Independence, Past and Future

What should we be fighting for this Independence Day?

One of the many sad aspects to getting older is how much more difficult it becomes to experience something really new.  When you're a kid, fireworks are awesome and magical.  When you're an adult, well, they're still fun, but last year's were better, and the year before that it wasn't so hot... you get the idea.

So it's simple human nature that eventually turns even the most profound of holidays into a mere opportunity for used-car salesmen to flog their wares: familiarity breeds contempt.

Alas, the Gods of the Copybook Headings have a way of forcing forgotten meanings back to our attention.  Fourth of July fireworks, for example, really were better as a kid, because the good ones weren't illegal back then.  Modern Americans celebrate liberty and freedom by, well, not being allowed to celebrate it themselves, but instead simply watching as government-paid professionals do it for them.  How symbolic is that?

What People Consider Worth Fighting For

The Powers that Be desperately don't want us to think about this, but there was a time when Americans were willing to fight and die in opposition against those who would take away their freedom, even when the would-be tyrants were their fellow Americans.

What was the Civil War about?  Slavery, obviously - the Union was fighting to bring about liberty for Americans who happened to be black and enslaved.  Surely one of the few things almost all Americans today would agree on, is that this was a Good Thing.

So the Union was fighting for good and right against evil incarnate, that is, the "peculiar institution" of heritable chattel slavery.

You may be surprised to hear that, in their own minds, the soldiers of the South were not fighting in defense of slavery.  Naturally their (wealthy, slaveowning) elites had this strongly in mind when they started the war, but since the vast majority of white Southerners owned no slaves, it wasn't a very compelling internal argument.

No, what really drove the average private soldier wearing grey to heights of combative fury, was the idea that those damned Yankees would tell Virginia (or South Carolina, or whatever) what they had to do.  This argument is known as "states' rights."

The North called it the War of (Southern) Rebellion; the South said it was the War of Northern Aggression.  In the eyes of Southerners, they were fighting a breach-of-contract action: the Federal government was overstepping the terms that the states had agreed to when they accepted the Constitution.

The common use of language has obscured the meaning, but the term "state" means, and meant, an independent nation.  The 13 signatories of the Constitution were fully independent, sovereign countries, contracting mutually to delegate a strictly limited set of powers to a central government for the collective and individual good of all.

States' rights has gotten a very bad name, and let's be fair: its most famous usage was indeed in defense of evil, whether it be slavery or Jim Crow.  Does that make the principle inherently wrong?  Hitler loved dogs, but we don't consider all dog-lovers to be automatically Nazis.

The fact is, most of the South viewed themselves as fighting in defense of the principles of limited government espoused by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison - all Southerners.  Robert E. Lee was the son of one of George Washington's close aides, married to the daughter of Washington's adopted son, and his mansion - now the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery - was a shrine to Washington's memory.

This wasn't just whistling Dixie.  The people of the South truly believed that their freedoms would be abrogated by the Yankees if they didn't stop them.  Today, looking back at the America of 150 years ago and comparing it to the America of today, can we honestly say they were mistaken?

Confusing Principle and Practice

The problem is that the overwhelming evil of slavery obscures the fact that, in principle, the South was right: our Federal government was indeed designed with the intention of being comparatively small and strictly limited in powers.  Any unbiased observer can clearly see that the fears our Founders had of ever-growing government were entirely well founded.

Indeed, in Federalist #10, James Madison specifically addressed the overriding concern of our modern left, that Christian fundamentalists want to use the law to oppress nonbelievers:

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.

In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.

Was Madison's solution an all-powerful Federal government?  Hardly: he said rights would be protected by their being various states.  If you don't like what your state is doing, you can simply move to a different one.

The agony of history is that the South was right in principle, but profoundly wrong in practice.  The Union was the converse: right in practice, but wrong in principle.

Getting rid of slavery was absolutely right.  Defending slavery was absolutely wrong.

Unfortunately, in addition to the unalloyed good of emancipation, the Civil War established the principle that the Federal government can do pretty much whatever it pleases and that the states have power only by sufferance of their lords in Washington DC.

In 1852, the phenomenal orator and ex-slave Frederick Douglass delivered the famous address, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”  At the time, his point was absolutely valid: a slave has no freedom, so the Fourth of July was nothing to celebrate.

Today, even the most reactionary of leftists has to admit that American blacks are overwhelmingly more free than they or any of their ancestors have ever before been, except possibly for those descended from African royalty.

Winners and Losers

Can any sane person say the same for anyone else?  In literally every aspect of life, we are less free than our fathers and grandfathers.  Our great-grandfathers wouldn't recognize today's America, but even for your humble correspondent, it's hard to accept living in a country where the authorities shut down kids' lemonade stands - and not just in New York City or Portland, Oregon, known centers of leftist totalitarianism, but in heartland states like Texas and Iowa!

It's difficult to stomach submitting to a government that presumes to demand that you seek their august permission if you want to change a light fixture in your own home (it's an "interior alteration").  When did that happen, why didn't we notice, and why didn't we do something about it?

We won't even discuss the government banning light bulbs, flush toilets, and myriad other things.  Some banned things are visibly harmful: crack cocaine, say, or white phosphorous.  Wouldn't public education of the dangers have solved most of the problem, though, leaving the decision to individual free men and women?

But no; in today's America, if government thinks it's bad for you - heck, even if it is bad for you - then government arrogates the authority to forbid you having it, doing it, or more and more, saying it.

This year, let's celebrate Independence Day by thinking about what liberty and freedom truly mean.  But wait until after everybody goes home from the parties before you soberly contemplate what would have to be done if we want to get some of our lost liberties back.

Read other articles by Hobbes or other articles on Society.
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