Celebrating independence in an age of dependence

Today we celebrate the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence with fireworks and picnics.

But there is another day worthy of a passing mention. That is July 6, the day the declaration was first reprinted on the front page of The Pennsylvania Evening Post. In the following weeks, by order of Congress, at least 30 newspapers reprinted the Declaration of Independence, spreading its simple words and its audacious act of treason against the crown. It was a document for the people, carried to the people by the press.

At the time, the colonies were under virtual blockade and the American Army was vastly outnumbered and often in retreat.

Franklin, Adams and Jefferson

Librarian Robin Shields recounts that when the Boston Gazette published the declaration it carried next to it an advertisement: “Cash given for clean Cotton and Linen RAGS, at the Printing-Office in Watertown.” Most paper was imported from England, and the printer was seeking rags with which to make paper.

In a letter to Congress on July 9, Gen. George Washington reported how his troops were to mark the news of the Declaration of Independence: “The several brigades are to be drawn up this evening on their respective Parades, at Six O’Clock, when the declaration of Congress, shewing the grounds and reasons of this measure, is to be read with an audible voice.”

In a letter the next day he reported that British deserters were telling him a fleet with massive reinforcements was expected to arrive in New York any day. The situation was dire.

It was in this setting of uncertainty and imminent danger that our founding document was penned. How it fell to 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson to pen the first draft is a matter of some dispute, but I prefer the recollection of chief independence protagonist John Adams.

Years later, Adams recalled that he insisted Jefferson should write it, and Jefferson replied, “Why?”

“Reasons enough,” answered Adams.

“What can be your reasons?”

So Adams bluntly stated, “Reason first: you are a Virginian and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second: I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third: You can write ten times better than I can.”

Most of which, of course, was nonsense.

Jefferson borrowed liberally from the great minds of the day, unabashedly paraphrasing George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

Jefferson edited it to the more succinct “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In 1825, in a letter to fellow Virginian Henry Lee, Jefferson looked back on those days and his role in writing the founding document. He recalled his motivation and purpose:

“When forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of … (but) to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind …”

Today 52 percent of Americans, a majority, receive some kind of government check. Federal regulations cost $2 trillion a year. Entitlement programs are going broke. Debt is ballooning. Foreign powers neither trust us or fear us. Morality and ethics are situational. The government enforces only those laws it wishes to enforce. Politicians lie, cheat and steal without fear of facing any consequences. The media are largely toothless and growing weaker.

Even when the voters revolt and elect people they think are fiscal conservatives, the elected officials raise taxes and do nothing to rein in runaway spending on government programs and employee pay and benefits.

At the time of the Revolution, it is estimated the typical tax burden — with or without representation — was 20 cents per capita per year at a time when annual earnings were somewhere between $60 and $100. Today the total tax burden is more than 40 percent.

I wonder whether we have lost that American mind-set that Jefferson cherished. How many of us are still willing for the sake of true liberty to pledge “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor”?

Even the meaning of the word liberty has changed from an inalienable right to something granted by the all-powerful government.

“Our Constitution — like the Declaration of Independence before it — was predicated on a simple truth: One’s liberty, not to mention one’s dignity, was something to be shielded from — not provided by — the State. Today’s decision casts that truth aside. In its haste to reach a desired result, the majority misapplies a clause focused on ‘due process’ to afford substantive rights, disregards the most plausible understanding of the ‘liberty’ protected by that clause, and distorts the principles on which this Nation was founded. Its decision will have inestimable consequences for our Constitution and our society,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the gay marriage ruling several years ago.

We’ve strayed far since 1776.

This first appeared in 2015.

5 comments on “Celebrating independence in an age of dependence

  1. Bill says:

    Well said, Mr. Mitchell.

  2. Rincon says:

    Here we go again with the Conservative propaganda campaign. I checked the Forbes article about so many Americans receiving government checks, and found their source to be CNS News. Media bias fact check calls them extreme right biased – a questionable source containing propaganda at times. In contrast, the Heartland Institute (a very unreliable source in my experience) is considered left of CNS, with their factual reporting being mixed – a much better rating. Sorry, but this source doesn’t pass muster. https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/cns-news/

    Even if their report is technically true, which is possible, the dynamic is similar to my wife coming home bragging that she got a $500 rebate, and only had to spend $3,000 to get it. The figures are clear. The rich have gained dramatically in both income and net worth over the last 40 years or so, while the middle class has stagnated. Receiving an Obamacare subsidy, for example, while the medical industry gouges us all mercilessly is a fart in a hurricane.

    In contrast to the impression left by the constant drumming of the Conservative propaganda machine, government spending, not counting Medicare and Social Security is less today as a percentage of GDP than it was in 1960. Medicare of course, didn’t exist in 1960, so it would be apples and oranges. We can argue about SS separately all day, but mixing it in with the rest of the budget muddies the water completely. My source? Whitehouse.gov. Trump’s White House.
    https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/historical-tables/ (tables 14.3 and 14.5)

    Taxes are less today too (yes, Bonzo, adjusted for inflation), but much of that is due to running up our national debt, which Conservatives cheered with the Trump tax cuts.

    Take away SS and Medicare, and suddenly, a much smaller number of Americans receive government checks. Should we take away those benefits, which are bought and paid for? CNS also missed a whole bunch of other government goodies. While not technically subsidies (nod to Steve), far more wealth is gained (or saved from being charged) by tax favors than will ever be granted by direct subsidies. Farming enjoys lots of direct subsidies, while industry receives lots as well, but usually not in the form of a check.

    I agree though, that there are too many deductions, subsidies, and free indirect benefits, but the impression Conservatives give that the middle class is gouging the government while the rich are footing the bill is simply false.

    Welfare (NOT including Medicaid, which didn’t exist then, but including unemployment) spending was 1.7% of GDP in 1960, 2.1% in 1961, 2.3% in 2002 and 2.3% in 2017, an increase, but a pretty tiny one and probably worth it, considering that I saw lots of tar paper shacks in Kentucky as a boy. A few years ago, I couldn’t find even one. https://www.usgovernmentspending.com/welfare_spending

    We can argue Medicaid separately, but since medical costs have risen by a factor of more than 8 times since 1960 (Yes, accounting for inflation), this is really more about out of control medical costs than it is about welfare. In 1960, most indigent medical was not paid for by the government at all, but by the medical industry itself.

  3. Anonymous says:

    It’s always easier to speak about “liberty” and how grand it is, than to protect and ensure it. Much like most ideals I suppose (I’d sure like to be able to travel though time, but it’s the whole building the machine to make possible that keeps getting in my way)

    Jefferson is but one example of a man that made eloquent speeches and wrote frequently about it, even if, as we all know, he didn’t exactly practice it in his own life.

    And all people, from time immemorial I think, have desired, or at least expressed the desire, to live unencumbered by restrictions on their ability to do what they wanted, when they wanted. This was not a new concept to the founders of this country instead it was one ingrained deeply into all humans from the time they started walking the earth.

    The problem has always been how far a person can go before their actions start to interfere with other humans and their desires for liberty. The line is constantly shifting but as the world gets smaller and smaller, and the impact an individual has on the world grows larger and larger, the line moves to a point seemingly closer to every individuals “nose”.

    It’s also no surprise that people see “government” as the major impediment to their individual desires. In the history of the world, a government has almost always been more powerful than even the most powerful individual and is therefore uniquely positioned to “interfere” with the desires of men to do what they want, when they want.

    The founders of this country understood though that this was necessary, and yes, desireable for many reasons. First and foremost, they understood that a strong, central government, with broad powers necessary to ensure the survival of the country was all that stood against the force that could be brought to bear against our individual citizens by other countries that had much less regard for liberty than any citizen in this country thought justified. In fact, the founders understood this so well, that the prior governing “law” for the government was understood as too weak to ensure these goals, and so a Constitution that gave more powers to the federal government was needed. Of course, to someone that blanches at the most minimal “interference” with their liberty, even the Constitution seemed outrageous and oppressive.

    It is easy of course, as so many do today, to blast our “government” as some sort of “just this side” of tyranny and gnash their teeth and wail about how “wise” the founders were, and how far we have strayed from their virtuous calls for “liberty”. But why do they so easily forget that the founders did away with the Articles of Confederation because they knew a strong central government was needed? One that allowed the federal government broad IMPLIED powers along with the ability to directly tax the citizens of the country.

    And oh Jefferson. So flowery he was with his talk of liberty and limited government right? Well I wonder what sort of word might be used to describe a man today that talked of “liberty for all” who secretly kept a couple slaves at his house? I wonder what might be thought of a presidential candidate that, while preaching about our limited government, went off as Jefferson did, and increased the size of the country, with a seizure of power nowhere discussed in the Constitution, the way Jefferson did?

    It’s just absurd, in the extreme, to think for a moment that this country has grown from a few million citizens, to more than 300 million, and that somehow, someway, the fictitious “liberty” that an idealist would like to believe existed in 1787 could even possibly exist today.

    We are an incredibly BETTER country today than we were when we started. Smarter, healthier, stronger, and yes, with more equality and liberty than “we” were as a country back then.

    Ask women, or most men of any non Caucasian persuasion whether their liberty rights have increased or decreased from the days Jefferson waxed so poetically about the subject. I doubt any would seek to return to the days when they couldn’t own property, or vote, or marry, or take many other actions they take today which were forbidden during the time Madison, and a Jefferson, and others were speaking about liberty.

    That is worth celebrating on the 4th of July.

  4. Rincon says:

    Good post, Anonymous. Nicely worded.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Rincon and allow me to say that I find most of what you write similarly well written.

    I have to confess though that, like the article Thomas re posted here, this post was copied and pasted from my original response to his original article;)

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