Friday, July 4, 2008

Independence Day...

When I went through public school, we had history classes each year, from the 7th grade through the 12th grade. In addition, I can remember studying some history in the 5th and 6th grades (when one teacher taught us all day), and most likely there was some exposure even earlier. When I talk with young people today, I keep getting surprised at just how little history they are exposed to in today's public school system – and at how “politically correct” that tiny exposure has become.

So yesterday, at work, I wasn't really all that surprised that the three young people I talked to really had no idea what the Declaration of Independence that we celebrate today was all about. They had only the vaguest idea what the document actually said (one of them didn't even know that we declared our independence from the British crown); not one of them had ever actually read it. One of them expressed some momentary interest; the other two were overtly disinterested.

How sad. And, I suspect, not a very hopeful sign for this country's future...

But me – I will celebrate! The first thing I did this morning, as I drank my morning tea, was to re-read (for the umpteenth time), the Declaration of Independence. As always, the final paragraph provoked chills and shivers:
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, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
If you know even just a bit about the context in which that document was written, then you know that these men were not just throwing words about like a modern-day politician. No, these men, by the act of this Declaration of Independence, were quite literally betting their lives on the notion that a group of upstart colonists – civilians – could successfully repel the most formidable military on the planet. This notion was fantastical dream, backed by spirit, anger, dreams, and damned little in the way of military might or prowess. And yet, they prevailed – and only because these men dared to declare their independence from the British tyrant are we free today.

If you take a few minutes to read the entire (short) text of the Declaration of Independence, and a little more time to read about the context in which it was written, you will likely have the same reaction I do: there are elements in the list of charges against the British Crown that resonate today. That is, some of the specific charges the Declaration of Independence makes about the conduct of the British King have close parallels in the conduct of the U.S. government today. There is, however, one important distinction – in pre-revolutionary times, the King of England's conduct was imposed on the colonies without the permission of its citizens. Today, the conduct of the U.S. government is condoned by its citizens; they control who gets to exercise power.

For me, that last fact is a constant source of both despair and hope...