05 July 2010

Why I was not cheery about Independence Day

Because vanishingly few of the people celebrating around me still respect the document whose signing everyone claimed to be celebrating.
Randomscrub | Nobody actualy agrees with the Declaration of Independence anymore

Well, that's putting it a bit strongly, but saying "<20% of the American population agrees with the Declaration of Independence" doesn't have quite the same punch to it. Every July 4th, people intellectually genuflect in the direction of our founding documents, but nobody actually thinks about the meaning of these words:
That whenever 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.
These words mean that, in principle, secession from a political state is both possible, and sometimes necessary. But mainstream opinion has it that secession from the USA is both unthinkable and immoral - tainted by association with the Confederacy's battle to preserve slavery. But if you take these words seriously, the Declaration of Independence implies that it should be possible for states to secede peacefully if the people no longer believe that the federal government is securing their "unalienable rights".
I think the dissonance is even greater than people thinking that secession was appropriate in 1776 but is unjustified now, because a lot of people actually support secession, just never here. There are a lot of people who think that Tibet should be able to declare independence from China, or Darfur from Sudan, or the West Bank from Israel, or Corsica from France. But the idea that, let's say, Arizona, should be able to declare independence from the US is abhorrent to them.

I encourage you, as Patri Friedman did, to read the Declaration of Independence not "not as a piece of history, but as the deliberately reasoned conclusion of a group of people who felt these words so strongly that they were willing to risk their lives for the untested principles therein." While you're at it check out the "Independence Day Round Up" at Let a Thousand Nations Bloom.

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PS Oh, one other thing. The Fourth of July is not "America's Birthday." The USA didn't exist until September 17, 1787. 4 July 1776 is just the day we told Great Britain to go screw off. That may seem like a petty distinction, but in my minds there's a great difference between forming a new government and throwing out an old one.

PPS On the other hand I was a little cheery yesterday because fireworks are amazing.  There's no getting around that.  Where else is it socially acceptable to blow things up purely for visual spectacle?  Besides shows on the Discovery Channel, of course.


  1. Or you could be alternatively pedantic and contend that the USA was "born" on 1 March 1781, when the Articles of confederation were officially ratified. One could argue that the later Constitution was more accurately described as an internal political restructuring of an existing nation.

    I'm not sure which is a more compelling case.

    In any event, I'm totally cool with pegging the celebration to the occasion of telling Britain to go pound sand.

  2. True, true. I tend to consider that to be qualitative enough of a change as to make it a new nation, but that's a matter of opinion.

  3. So, July 4 is more like conception day. ;-)

  4. Ha! Good way to put it.