Friday morning, July 4, our nation marks for the 232nd time the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which we have always regarded as the event that makes us what we are. Also we have regarded it as the event that marks us a special nation, a nation holding out a light to guide the rest of the world.
Always, that is, until lately.
Today critics celebrate that the world is passing us by. Fareed Zachariah declares: “America remains the global superpower today, but it is an enfeebled one.” China and India will soon tower above us.
Amy Chua writes in her book Day of Empire that we are getting what we deserve. Our empire building and our “xenophobic intolerance” are the causes of our coming decline. These sentiments are as common in the academy as snow in the Midwest (apologies, global warming).
Increasingly our politics revolve around the fashions of other nations or of that vast entity, commanding and yet impotent—“the world,” or better, “the rest of the world.” Seldom now do our politicians hearken to the great documents of our republic, the Declaration and the Constitution, to guide their actions or restrain their ambitions. We are reaching, perhaps, the place where America does not matter. Many think this a happy place.
Before we call it happy, we might just revisit this old and neglected friend to see what he has to say.
The universal claims of the Declaration are more remarkable when one remembers that it is an act of treason carrying the risk of death to all who supported it. Especially at the end, where the resolve of the signers becomes particular and grim, one can see that the document contemplates sacrifice as the price of liberty:
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.
A lovely sentence, it contains one of the four mentions of God to be found in the Declaration. As it forms a link to God, so it forms at the same time a band of brothers, Adams pledging his life to Jefferson, and Jefferson to Franklin and Hancock and all the others. It is the mood of the battlefield. It is the prayer of the soldier before the charge is sounded.
How curious then is the contrast between this solemn and resolute conclusion to the Declaration and its majestic and universal beginning. You have read the words:
When in the course of human events [meaning any time, not just 1776, and not just today] it becomes necessary for one people [meaning any people, not just our own] to dissolve the political bands that have connected them to another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
Is this not remarkable to read in an age dominated by relativism and multiculturalism? We may think today that morality changes with the individual, right and wrong different in one nation than in another, but our fathers did not think that. They thought rather than our rights are written “as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature by the hand of Divinity itself” (Alexander Hamilton).
Look about the world today and you will see that many powerful nations proclaim precisely the opposite of the Declaration of Independence. The doctrine of China, official and lately reiterated, is that the suppression of religion and free speech by the privileged and the powerful is the only proper form of “democracy”. When the Russian government cooks elections, arrests candidates, expropriates the property of it opponents, it sneers that it acts for the motherland. If in these countries the people are allowed to work and to save for their families, it is because the interest of the state justifies it. If that interest changes, then their rights are forfeit. Notice the class politics of the current presidential race: does this idea not have a foothold here, too?
We might remember then, this Fourth of July, that our nation may not be perfect, but it can make a claim available to no other: in the name of the rights of all, it was built from the first to belong to its people and not to their rulers.
It is not given to any nation to be guaranteed preeminence of power; certainly we did not have it at our beginning, and we may not have it in future. Never mind: if we cling to the principles that brought us to life, we will use whatever power we have for good. If others nations do that, we can live with them in peace and celebrate their strength as much as they. If they do not, then we should remember the resolution of our fathers before a certain despotic King.
The Declaration, you see, remains “the last, best hope of mankind on earth.”