Declaring Independence

A Fourth of July Address

Presented July 4, 2004*

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Eleven score and eight years ago, on May 27, 1776, George Mason produced a draft of a sternly conservative constitution for the Commonwealth of Virginia. This draft contained the premise that "all men are born free and independent and have certain inherent natural rights . . . among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."

Mason's formulation was influenced by the writings of John Locke, who, in his famous [Second] Treatise of Government [first] published around 1690, endorsed natural rights to life, liberty, and possessions.

About a month after Mason wrote his words for Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, member of a committee of the Continental Congress, drafted the famous declaration of independence whose anniversary we mark today. In his original version, Jefferson wrote:

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness. (Vidal 2003, 28)
In its editing Congress introduced a Creator. Jefferson's version eliminated Mason's reference to property, which was more faithful to Locke, and substituted a right to the pursuit of happiness, which was (as Gore Vidal notes) "something new under the political sun." (28)

The version finally adopted goes as follows: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

In Mason's version, life and liberty were linked with getting and keeping property and, indirectly, with pursuing happiness and security. The pursuit of happiness was not itself declared to be a natural right. In fact, nobody earlier had made a right out of the pursuit of happiness.

Why did the right to property disappear from the Declaration? It is clear enough: enormous class differences already existed among the colonists. The substantially wealthy persons who led and controlled the Continental Congress did not want to say out loud that the War of Independence was being fought primarily on behalf of their property.

In the absence of a declared right to possessions, the right to pursue happiness not only gave a third rhetorical leg to steady the stool of natural rights. It seemed to give substance to the formal life and liberty rights, the rights not to be killed and not to be imprisoned without due process. But, unlike the rights to life and liberty, which had a legal and constitutional ancestry in the British tradition, the right to pursue happiness has no obvious meaning.

Later generations could and did give it meaning. For instance, it seems natural to interpret it as the right of every person to inquire about the good life, to form a conception of the good life, to revisit and revise her conceptions as she sees fit, and to pursue the good life as she conceives it so long as she does not infringe on the similar rights of others. This right, however, is meaningless unless every person is guaranteed a minimum level of education, health care, material resources, leisure time, and encouragement that enables her to use this right to form and pursue her conception of the good. But at the time of the American Revolution and for some time after, women, slaves, Native Americans, and most poor whites, enjoyed no such right.

As for the right to property, it is not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. It is pervasively present although not directly named in the 1787 Constitution of the United States. I refer to the clauses on commerce, coinage, patents, piracy, return of escaped servants (i.e., slaves), and continuation of the slave trade at least through 1808.

After the ringing phrases in the 1776 Declaration about "rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" come the following words

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 . . .

We are taught to think that the Declaration of Independence is a democratic document. How many times does the word "democrat" or "democratic" appear in it? (How many times in the Constitution?). Not once. In fact, in the founding period none of the founders, Jefferson included, would have said that they were democrats.

I have a paperback book, now falling apart, printed in 1953, although originally published, probably in hardcover, in 1939, Thomas Jefferson on Democracy, edited by Saul K. Padover. I found it lying on my parents' bookshelves. I read and reread it during my high school years while attending the People's (Unitarian*) Church in Kalamazoo. I took it with me when I went to college and have had it ever since.

This book is composed of excerpts, mostly from letters by Jefferson, arranged by topic, on questions related to the rights of political minorities, religious liberty, government, etc. The word "democracy" does not appear, so far as I can find through a fairly thorough search, in any of the passages from Jefferson until late in Jefferson's life, when it refers to a political party, the Democrat Republicans. The term "democracy" does occur in the title of the book supplied by the editor and in the headers supplied by him. There it is associated with Jefferson's views in favor of so-called majority rule, dropping property qualifications for voters, guaranteeing rights to all citizens (i.e., male white adults).

For most if not all of his life, Jefferson considered himself a "republican," not a "democrat." To him, as to the other founders, "democracy" referred to the political order found in ancient Athens, where major decisions were made collectively by adult male citizens gathered on a hill just outside the city walls. From ancient times on, political philosophy, written mostly by aristocrats, gave Athenian democracy a bad press. None of the American founders favored democracy in the original sense, and most tended to associate it with mob rule. Among the founders, everyone not a monarchist was a republican. (Few were explicitly monarchist, although there were crypto-monarchists like Hamilton.) Jefferson and his anti-Federalist Republicans differed from the less libertarian but more capitalist Federalists in the Jeffersonians' vigorous defense of civil liberties and the extension of the franchise-again with limitations to white male adults.

The founders worked hard to make the Declaration appear balanced and reasonable. It starts with its intention to declare "a dissolution of the political bonds connecting one people to another and to assume separate and equal station to which the laws of nature," by which they meant objective moral principles, "entitle them." And it professes "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, which requires it to declare the causes which lead to the separation."

Focusing on the "repeated injuries and usurpations" of King George II, the Declaration says that they "all have in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over" the colonies. Several of the charges referred to the ways in which since April 1775 the armies of King George had been violently repressing the Sons of Liberty and other Americans, who had been resisting the heavy hand of England by a sort of guerrilla warfare. Without reviewing the whole list of charges, many of which were justified, let me note two related to the so-called frontier:

[King George] has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands. . . .

He has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers . . . the merciless savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

The first of these charges refers to a decision made by the British at the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763. Most Native Americans had sided with the French against the British because the French, primarily engaged in the fur trade, were less disposed to expand settlements and push the Indians off the land. But the British (and the colonists were still British at this time) defeated the French.

To pacify the Indians, the British Government in 1763 signed a Treaty with them that prohibited British settlement beyond the Appalachians. Even then, however, British subjects in North America lusted for the Indian lands. When the Indians observed the division between the colonists and the British government, they concluded that American independence would not contribute to their own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. So after hostilities broke out in 1775 they often sided with the British.

But the Declaration's reference to "merciless savages" demonizes the Native Americans. In effect, it amounts to the charge that they are terrorists, as if the conduct of English-speaking colonists toward Native Americans had been exemplary. It had not been, and after 1800 it was only to get worse.

In directly preparing for this talk I read Gore Vidal's Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, both works of history. Zinn's history is about the struggles of working people, women, oppressed ethnic groups, and anti-imperialist movements against the social, economic, and political elites. (The Women's Rights Declaration of 1848, the Illinois Workingmen's Declaration of 1876, and Frederick Douglass' speech of 1852 read earlier [in the program] are from Zinn's History.)

Vidal is primarily known as a novelist, but at least half of his novels are historical fiction. The U.S- focused series (of which I have read two or three) that begins with Burr and ends with The Golden Age (which comes up to 1948) follows several generations of a mostly fictional American family, politically and economically well-connected, from the War of Independence through the 1940's. Vidal knows this milieu well, having come from it himself and having thoroughly researched its history.

Vidal is spiritually a Jeffersonian republican - lower-case R - although he is well aware of Jefferson's inconsistencies and by no means regards the man as a saint. Vidal knows that the United States has always been dominated by a propertied elite that never intended to share real power with persons of little or no wealth, although the latter were eventually permitted to vote for candidates chosen behind the scenes by the elite.

Vidal reports a conversation he had with John Kennedy in 1961. Kennedy had asked him, "How do you explain how a sort of backwoods country like this [the way the U.S. was at its founding], with only three million people, could have produced the three great geniuses of the eighteenth century-Franklin, Jefferson, and Hamilton?"

"Time. They had more of it," Vidal replied. "They stayed home on the farm in winter. They read. Wrote letters. Apparently, thought, something no longer done-in public life."

Kennedy shifted gears. "You know in thus, uh, job…I get to meet everybody--all these great movers and shakers and the thing I'm most struck by the lot of them is how second-rate they are. Then you read all those debates over the Constitution . . . . nothing like that now. Nothing."

Even in 1961 Vidal had the sense that entropy had set in long before. In his view, the United States made a number of choices that honesty requires us not to romanticize. While it was true that the Civil War had ended chattel slavery (a good thing to do), it also centralized power for the duration of the war in Washington D.C. and suspended civil liberties. Future wartime Presidents would not be as intelligent and decent as Lincoln in exercising such power. Another tragic turn occurred in 1898 when the U.S. acquired an overseas empire as far away as the Philippines.

In World War I, the early film industry was recruited to promote the war effort; propaganda perfected not by the Communists or the Nazis but by Hollywood. It goes down more easily if it comes across as entertainment. Further entropy set in with World War II, after which the U.S. emerged as a Garrison State, permanently militarized in fear of the Red Devil almost before the ashes had cooled at Dresden and Hiroshima. After the so-called Communist regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe collapsed, there was once more a relaxation of fear-inspired pseudo-patriotism, only to be reimposed after September 2001 with the new (and yet remarkably similar) devil, the "terrorists" on whom we are now supposed to be waging eternal war.

In his recent writings, Vidal refers to our country, his country too-he is arguably its preeminent literary biographer--as the "United States of Amnesia." The point is clear. There is a huge industry promoting forgetfulness and historical ignorance among the American population. Otherwise it would be impossible to believe that the United States is consistently what its rulers and ideologues claim it to be, a nation that adheres to its Constitution, that respects the rule of law, that is in fact governed by the people for the people.

Howard Zinn's People's History tells the story of social struggles that shaped U.S. history: native American resistance to displacement and genocide, the struggles of slaves against their oppressors, women for equality, workers for decent wages and working conditions, small farmers and middle class Americans for relief from the Robber Barons of the late nineteenth century, the American opponents of empire beginning near the turn of the century when Teddy Roosevelt and others provoked a War with Spain that ended with U.S. ownership of territories in the East Pacific and the Caribbean. Zinn's study is brought up to date in the twentieth century with the civil rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's and the antiwar movement of the 1960's, and the feminist, gay rights, and environmental movements since that time.

We are still, as we have perhaps always been, in Vidal's phrase, "a one-party state." The one party is the party of Property, and, he admits, members of one of its two right wings sometimes think of themselves as liberals. But as Zinn shows, there have always been many who not only declared but practically asserted independence of the elites.

Unitarian Universalists intersect in a number of curious ways with this history.* Jefferson, who is clearly Vidal's favorite President, was theologically a unitarian (lower-case U); he was a religious liberal, a vigorous civil libertarian (especially on first amendment issues) and a defender of the separation of church and state.

John Adams, like Jefferson on the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence, was also a Unitarian-in fact he was a member of William Ellery Channing's church [Channing was the best-known minister identified with Unitarianism when it became a distinct denomination.] But before we embrace Adams too closely, we must not ignore some facts. Adams was President just a few years after the adoption of the Bill of Rights (so important as a legal basis for our civil liberties). But under the political pressures of the time, Adams requested from Congress and received the Alien and Sedition Acts, U.S.A. Patriot Acts for the time. These Acts canceled the very rights that the Bill of Rights upheld. (The Alien and Sedition Acts were repealed when Jefferson defeated Adams for the Presidency in 1800.)

I now want to speak of another moment in which a great founder declared independence. William Ellery Channing was the leading figure among the Unitarians at the time the American Unitarian Association was formed in the 1820's and the person after whom this sanctuary is named. About a decade earlier Channing addressed the issue of war, in particular, the War of 1812. This war had numerous causes, but chief among them was the lust for land among certain factions in the young United States. Not content with taking Indian lands, they wanted to annex Canada too. Channing, who lived in Massachusetts, was not out of step with most New Englanders in opposing the war, but his remarks are of considerable value today, when we live, as we have for most of my 61 years, in a permanent state of war or preparation for war [although the enemy whose existence and supposed intentions justifies those preparations has changed].

Channing said, "In all circumstances, at all times, war is to be deprecated. The evil passions . . . it excites, its ravages, its bloody conflicts, the distress and terror which it carries into domestic life . . . all render war a tremendous scourge. There are, indeed, conditions in which war is justifiable, is necessary. It may be the last and only method of . . . defending invaded liberty and essential rights. . . . In these cases we must not shrink from war . . . . In such wars our country claims and deserves our prayers, our cheerful services, the sacrifice of wealth, and even of life. . . . Could I view the war in which we are engaged in this light, with what different feelings, my friends, should I address you! . . . But, in our present state, . . . I cannot . . . address you in the language of encouragement. We are precipitated into a war which, I think, cannot be justified, and a war which promises not a benefit, that I can discover, to this country or to the world."

Later on in his address Channing said this, "If these remarks be just, nothing ought to excite greater indignation and alarm than the attempts which have lately been made to destroy [freedom of expression]. We have lived to hear the strange doctrine, that to expose the measures of rulers is treason; and we have lived to see this doctrine carried into practice. . . . In this, and in other events, there have been symptoms of a purpose to terrify into silence those who disapprove the calamitous war under which we suffer; to deprive us of the only method which is left of obtaining a wiser and better government.

The cry has been that war is declared, and all opposition should therefore be hushed. A sentiment more unworthy of a free country can hardly be propagated. If this doctrine be admitted, rulers have only to declare war, and they are screened at once from scrutiny. At the very time when they have armies at command, when their patronage is most extended, and their power most formidable, not a word of warning, of censure, of alarm must be heard. The press, which is to expose inferior abuses, must not utter one rebuke, one indignant complaint, although our best interests and most valuable rights are put to hazard by an unnecessary war! Admit this doctrine, let rulers once know that, by placing the country in a state of war, they place themselves beyond the only power they dread, -- the power of free discussion, -- and we may expect war without end.

Our peace and all our interests require that a different sentiment should prevail. We should teach our present and all future rulers that there is no measure for which they must render so solemn an account to their constituents as for a declaration of war; that no measure will be so freely, so fully discussed; and that no administration can succeed in persuading this people to exhaust their treasure and blood in supporting war, unless it be palpably necessary and just. In war, then, as in peace, assert the freedom of speech and of the press. Cling to this as the bulwark of all your rights . . . **.)

Neither Jefferson nor Channing nor any of the other forefathers or foremothers who merit our respect exhaust the significance of declaring independence. We can see the act itself as repeatable in our own lives, over and over again. The significance of the Declaration outlives the use made of it by the elite that saw a chance for greater power and wealth independent of Britain than in continuing subordination to it. This surplus of meaning lies in the Declaration's links with both mythical past and real present.

The Declaration mostly avoided Biblical references, a surprising fact since the Bible would have been familiar to most Americans and most of the Europeans who were the audience of the Declaration, but it is a prophetic document. I mean by this that the ancient Hebrew prophets spoke against the dominant powers of their own time and appealed to moral principles that transcended particular place and time. The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures were not hangers on at court; they spoke truth (as they saw it) against power, even if their words (as the Declaration of Independence later) would eventually be misused by systems that are as oppressive as they are liberating.

Are we too not called upon to declare our independence . . . of the groupthink of the monopolized mass media? of the purveyors of commercial advertising free of informational content? of the imperative to travel by machines that guzzle fossil fuels and to support the wars aimed at providing the gas to run them? of the industrial practices behind global warming? of educational systems that let us study microproblems but conspire to prevent us from seeing as a whole the system that produces them and in which we are so far trapped?

To declare independence, in the only way that makes sense, is to go against the stream, to supply what is missing in the conversation, to open up possibilities that enemies of freedom would foreclose. Unitarians and Universalists have often done so in the past, and their religious communities have given them the courage to do it. As a denomination we have on numerous occasions done so. May this spirit will continue to live and may it grow, until Justice rolls down like waters.

Sources Consulted

Padover, Saul K., ed. 1953 (originally 1939). Thomas Jefferson on Democracy.

Vidal, Gore, 2003. Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Zinn, Howard, 2003. A People's History of the United States. New York.

Constitution of the United States and Constitution of California and Related Documents, 1977-78.

* This talk was presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, July 4, 2004.

** For the full speech by Channing, see Unitarian Universalist History and Theology.