It is the Fourth of July.
The occasion seems to assume more meaning each year, as the Republic launched this day 238 years ago loses its own significance. What do I mean when I say the meaning of our republic diminishes with each year? For one answer, read the more pessimistic posts in this blog, the ones about torture, assassination of United States citizens, international aggression, militarized police, incompetence and lawlessness among people who are supposed to lead us, government secrecy and dishonesty, the national security state’s domestic surveillance practices, and coercion of once-free people in matters that do not belong to the state. You can see merely from the subject matter of these pieces why our republic signifies something much different from what the founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence, not to mention the Constitution.
When Jefferson wrote the Declaration, and the Continental Congress in Philadelphia approved it, the new country justified its break with Britain by claiming a right of revolution. The right of revolution is closely tied to three other rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – that Jefferson cited early in the Declaration. If government violates these rights, Jefferson said – following Locke – then the people have a right to alter or abolish that government. Thus the argument that underpins the founding of our nation.
The United States is the only country or government, ever, to form with citizens’ right of revolution among its founding principles. No other government sits on this principal of sovereignty. You might say our government does not sit on this principal of sovereignty, either, for it would squash any potent group that tried to advance a right of revolution. The state would not tolerate that type of threat. In that respect, the state took care to remove the right of revolution from the legal constraints that bind it as soon as it was strong enough to do so.
That makes our government self justifying, which makes it immune from replacement, which renders it a type of tyranny – however soft or infrequent its extra-legal coercion might appear in practice. That is the sobering idea that arises in our consciousness a little more each Fourth of July: that we cannot withdraw our consent, or abolish our government, or do anything else that threatens the illicit power our government guards so well. We might shoot off fireworks today to celebrate the unique freedom that underlay our new nation in 1776, but we also know that the celebration remains rather empty so long as government can do as it likes, with no fear that the people who gave it power in the first place can possibly alter or abolish it.