence before putting people on trial seems an odd target.

Hostility toward or disbelief of facts will sabotage discussions on the important issue of restoring a respectful relationship between communities of color and police.

As it stands now, the most intellectually honest people taking to Ferguson’s streets were the looters and arsonists. They behaved like the criminals of opportunity they are.

Real respect must originate with a reverence for facts.

The murder rate in St. Louis is seven times the national average, with a victim about every three days (many of them black).

How about a protest march about that?