The Real Meaning of Independence Day

We’re celebrating Independence Day with a mash-up from George Laws, Executive Director of  the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, and Howard Hills, author of the book Citizens Without A State.

“Ultimately, America’s Declaration of Independence is an anti-colonial document,” says George in the video above. “Right now, America has a critical opportunity to revive those ideals.”

The Declaration of Independence

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.

Puerto Rico has declared repeatedly that the current colonial relationship is not acceptable. It continues without the consent of the governed.

What the Fourth of July means for people seeking freedom and justice

Howard’s Fourth of July message gave many readers a better understanding of how national and state citizenship combine to deliver on the promise of equality and freedom embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution:

The secular meaning of the Declaration of Independence is not just national, it is universal: Only the governed can confer the power to govern. Jefferson left no room for interpretation here, stating explicitly and pronouncedly there is no other source of power, that is, if government is to be just.

But as each individual person is capable of being just and unjust, so governments reflect human nature and expresses our character as beings capable of doing everything from great good to great evil.

Thus, the true meaning of government by consent is that the sovereignty of the people is greater than the sovereignty of the government.

Accordingly, the people must and do retain inherently the power to withdraw consent. Government must and does answer to the people for the injustices that even the most just governments do with regularity.

But how do the governed give consent? How do they withdraw consent?

The Declaration of Independence does not answer those questions. That would be left to the U.S. Constitution once sovereignty was wrested from the King of England, whose armies were sent to crush the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence even more than the rebellion it proclaimed.

At the time the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, in Europe and its America colonies, the social, political, economic, moral and religious order of reality placed God at the top of the hierarchy of universal empowerment. In that hierarchy, kings and/or the heads of the churches ruled by might disguised as divine right, self-appointed surrogates for God on earth.

Then next in the order of social reality came the clergy and nobility, and the sovereign entourage at court governing the secret apparatus of the state, followed by the feudal order in which property, commerce, trades and servitude to the entire order in that class-system proceeded. But the individual of any rank in the hierarchy — if separated from his or her class — was bereft of power and place in the order. Thus, the individual as a person alone was an outcast, at risk of falling back to the bottom, among those clinging on at the lowest rung of the ladder to empowerment.

Radical transformation

It is in that context Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was so radically transformational. The preamble startled the world it spoke to by altering the order of empowerment forever, placing the individual in the new order second only to God. Not just some individuals, but all individuals, including the least as well as the greatest among us, and everyone in between.

The government and the rest of the social order now came after the individual, and answered to the political will of the individual. Not any one individual, obviously, but to all individuals, because that was the all-inclusive class that would now have the power to give or withdraw consent to the form of government and law under which the people would live.

It was a narrative of equal standing for the least among us before God in heaven and rulers of the earth. In two or three phrases Jefferson deconstructed the logic of the class system giving only those “chosen” prerogatives of rank and the blessings of hope in life. Clearly, Jefferson was channeling enlightenment era Judeo-Christian philosophy to a nation busy being born.

Colonies declared themselves states

Still, it remained to be seen how that right and power of consent would be given in the colonies that declared themselves states. The Revolutionary War was ignited by Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The political mechanisms through which that promise would be redeemed could not be known until the outcome was decided.

Accordingly, all the world knew on the Fourth of July in 1776 was that America had introduced the idea that the creator of the cosmos was in relationship to every living person in the same degree, and neither king nor clergy came between humanity and God.

In the Jeffersonian paradigm, it is the individual that has a right to seek relationship to the divine. Kings and clergy no longer could claim to be the middleman between the human and the divine, at least not at the expense of the inalienable human rights with which Jefferson believed each individual is endowed by God.

That includes the free will of the individual to believe the path of faith is through a church, or not, and to answer only to God for that choice. Of course, free will also includes the freedom to be a non-believer or undecided.

But the secular meaning of the Declaration of Independence includes the idea that each individual has a right to consent of the governed regardless of religious belief. The right to give and take consent is vested in each of us, whatever we may decide about whether the cosmos is inhabited by God or not.

In that sense, the Declaration of Independence is not simply a secular political pronouncement. Rather, its author put a not at all subtle “on earth as in heaven” spin on his call to humanity enlisting all people to seize the day and join a new order of reality.

It was also a statement of faith in a spiritual order within which God rules in the heavens and in all creation, and does so on earth through a people created in his image, knowing that here on earth the people are capable of exercising their free will for either good or evil.

The consent of the governed

Jefferson’s vision was simply that consent of the governed would enable people to be free and equal, though in need of government by consent precisely because being fully human means being fallible, and capable of being both just and unjust. His optimism was grounded in the belief that through democratic government the people would correct mistakes and right wrongs, and at least act more justly than kings in the feudal order.

Truly, Jefferson had faith in both God and humanity, despite all the evidence around him at the time giving abundant cause to doubt both. Indeed, as a slaveowner himself, a man who knew slaves as people and as property under the legal order inherited from England, he wrote of his nation’s evil and his own in words later carved in the marble of his memorial in Washington DC: “…I tremble for my nation when I reflect that God is just.”

Unlike the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution is a secular political charter. Indeed, it expressly prohibits establishment of religion by the government created thereunder. And it is the Constitution that answer the question of how consent of the governed is to be given and withdrawn.

Under Article I, Section 2 and Article II, Section 1, the power to give and withdraw consent of the governed is allocated exclusively to citizens of the states. Thus, the right to vote in national elections for representation in Congress, as well as Electoral College that chooses the President and Vice President, is not a right of national citizenship alone, but only in combination with state citizenship.

“More perfect”

It is no accident that the stated purpose of the U.S. Constitution is to make the union of states that ratified it “more perfect” than it was under the Articles of Confederation, under which independence was declared and the war to secure it was won. That beguilingly elegant and yet pragmatically humble performance standard recognized the genius and the realism of those who authored its grand confession that perfection itself was beyond the reach of human powers.

That expectation has been self-proving . Thus, it took seven decades after the Constitution took effect in 1789 before the challenge of making the union more perfect was advanced by ending the dehumanization of slavery that the British colonial regime had institutionalized during rule by the king of England.

Another seven decades passed before women were given the right to government by consent. And only a full century after slavery was ended did legalized racial segregation end.

As anyone who turns on the news today can attest, the work of making the union more perfect goes on. Not only imperfection but injustice also is still expressed too often and too prominently in our nation’s character and politics.

But it also is no coincidence that when the nations of the world gathered after what we pray was the last world war, Jefferson’s vision still guided their endeavor. Thus, the aspirational charter for a global deliberative body without sovereignty, but rather the purpose of providing a forum for sovereign nations to reason together, adopted the American model of government by consent of the governed as the universal organizing principle of the United Nations.

Humans are imperfect, and that is reflected and expressed in the governments to which we consent and in which we participate. Thus, it is only by the grace of God that we have made the form of government and law under which we live more perfect. And it remains true that it is only through the consent of the governed that the work of making our nation more perfect can continue. So help us God.

HH, July 4, 2020, Washington DC

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