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Editor's Note: American History X 

Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.

—Benjamin Franklin

BEN FRANKLIN ACTUALLY proposed that sentence as the official motto of the United States, which would've been awesome.

(What we got instead was the lame two-fer of “Out of many, one” and “A new order for the ages,” the latter of which has spawned a hundred conspiracy theories.)

It’s a short, concise sentence that says a lot, about the country and about the man.

This Fourth of July weekend you’ll get plenty of suggestions of things to celebrate.

You’ll be told to be grateful for your many freedoms—as you dodge Operation Thunder police checkpoints.

You’ll be urged to celebrate the might of our armed forces—even though the Founding Fathers warned against the perils of a standing military.

You might even be urged to tell an immigrant to “speak English, this is America.” Which is pretty ironic, among other things.

What will probably get lost is what July 4, 1776, was all about. Despite the overt patriotic displays and constant exhortations this weekend for God to bless America, what the nation’s founders were saying is in a way almost the opposite of patriotism.

Theirs was a universal message.

(Technically, July 2 was when the resolution for independence from Great Britain was approved, and probably should be the day we celebrate. The Declaration was unveiled July 4 essentially to explain what happened two days earlier. But you gotta admit “the Second of July” just doesn’t have the same ring.)

It’s vogue in certain circles to disparage the founders for their extreme whiteness, their all-male gender, and their affluence, not to mention some of their members’ unsettling associations with slavery.

Frederick Douglass both lamented and resolved these thorny issues in his amazing 1852 speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth For The Negro:”

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim,” Douglass said.

But later in the same speech, the great orator and abolitionist also concluded:

While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age... No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference.

Indeed. A hundred and fifty-six years after that speech, a black man would be elected president of the U.S. And re-elected. Change happens slowly, but happen it does.

American equality expands because of the acknowledgement of universal freedom in the Declaration of Independence, its statement that all men—all people—are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

By their Creator.

Not by a king or a government.

The Declaration’s most revolutionary concept wasn’t the idea of America itself, but the idea that human rights are inherent.

That governments don’t confer rights, and therefore they cannot take them away.

And that if any government seeks to do so, then it forfeits its legitimacy.

Many liberals get it wrong when they disparage the founders as a bunch of irrelevant and racist rich white men who should be expunged from school textbooks.

In the course of history, has any other fraternity of influential, powerful people written such a clear and wise blueprint for the inevitable weakening of its own power?

Many conservatives get it wrong when they claim our ancestors intended a monolithic Christian nation, and applaud egregious Supreme Court decisions like the Hobby Lobby verdict earlier this week.

As James Madison wrote: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?”

And many libertarians get it wrong when they misinterpret the founders’ skepticism of government as a desire to have no government at all. Far from anarchists, they very much believed in government—just one with the “consent of the governed.”

So when you think about it, America’s founders pretty much faked everybody out.

The fact that we still argue, debate, and interpret their actions 238 years later doesn’t mean they screwed up. It’s proof they were onto something good.

cs

About The Author

Jim Morekis

Jim Morekis

Bio:
A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series... more

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Connect Today 04.18.2015

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