“Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
– Frederick Douglass, The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro, July 5, 1852
There was a time when I made a conscious effort to refer to the holiday as Independence Day. To simply refer to it as the Fourth of July seemed to unceremoniously remove all meaning from the day. But why, two-hundred and forty-one years later, should we be jubilant today?
The anniversary of the Second Continental Congress’ adoption of the Declaration of Independence, primarily authored by Thomas Jefferson, asserted that the original thirteen American colonies were sovereign states, that individuals had unalienable rights, and that self-government, not monarchy, was the future. However, it is celebrated today more out of tradition than a thoughtful observance of history or in pursuit of finding relevance to us presently.
Often quoted, rarely read completely, and frequently misunderstood by the public, the Declaration of Independence is not only a founding document of the government of the United States, but it served as an inspiration for numerous peoples abroad since 1776.
The Manifesto of the Province of Flanders (1790) was the first such manifestation of Jefferson’s words in foreign lands. The declaration of January 1, 1804, during the Haitian Revolution, the Venezuelan Declaration of Independence (1811), the 1816 Argentine Declaration of Independence, and 1818 Chilean Declaration of Independence each looked to Jefferson’s document for guidance. Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru also drew inspiration from the United States Declaration of Independence as each declared sovereignty in 1821.
Such diverse governments as New Zealand (1835), the Republics of Texas and California (1836), Liberia (1847), the Confederate States of America (1860-1861), Czechoslovakia (1918), and Vietnam (1945) all declared independence with the Revolution of 1776 in mind.
But what does that mean for us in 2017?
The rhetoric is powerful. The fireworks are memorable. The words are often repeated, but the text remains unexamined by most Americans. The U.S. Declaration of Independence changed the world nearly two and a half centuries ago, but the results are unclear for American dissidents routinely targeted by domestic police forces and those people and nations abroad, inspired by Jefferson’s writing, which the U.S. government has waged war upon in subsequent generations.
Today, it means that peace is fleeting, the state is expansive, and individual rights are waning.
The so-called Empire of Liberty that Jefferson assisted in establishing in America more than two centuries ago has grown to become the gravest threat to its citizens and the people it often subjugates around the world, even though he argued that:
“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.”
The freedom Jefferson called for was not universal, it was politically motivated and specific. Jefferson did not intend for someone like Frederick Douglass, a slave turned abolitionist leader, to be blessed with the same liberties as Jefferson declared for himself and his fellow Virginians in the preceding decades.
Douglass, speaking before the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, New York in 1852, gave voice to this contradiction. His speech underlined the “paradox of the positive,” explaining how the rhetoric of liberty had negative connotations for much of the population, specifically and most obviously, those who remained enslaved:
“Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day, in the presence of Amercans, dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? speaking of it relatively and positively, negatively and affirmatively. To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”
We are not obligated to carry around the baggage of the Founding Fathers, nor honor them out of a sense of tradition or heritage or blind nationalism. My lineage is separate and distinct from Jefferson and his contemporaries, and I know now that many of my friends and family would have been part of the disfavored minority of the time, just as we are today, although under different circumstances.
This Independence Day, instead of offering effusive praise for Jefferson and the Founding Fathers for laying the foundation of the modern American Empire, I would like to honor those individuals who keep the Spirit of ’76 alive, many of whom I call friends. These dissidents who undermine and resist the State daily truly seek independence and liberty in 2017 and beyond.
I celebrate in their honor today.
Cheers to my friends who are whistleblowers, tax resisters, conscientious objectors, libertarian journalists, black market business operators, cryptocurrency enthusiasts, antiwar activists, sex workers, anarchist lawyers, & gun dealers.
You, among others, give me hope. Thank you.