4th of July Again a Bittersweet Holiday for Lovers of Liberty

(The following was originally submitted to the July 1-4 2008 Blogswarm against Theocracy.  I have made some additions and revisions.  Since my goal is always change in the real world, I urge you to take personal action to roll back religious bigotry and superstition.  First Freedom First is a good place to start.)

“The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.”

Thomas Jefferson, 1809

“This is the Fourth?”

Last words, July 4, 1826

“When in the Course of Human Events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political Bonds that have connected them with another…they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.”

Declaration of Indepependence


The Fourth of July, long before I was born, was not about mattress sales, backyard barbecues, and celebrating your independence by buying a Chevy.  It was about the fact that America was a special place, with no monarch, with no state religion, and with government by the consent of the governed.  It was a celebration of our liberty. 

Think of it: for once, after millennia of despots, kings, dictators, Popes, czars, and other tyrants, a new concept was to be tried: liberty.  It’s as if the Founders aspired to raise the level of human political consciousness overnight, to put into effect the natural rights that had only recently been developed by philosophers. 

(Fascinating digression: recent research reveals that Jefferson smudged out “subjects” in the Declaration and replaced it with “citizens.”  Apparently, liberty was a stretch, even for the Founders.)  

Liberty, equality (of white men; they didn’t get it completely right at first), a government where there are no coups or Presidents-for-Life, where we hold elections no matter what, so that we could choose our own leaders, instead of being ruled by royal or theocratic idiots.

George W. Bush was both; he even said he approved of dictatorship, as long as he was the dictator.  Perhaps the democratic process yields no better results than monarchic succession, but at least we’re responsible for electing them.

Liberty: the Founders were asking the best of us when they made that Declaration.  And of themselves: They were taking on the most powerful empire and land army of the day.  They risked their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.”  Many lost the first two, but never the third.  

It was truly an assemblage of the best and the brightest, each making a distinctive contribution to the whole: the extraordinary character, patriotism, and probity of Washington, the intellectual brilliance of Jefferson, the economic genius of Hamilton, the fire of Paine and Sam Adams, the diplomacy (and schlong) of Franklin, the lawyerly John Adams.

Are we up to it?

Have we shown ourselves worthy of the Founders’ aspirations?  Have we been able to add a new, refined level of consciousness to our aggressive, selfish chimp-brains: a respect for each other, and for the law?  Can we develop a sense of live-and-let-live, a personal responsibility for our actions and lives (pursuit of happiness - what an idea!), when what most people want is to be led? 

Very difficult concepts, which is why many Americans, without knowing the Bill of Rights, will disapprove of certain Amendments.  Too much freedom.  The herd instinct, the need to be led, remains strong.

After the Constitutional Convention, a citizen asked Ben Franklin, “What have you given us, Dr. Franklin?  A monarchy or a republic?”  Franklin’s answer: “A republic, Madam – if you can keep it.”

Have we kept it?  The answer is obvious.  Today there is no area of life that is off-limits to government intervention. 

How free is America?

We don’t have the freedom to save for our retirement; instead, we have the mandatory Social Security scam. The middle class permanently wedded to politicians, and a lousy return on your money (they take 14% of it, counting your employer’s share, and it will only go up).  I don’t remember signing any “intergenerational contract.” Do you? 

We don’t have the freedom to educate our children as we see fit; instead, we have the government K-12 school monopoly, with un-fireable teachers and armies of administrators, and the Department of Education, which costs $40 billion a year and educates no one.  Plus endless arguments over what should be taught.

We don’t have the freedom to decide what we can put into our own bodies; instead, we have the odious, endless drug war, which has wrecked many of our cities (and is responsible for 5,000-10,000 violent deaths a year), and the FDA (which could easily be replaced by a more efficient, more impartial, non-politicized, private institution like Underwriters Labs, to the benefit of consumers), which causes much suffering and unnecessary death because it both has the force of law AND is slow, political, and bureaucractic.  Other countries are way ahead of us in taking dangerous drugs off the market and approving effective ones. 

We don’t have the freedom to keep the money we earn; instead, we have the income tax and the intrusive, tyrannical IRS – in the words of Sheldon Richman, “vile institutions that have no place in a free society.”  Taxes at all levels take close to half your income…and line the pockets of an army of political idiots and power-seekers.  The sickness is in the system that puts hypocrites like these in office.

We aren’t free from the public intrusiveness of religion, with the blessings of the government  – even though the Founders clearly intended to create a secular state.  Some were outright atheists. Some believed in a Deity, but they sure as hell didn’t spend a lot of time in church.  And they didn’t expect that prayer would get God to deliver them from the British; they’d have to do it themselves.

Secular government with limited powers

The Constitution creates a secular government with limited and enumerated powers.  True, the Founders’ specific prohibition is only against the establishment of a state religion.  But, apart from what they put on paper, what about the example they set?

It’s clear that they wanted a secular state, “bound by the chains of the Constitution,” as Jefferson put it.  (What a dreamer!)

Early America – and even then the America-as-Christian-Nation folks were around, and making mischief – had a secular government in which any attempts to get the state to champion Biblical teachings or otherwise intrude on people’s moral choices were UNCONSTITUTIONAL, as were any other attempts to get the government to do anything not in the Constitution.

That was then.  This is now.  What about all the stuff the government does that isn’t in the Constitution?  Is it allowable?

Betrayed dream

It is not.  Generations of politicians, abetted by the courts, have spun (deliberately misinterpreted) the Constitution and betrayed the Founders’ dream of a truly free country.

There is no question that in a document that received this much intellectual input, what was not said…was omitted DELIBERATELY, especially since the writers underscored their omissions with not one but two Amendments to that effect.

It’s not as if they composed it on the fly, like a last-minute term paper, and they kinda “forgot about” the importance of the government’s overseeing education, agriculture, retirement pensions, health care, drug policy, or any of the hundreds of things it does now, let alone wasting our money on golf courses and country clubs for its employees.   Only Congress has the power to declare war - a provision ignored by over a century of foreign interventions that were supposedly defending our freedom.

What the government cannot do

How many Americans know what the all-important Ninth and Tenth Amendments say? 

Some of the Founders argued that the Bill of Rights wasn’t necessary – that the government’s limitations would be evident from the foregoing enumeration of its powers.  Others said no, we’ve got to really make the point.  There are certain areas where government must not go.  Hence the Bill of Rights.

The Ninth Amendment says: “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”  This says: There may be rights that we haven’t mentioned.  The fact that we didn’t mention them does not deny them to people.

The Tenth: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people.”  In other words: We give the States the power to do anything we didn’t specifically say that the Federal government is supposed to do.  And if we don’t prohibit the States from doing a particular thing, then it’s up to the people.  

That gives the States and people a lot of leeway, wouldn’t you say?

America: a perfect balance

The Founders were trying to achieve what was potentially a perfect balance.  The broad sweep of history suggests that China is backward (though catching up fast) because it was too centralized. 

One decision could be made for a vast nation – even a disastrous one like abandoning the magnificent Treasure Ships that sailed to Africa in the 15th century and helped put China within range of an Industrial Revolution. 

Instead, the West caught up with and surpassed the East, partly because of its diversity.  Different nations, economies, societies, always in competition – often violent – with each other.  Competition is conductive to innovation. 

But Europe is too fragmented, as evidenced by its still-unsuccessful efforts to surmount cultural and linguistic barriers and create a unified economic entity.

The US is just right – potentially.  We have one language (mostly), one market, one currency, one culture (sort of).  We have a fifty-state federal system.  The idea was that the federal government would do a few things well – defense, judiciary, protecting our freedom here and abroad, keeping the nation’s finances sound – while EVERYTHING ELSE GOES TO THE STATES AND THE PEOPLE.

So potentially, we have 50 different solutions to the problems of local crime, poverty, education, drug policy, abortion, and many others.  But no.  Politicians have frightened and sweet-talked voters out of giving up precious rights in exchange for government protection or other goodies.  In 1957, the USSR launched a tiny satellite, which threw our government into such a panic that it federalized education, even though we soon surpassed the Soviets in space, with the same people who were in school when the government took over education.  And forty years later, we still lag behind other industrialized countries.

The monster in DC

The federal government now takes one-sixth of our national wealth – and redistributes it, wasting huge sums in the process.  It’s little more than a huge clearing-house for transferring money into the pockets of its clients and contributors (and that includes defense contractors – war is good business!). 

In the last century — and especially in the last 50 years – government has ignored the Ninth and Tenth Amendments and grown into a monster that invades every area of our lives.  They steal our money (taxes) to buy our votes (favors and subsidies once they’re in office).

Generations of Americans accept the American welfare state, with the government in charge of education, health care, drug policy, business hiring practices, licensing…the list goes on and on.  They don’t know of anything else. 

Why is there not outrage on college campuses because students can lose their loans and scholarships for a drug conviction – and they can’t even be asked about any other crime, including murder!  Everybody’s plugged into their iPods, and the drug war is now just background noise – at $40 billion a year.


July 4 saddens me because it used to be about how America was a free country.  But perhaps real liberty is too much for people.  The Founders expected too much.

We do have the freedom to criticize the government in print and other media (which it controls through licensing and other regulations), rather like chimps shrieking in their cages. 

With The Daily Show and Colbert Report, we become smarter chimps, laughing at the joke that is on us.  But nothing will change.

And we have the freedom to shop til we drop.  So who cares what the government does?  Indeed, mindless consumerism and 24/7 Internet/entertainment have allowed a level of political complacency and obedience that Hitler or Stalin could never have achieved through force.

Liberty – a word you don’t hear much in today’s political rhetoric.  For me and for all who love liberty, the 4th is a bittersweet holiday indeed.  The essence of America is not World Empire (those people have been around for a long time too).  It is not Government-as-Grandparent (Al Gore).  It is not Christian Nation. 

It is Land of the Free.


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Comment by Alan Perlman on July 8, 2012 at 3:37pm

I will look at that and get back to you.  Miraculously, despite the prodigious amount of interstate commerce that goes on electronically, the Net has remained fairly free of govt. intervention!

Comment by Pat on July 8, 2012 at 11:20am

Just out of curiosity, I'm interested in your take on the US Supreme Court case regarding Ollie's Barbecue and the Heart of Atlanta Motel. Katzenbach v. McClung, 379 U.S. 294 (1964). It was decided under the interstate commerce clause, and is still the law today. Correct decision, or an abomination of stretching the meaning of that clause?

Comment by Alan Perlman on July 8, 2012 at 10:45am

@jay...Thanks for the reply.  Couldn't have said it better.  Presidents consistently undermine the Constitution and repeatedly violate their oath to defend it.  As a linguist, I despise politicians' cynical stretching of the phrase "interstate commerce" to mean everything that goes on between states. 


Comment by jay H on July 7, 2012 at 7:36pm

True the Constitution has got issues, but it's the only contract we have. Unless we fight tooth and nail to protect the integrity of the contract, then we have nothing. Which is why amending is the only legitimate way to change things.

Even as it is, government has consistently worked to ignore it (when they had incentive) and this includes presidents that many hold in regard. Lincoln summarily dismissed the concept of free press (imprisoning critical newspaper editors), Roosevelt, after being rebuffed on packing the SC, succeeded in distorting the Commerce clause so profoundly that we are still living with that 'precedent' --it allowed the feds to override the states rights to legalize medical marijuana for example.

Ignoring the Constitution has enabled presidents of both parties to maintain long term undeclared wars, and to deplete the treasury as well as create enemies by means of maintaining a global military footprint.
Comment by Alan Perlman on July 7, 2012 at 2:19pm

Pat...A very thoughtful reply.  You really know your American history.  I don't revere the Constitution or the Framers.  I know about Dred Scott, the Louisiana Purchase and the other counter-examples. 

Of course, they didn't get it right at first, denying rights to women and allowing slavery. But the very idea of a limited government with enumerated powers, government by the consent of the governed -- after millennia of despots, emperors, czars, tyrants, and every other kind of autocrat, this was a radical concept, consonant with the resurfacing of ancient humanistic ideals, in which the lives and liberties of individual people were more important than the whims of governments or gods.

The idea that no area of life is off-limits to govt., an idea antithetical to the Constitution, has resulted in ruinous, skyrocketing debt that will never be paid off (not to mention perpetual "wars," like the drug war, which cannot be won and costs $50 billion and 5,000-10,000 violent deaths/year).  

I agree 100% with your last two paragraphs.

Comment by Pat on July 7, 2012 at 12:11pm

I, myself, take a somewhat different tact. We have been imbued since childhood with this false notion that the Constitution is a “sacred” document handed down to us by some intellectual gods on high from the glorious mists of Olympus-like heroic past. Nothing could be further from the truth. While many of the drafters were brilliant, they were men.  And, men with feet of clay just like us. And the document they drafted contained the imperfections of their humanity.

As to moving away from the Constitution, the very founding fathers started doing that before the ink they themselves used was barely dry. “Congress shall make no law…..abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;”  Nevertheless, John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law, making it a crime to publish “false, scandalous and malicious writings” against the government or its officials.  As a side note, while never enforced, it is still on the books, having never been overruled by the US Supreme Court.

Thomas Jefferson, for all his genius, was also a devious backstabbing politician who was not above “Carl Rove” type slanders and dirty tricks.  Just ask the ghost of John Adams how honorable Jefferson was when Jefferson falsely attacked and destroyed Adams reputation for political gain. And, please show me, in the Constitution, where Jefferson had the authority to make the Louisiana Purchase on his own.

The US declared war against Mexico in 1846. President Polk lied about the causes (creating a precedent for later presidents).  And, it was one of the most unjust wars ever waged by the US.  According to former President Ulysses S. Grant, “For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the [Mexican] war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”  However, Congress passed a declaration of war, and pursuant to the Article I, Section 8, it was legal and Constitutional.

Today we revile the Dredd Scott decision, and also revile Chief Justice Taney for that decision. However, he got it legally correct when he said that a person does not lose their right in property ownership when that property is taken across state lines. The problem was not the decision, it was that the Constitution allowed one definition of property to include human beings. Congress and the States tried, with the Missouri Compromise, to put a band aid on this festering Constitutional boil, but it took the surrender of Robert E. Lee, and subsequent amendments, to start the process of fixing it.

An important principle to remember is this. The Constitution does not promote that which is good, nor prohibit that which is bad.

The drafters knew this, which is why they allowed the amendatory process.  And, we sometimes get that part right, e.g. the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.  And, we sometimes get that part dead wrong, e.g. the 18th amendment. And sometimes it’s vague, e.g the 2nd amendment. And some I’m not so sure about, e.g. the 27th amendment.

Our history is rife with examples of decisions made both within and without the parameters of the Constitution. Some are good, others are lousy. I suppose if we had a computer program to run decisions through by comparing them to the extant provisions of the Constitution, rather than allowing imperfect humans to do it, things might be better. Then again, maybe not.

Like life itself, getting our government right is a continual struggle. There’s time we take two steps forward and three backward. Other times, a small step forward and it sticks. Is our government the best there can be? Hell no! Are there better, more well organized societies that grant greater freedom to their citizens. Of course. Some of that may be due to population size,  homogeneity of its citizenry, or other factors.

I, though, prefer to see the glass half full.  I’ve been to countries where the chimps in the cage, if they dared scream, were taken out and shot. No thanks. Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan did not destroy the country by their inaction. Nor, did George W. Bush by his active attempt. Screw things up royally? You bet. Likewise, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt did not perfect the republic for all future generations. It’s a never ending struggle. We only lose when we quit.

Comment by Alan Perlman on July 7, 2012 at 10:25am

Jay and Tammy...For my while life, I've watched the government get bigger in defiance of the Constitution, and I do see the same motivations as with religion: somebody to take care of you, reinforce your (false) beliefs, and force them on everybody else. 

"When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross." This insightful quote is from a book written in 1935 by Sinclair Lewis titled "It Can't Happen Here."

Comment by Tammy S on July 7, 2012 at 8:11am

Well said Alan, well said!

@Jay - isn't it funny that our species seems to need a personal bully of some sort to exact revenge for us! For some perceived sleights we have the government and for other 'evils' religion and I think many would like nothing better than a horrifying melding of the two! *Shiver* the government as god... seems that's been done before!

Comment by jay H on July 7, 2012 at 6:49am
Thanks for an excellent commentary. The Constitution has been ignored whenever it was 'inconvenient' by both the American left and right. Interpretation is based on political expediency, not what's actually in the contract.

And it's not just evil guys behind the scenes, it's the electorate in general who view government as everyone's personal bully to force other people to do what they want them to do.
Comment by Alan Perlman on July 5, 2012 at 10:24am

Thanks, Steph.  If one person gets me, it's worth it.

I think we're going to be fighting this "Christian nation" thing for a long time. There's a particularly aggressive brand of it that we have in America.  Most of Europe consists of "Christian nations," but you don't see them trying to use the Bible to shape public policy.  In this respect, we are much more like Muslims.



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