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Reflections on the revolution in America

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4 July 2012 14:36

The Fourth of July is a date that has assumed the distinction of a celebrity known only by their first name, like Prince or Madonna. It encompasses, in one Gregorian contraction, all that we ascribe to a country we look to as not only our most important strategic partner, but as holding similar values to ourselves as Australians. It is fitting, on this date, to recall what Americans commemorate.

We often refer to America as having been 'born on the Fourth of July', but this is inaccurate. That event took place on 4 March 1789 when the federal union of the United States of America was enacted by the adoption of the constitution.

If 4 March 1789 is the birth of the United States, the Fourth of July 1776 represents its conception. On this day, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, a proclamation that represents one of the two most important documents in the history of Western civilisation, the other being Magna Carta.

I recently interviewed Paul 'Jerry' Bremer, Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in post-invasion Iraq, in the course of my academic research in the US. He told me that every Fourth of July, his family gathers at his home and he reads the Declaration of Independence aloud. He told me he rarely gets through the text without being overcome with emotion.

Why does Bremer feel it important to commemorate with his family in this manner, and why do the words move him so?

The Declaration, composed with Jefferson's magnificent brevity, enunciates the fundamental principles of liberal constitutional government. Speaking with Governor John Sununu, President George HW Bush's Chief of Staff, I recited the second stanza of the Declaration's preamble. 'We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'

'Yes,' said Sununu, 'but it is the next part that is the profound contribution'. 

'That to secure these rights,' Sununu fired back, 'Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.'

Sununu is a formidable, though affable, intellectual giant, and he is right. The concept of inalienable rights had long been recognised and protected in the English Constitution, which is not a written document like that which the US constitution would become, but the constituted arrangement of institutions, laws, and customs, together with the principles that guide them, which forms the body of English law.

Founding father and the nation's second president, John Adams, referred to England's Constitution as 'the most perfect combination of human powers in society which finite wisdom has yet contrived and reduced to practice for the preservation of liberty and the production of happiness.'

But government instituted among men, and deriving its legitimacy from the consent of the governed? 'These words', wrote Samuel Eliot Morison in his classic History of the American People, 'are more revolutionary than anything written by Robespierre, Marx or Lenin; more explosive than the atom; a continual challenge to ourselves as well as an inspiration to the oppressed of all the world.'

Words matter because they are the perceptible manifestation of ideas. And these words were indeed revolutionary. For they did not merely institute just government, they established citizenship as the key to preserving just government.

The conventional wisdom of governance in 1776, and indeed today, lay in the tradition of Hobbes and Locke. The rule of law required sovereignty to reside somewhere within the body politic. The profound change that Sununu identified in the Declaration is the transfer of sovereignty from a monarch to the citizenry. 'We the People', declared the citizens, 'do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.'

The reason the Fourth of July holds such revered place in the hearts of Americans is because it encapsulates the concept that America is an idea. 'We're not one race,' said President Clinton in 1995, 'we're not one ethnic group. We're not one religious group. We do share a common piece of ground here. But you read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and you'll find that this country is an idea.'

Perhaps, more accurately, America is a suite of ideas. Liberty, equality, constitutionalism, republicanism, and democracy. She has not always lived up to the ideal. She sacrificed equality for liberty in the terrible silence of the first eighty years of her existence before dealing with the intractable issue of chattel slavery. It would not be until 1920, when women received the vote, that near-universal suffrage was achieved. Of course the Jim Crow laws would limit the participation of the African American community into the 1960s.

The glory of America is not that she has formed a perfect union, but that she continues to strive to do so.

Photo by Flickr user aten

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