Monday, July 03, 2006

Independence and Ideals

Those of us who worry when the United States fails to live up to its own ideals--by torturing or "disappearing" detainees, by failing to control the corrupting influence of money in politics, by denying many of its own citizens equality of opportunity, by turning a blind eye to genocide, and so on--should consider the possibility that Thomas Jefferson is the ultimate source of our dissatisfaction. Jefferson, after all, penned the words that established the ideals that provide the standard against which we judge our country's behavior.

Jefferson might have written a declaration that established as the justification for American independence the insufferability of George III and his colonial administration. He might have, in other words, listed the problems Americans had with British rule (as, in fact, he did) and left it at that. Or he might have made a realist case for independence--one based on the incompatibility of British and American interests and on the prospects for achieving American aims via power politics. He might have found a formula that would have convinced his colleagues to pledge their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to the cause of independence without making grandiose promises concerning the new republic's commitment to such lofty ideals as equality and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But Jefferson and his co-revolutionaries based their claim to autonomy on a set of high ideals, ones that they believed would have universal appeal by virtue of their foundation in immutable truths. Those of us who celebrate the Fourth of July have bought into Jefferson's idealism. If not, we have misunderstood what the Declaration of Independence is all about.

The Declaration of Independence accomplished the very practical matter of establishing the stakes of war with Great Britain. (As Benjamin Franklin said after the document had been signed, "Now we must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.") But more than that, it placed a marker with respect to liberty and equality so far beyond the reality of 1776 that we still haven't reached it. Indeed, Vaclav Havel, while addressing a joint session of Congress, reminded Americans that we, like many newer republics, are only approaching democracy.

As James Carroll notes in an excellent column concerning Independence Day, "to be an American traditionalist . . . is to affirm the revolution." I would add that to affirm the revolution is also to recognize that we still have much to do in our effort to live up to the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.