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 literature of liberty

I enjoy re-reading the Declaration of Independence every year, and since it was a drizzly Fourth this year, I settled into a comfy chair and spent a few hours soaking up the rich literature surrounding America’s founding.

So many learned men engaged so many ideas on liberty in so many different formats (pamphlets, letters, editorials, resolutions and more), there could literally be a Bartlett’s Quotations edition solely about America’s independence.

In years past, I have suggested Arkansas create a Constitution Class as part of our public school curricula. I’m amending that now, to propose instead that we create an American Independence Class.

The class could cover the period from about 1760 to 1790. In a 180-day school year, that would devote roughly six days to each year in the three-decade span. Some years might only get a couple of days in classroom instruction, some critical ones (1774-1776, for example) might need two weeks apiece.

The beauty of offering a course dedicated to better understanding the ideas, principles, people and events behind American Independence is that there is a treasure trove of original material from which to draw.

There’s no reason for modern textbook writers to paraphrase the views of the various patriots, Whigs, Tories or British political figures. They all left incredible documentation in their own eloquent words—and much of it is explicitly contrary to errant assertions made and repeated today about the founding era.

How much more informative it is to hear how British leaders characterized the colonies, and how the colonists themselves debated the issues and circumstances involved in separating from England.

English statesman Edmund Burke, renowned as an author and orator and philosopher, delivered a powerful speech in Parliament in March 1775 proposing conciliatory measures with the colonies.

Part of his reasoning that peaceful reconciliation would be superior to military suppression was based on the colonists themselves as a new breed of citizen.

“In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole,” he said. “… This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English colonies probably than in any other people of the earth.”

He credited several powerful causes, including their English heritage (and fidelity to English ideas of liberty) and their religion.

“Religion, always a principle of energy, in this new people is no way worn out or impaired,” Burke told the members of Parliament. “The people are Protestants; and of that kind which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion. This is a persuasion not only favorable to liberty, but built upon it.”

The intractable, unconquerable grit in Americans also owed much to their education, Burke argued.

“In other countries, the people, more simple and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance,” he said. “Here they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance, and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”

Thomas Jefferson first established his reputation for revolutionary penmanship with “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” in 1774. Virginia’s colonial convention ultimately decided the document was too radical, but Jefferson’s stirring words explaining the American perspective were still compelling, especially in outlining colonial self-sufficiency and growth.

“America was conquered, and her settlements made and firmly established, at the expense of individuals, and not of the British public,” he wrote. “Their own blood was spilt in acquiring lands for their settlement, their own fortunes expended in making that settlement effectual. No shilling was ever issued from the public treasures of His Majesty or his ancestors for their assistance, till of very late times, after the colonies had … become valuable to Great Britain for her commercial purposes.”

Often published anonymously, colonial newspaper editorials minced no words, as evidenced in a November 1774 piece “On The Depravity of Kings and the Sovereignty of the People.”

“We read, now and then, it is true, of a good king; so we read likewise of a prophet escaping unhurt from a lion’s den, and of three men walking in a fiery furnace without having even their garments singed,” the editorialist wrote. “The order of nature is as much inverted in the first as it was in the last two cases. A good king is a miracle.”

The lessons to be learned in an American Independence class are broad and limitless. There is second-guessing of General Washington during the war, dissidence regarding slaves in a free land, and expressed worries and hopes galore about self-government and its uncharted political frontier.

Scams work best on the unsophisticated. The best weapon against the soundbite, special-interest, PAC-funded campaigns that distort history and heritage is what founder after founder urged: the diffusion of knowledge and virtue and the principles of liberty and government through education.

We have a wealth of wonderful literature on exceptional American Independence; all we have to do is teach it. Make it a required class in every grade, and we’ll raise better experts on liberty.

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!