“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; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Thus recites the preamble of the United States’ Declaration of Independence from the British Empire, adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776 – a day marked ever since by the country as Independence Day.
What’s the state of the US on its 242nd birthday, when a record-low 47% of its people are “extremely proud” to be American and the country is pulled in different directions by Trump, Millennial Socialists, Walkaways, liberal Democrats, libertarians, never-Trumpers, women’s rights groups, and racial justice warriors?
Likewise, what does it mean for the world’s only superpower when the United States is rapidly becoming increasingly isolationist as Trump fights “freeloading” allies and threatens NATO.
First, some history. The Continental Congress had adopted Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee’s independence resolution on July 2. However, it is July 4 that came to be celebrated as Independence Day. Massachusetts became the first state to mark it as an official holiday. Anniversary celebrations evolved from the early mock funerals of King George III, to become a paid holiday for federal employees in 1941.
As the US celebrates another Independence Day this year, Jefferson’s words in the Declaration are remarkably relevant. The words “men are created equal,” are endowed with “inalienable rights” which include liberty and “the pursuit of happiness,” are poignant as America is set to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court with a judge who might erode abortion rights secured in Roe v. Wade. Undoubtedly, many women will see that as interfering with their pursuit of happiness and limiting liberty.
Similarly, the idea that government derives its “just powers” because of the “consent of the governed” is important when the legitimacy of the presidency is under attack.
And the country’s deep schism queries the consent of the governed for major changes. For instance, a Gallup poll in June 2018 found that exactly 48% of Americans were either pro-choice or pro-life – cleft into opposing camps. Moreover, 50% did believe abortion should be legal in some circumstances. 48% thought abortion is morally wrong whereas 43% felt it was morally acceptable.
According to a Pew poll in 2017, 70% of white evangelical Protestants believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, whereas 80% of Americans without any religious affiliations say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Similarly, 67% of white Protestants thought it should be legal.
Jefferson’s words are equally relevant to immigration. In 1782, when the country had an under-population problem, Jefferson wrote in his “Notes on the State of Virginia”:
“Suppose 20 million of republican Americans thrown all of a sudden into France, what would be the condition of that kingdom? If it would be more turbulent, less happy, less strong, we may believe that the addition of half a million of foreigners to our present numbers would produce a similar effect here.”
If that sounds like Trump, consider what Jefferson said about the need for merit-based immigration:
“I mean not that these doubts should be extended to the importation of useful artificers. The policy of that measure depends on very different considerations. Spare no expence in obtaining them. They will after a while go to the plough and the hoe; but, in the mean time, they will teach us something we do not know.”
These words are instructive when the country is deeply divided on the issue. For instance, an Ipsos/Reuters poll in June 2018 found 57% of Americans believe immigrant families caught crossing the border shouldn’t be separated. The division was partisan – 80% of Democrats opposed separation whereas only 26% Republicans did.
Jefferson did not escalate the rhetoric unlike the current immigration climate which is hostile to both legal and illegal immigrants. He had a welcoming attitude as president and wanted citizenship to be easier:
“And shall we refuse the unhappy fugitives from distress that hospitality which the savages of the wilderness extended to our fathers arriving in this land? Shall oppressed humanity find no asylum on this globe?”
Turning to another contested matter – the proper role for government, Jefferson is also in favour of limited government. For instance, in his first annual message to Congress in 1801, Jefferson says, “our organization is [may be] too complicated, too expensive; whether offices or officers have not been multiplied unnecessarily, and sometimes injuriously to the service they were meant to promote.” He claims to have “begun the reduction of what was deemed necessary,” and eerily presaging Trump’s withdrawal from agencies such as the UNHRC states, “The expenses of diplomatic agency have been considerably diminished.”
Jefferson also presages Trump in revenue matters: “The inspectors of internal revenue who were found to obstruct … have been discontinued. Several agencies … have been suppressed…”
Clearly, looking at the history of America’s founding is instructive as we ponder the prospect of a new civil war. Whilst divisions about immigration, equality, same-sex marriage, abortion, and foreign entanglements are not new, they seem to be cohering together in this instance. The schism has been bubbling away for some time – Democrats thought they were robbed at the ballot box in 2000 and a big chunk of the populace didn’t accept George W. Bush as legitimate.
Then there was the Iraq war and Guantanamo Bay – both polarising issues. Bush was followed by Obama – who many on the right never accepted and stymied at every turn. Trump’s election aggravated these divisions. However, unlike Bush and Obama, Trump has aggressively sought to impose his vision – opening up all these battlefronts at once.
The question is whether these battles will form the perfect storm and generate a true civil war. For now, the protests haven’t assumed scale and talk of a civil war is premature. America has endured divisions before to emerge as the shining beacon on the hill. The country’s upcoming 243rd year is an opportunity to recognise that the Declaration’s promise has not been fully delivered to many Americans. If renewed leadership can deliver on that promise, America’s revolutionary democratic experiment will once again inspire peoples everywhere.