Tomorrow we will celebrate the official birth of this country, the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. That extraordinary document set forth the grievances against King George: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”
The King was even then “transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”
The signers of the Declaration explain why they feel a new government is necessary:
“… [W]henever 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 should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. 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, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
The signers describe their vision of a just government: “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 …”
Signing the Declaration was not a pro forma exercise. Those 56 men put everything at risk: “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.”
The government established by 1787 is in concept the same one we have today, with executive, legislative and judicial branches at the state and federal levels, and a system of checks and balances among the branches.
Our leaders in the executive and legislative branches are elected rather than imposed; there is no violence; there are no military or other coups. The transition of governmental power takes place in public.
On this day we celebrate the vision and dedication of the colonists who risked everything for a free nation. But we must also remember others who later put everything on the line to make this country stronger, to secure equal rights for those disenfranchised and marginalized in the founding documents.
We have come quite a distance, but the struggle continues, and we must remain vigilant. We are disappointed with many decisions of the U. S. Supreme Court in the last few decades. Some Fourth Amendment freedoms that protected the public against unreasonable searches and seizures have been curtailed, notwithstanding the recent decision dealing with cellphones.
A putative meaning of the Second Amendment has been bolstered, putting more guns into more people’s hands. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was practically gutted, allowing states to impose requirements that have the effect of restricting access to the polls. Efforts to address effects of past discrimination have been hamstrung. Church and state are comingled; corporations and persons conflated. Many of these decisions seem to have their roots in politics.
Nor has Congress necessarily been the people’s friend. Too many elected officials would rather shut down this country than compromise. Too often we see candidates backed by Political Action Committees (PACs) and pledging themselves to an ideology in exchange for campaign support and contributions. Too many politicians seek to protect their own self-interest and a privileged few.
Rare are the leaders who would today pledge their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor for the good of all.
We are publishing this small essay in a community newspaper, where few beyond Evanston will read it. Even so, the fact that we can do so without fear of retaliation speaks to the strength of this country.
Others can more eloquently and on a wider stage articulate the challenges facing us. Voices of protest must remain strong, as must voices of harmony. We need reconciliation and, in some cases, realignment, to keep this country focused on its founding vision.