July 4, 2009 – The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six

A few years ago, my father gave me his favorite reference book as a teacher of US History – “The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six – a story of the American Revolution as told by participants,” edited by Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris. It has been well-thumbed through, and I am sure provided the source for many an extra credit test question.

Dad taught me to always question the source, to understand the context, and gave me an appreciation for going to original documents. This book includes letters, memoirs, journal entries and other original source materials as written by our founding fathers and mothers. It documents the philosophical revolution behind the physical revolution, It was the birth of a nation “destined to fix the character of much of modern nationalism.”

I pulled the book off the shelf today to look for something sentimental to say about the Declaration of Independence by going to contemporaneous sources for context. I was fascinated to discover only one instance of highlighting in the entire 1,296 pages (plus Acknowledgements, Bibliography and Index). It is in a portion of the second paragraph of the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, right after the familiar part about our unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Here’s where the highlighting starts:

“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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established
shall not be changed for light and transient causes;”

He skipped highlighting the part about experience proving people will tolerate a bad situation for a long time before acting to change that to which they have become accustomed, then the highlighting picks up again with:

“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same
Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their
right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government”

The Declaration of Independence is not a sentimental document. It is a call to armed revolt, and it emphasizes the ongoing role each of us has to play in our government. Here is today’s extra credit question: What will you tolerate before you will act to create change? Use as your case study the following bi-partisan situation from yesterday’s Washington Post “Breaking News” alerts:

Under a Bush-era plan, the National Security Agency will help the Department of Homeland Security screen government computer traffic on private-sector networks, according to three current and former government officials. The plan has provoked debate within DHS, in part because of uncertainty over whether private data can be shielded from unauthorized scrutiny.
Maybe this passes your personal liberty test. The intent appears to be to screen government employee communications, and we certainly want to see transparency in our government. On the other hand, once the NSA camel gets its nose in the tent and starts monitoring computer traffic, it will be hard to keep from peeking at the whole network. Social networking continues to break down the barriers between public and private information – does this NSA policy go too far, or is it hardly worth worrying about given the new context? What do you think will be the best arrangement to support your safety and happiness? Do you give your consent to be governed in this manner, and if not, have you made your desires known to your duly elected representatives?

Re-reading the Declaration of Independence is a good reminder that we are called to be vigilant participants in, not just observers of, the spirit of ‘Seventy Six.