They knew they were doing it. They knew a lot of things, of course. They knew they were committing what the entire rest of the human history would have reckoned to be treason. They knew they were formally declaring war, although there is no declaration of war present anywhere in the document they signed, and they knew the formidable nature of the military arrayed against them. But they also knew they were committing themselves, and the nation they were seeking to form, to a constant redefinition and expansion of the nature of freedom. They knew they were leaving themselves, and the nation they were seeking to form, wide open to charges that they had pronounced a cause of rebellion while guilty of the same offenses against Nature and Nature's god of which they were accusing a feckless monarch and his blundering ministers. (At his most acidic, Samuel Johnson wondered, ""How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?") The New England merchants and smugglers knew it. The Pennsylvania Quakers knew it. The slaveholders of the South knew it, and they knew it so well that they had a passage critical of the institution of slavery excised from the document that was written by one of their own. But they knew it anyway, and they were scared to the depths of their sin-wracked souls. The document was silent on slavery, but slavery was assumed in every syllable.And we had to have a bloody Civil War that started 85 years after the Declaration of Independence to give rights to black Americans (on paper, anyway). And we had to have decades of struggle to make sure women got those same rights, and to guarantee those God-given rights of citizenship to people of color. And Pierce reminds us that we are still far from perfection on this topic today.
The explosive in that time bomb is not yet exhausted. There have been small detonations throughout our history. You can hear them every time freedom is extended and every time it changes form as it moves forward. There also have been small detonations throughout our history every time we fell short of the promise of those words, the promise that is the essential charge in the device.238 years later, we still have oligarchical oppressors threatening our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the ability for us to determine the leaders that will guarantee those rights. I'll remind you of another quote from a main author of the document we celebrate today.
How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the jailers of Guantanamo, from the keepers of the black sites, from those willing to hand our inalienable rights to faceless men in the cubicles of the intelligence bureaucracy? How is that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from paymasters of torturers?
The time bomb laid beneath history 238 years ago is a time bomb of pure conundrum, and the people who put it there knew that the essential engine of democracy is paradox, noble bluffs to be called, high-minded promises in savage conflict with each other. And they knew that, too, all of them, when they piled the dirt atop the time bomb they had laid beneath history, wiped their hands daintily, and walked away.
I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country. -Thomas JeffersonThis concern is true more than ever in 2014, with the Hobby Lobby case giving extra power to companies to control the contraceptive options of their employees, and with oligarchs trying to eradicate all political campaign finance limitations and disclosure laws (which is the real endgame of the Walker supporters in John Doe Deux). The Battle at Yorktown didn't guarantee this country's greatness, and our future greatness seems in great peril. It is our duty today, on the 4th of July, 2014, to rededicate ourselves into making this a more perfect and better union. Or else we could have it all taken away from us.