Americans Celebrate July 4th — But Can They Celebrate Independence?

fourth of july

News reports on Fourth of July polling pointedly distinguish between “proud to be an American” and “proud of America now,” in a way less apparent during the Obama years, when the two were seen as more synonymous by those taking polls.

To be expected, one supposes. A Washington Post writer’s liberal friends are so upset they may give up their July 4th hot dogs and fireworks to protest Donald Trump.

Pretty tense times. Plenty unites us, though, as we wave a flag that still symbolizes commonality with the nation’s founders. The day after the Continental Congress’s July 2, 1776 adoption of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail:

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival [he meant the 2nd but the transcription on the 4th became the marker]. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

War continued. The colonies prevailed (thanks, France). Then Benjamin Franklin was asked at the close of the Constitutional Convention:

“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”

A Republic, if you can keep it,” he is alleged to have replied.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t keep it.

The Monticello archives capture the intensity of early celebrations of liberty. Today, Independence, as opposed to just “4th of July,” gets less emphasis. Indeed to use the term “independence” given the powerful centralized government we actually have is so contradictory it folds back on itself.

For what aspect of life is off-limits for today’s federal government? Not health care, schooling, retirement, finances, housing, energy, work life, wages, infrastructure, R&D, the Internet. Not even gas cans or vaping paraphernalia.

A 26 year old adult still on a parent’s insurance policy because of government command can celebrate many things on July 4, but not independence. By contrast, over a dozen of the Founders signing the Declaration were younger than 36.

Political platforms for this new election year make plain that more middle-class entitlements, not independence from government, are sought; some will always arise to take from some and give to others, until a sizeable percentage of the population is dependent on the state.

Meanwhile economic, social and environmental regulation have mounted (albeit with a temporary reprieve under Trump) since Congress has delegated the bulk of its legislative power to unelected agency personnel. In Is Administrative Law Unlawful?,  Philip Hamburger demonstrates this is prohibited by the Constitution, and calls the modern administrative state a reemergence of the absolute power practiced by pre-modern kings.

That’s just Congress; former President Obama’s “pen” and “phone” executive unilateralism more brazenly derailed the separation of powers and checks and balances, not just according to conservatives. Our mixed economy turned its back on the Rounders’ constitutional system whereby legislation is created by an elected body. Instead rules and regulations, executive orders, guidance documents, public notices, consent decrees, bulletins, press releases and blog posts take on authoritative significance.

Franklin did warn us.

The Founders were in many respects inventing political liberty, and couldn’t foresee every usurpation rascals would someday devise, resulting in appeals to unlimited “democracy” on the one hand, and nanny state paternalism on the other.

What the Founders created was unique, and obviously fragile and in need of constant nurturing. Instead today, the system of government they struggled to bequeath to us (“posterity”) is apparently not even wanted by a sizeable chunk of the population, if we are honest about it.

Take the democratic socialist platform making headlines for example, with media-championed government guaranteed jobs, housing, Medicare, and paid work leave; it has nothing in common with the Framers.

It is in this stew that the aforementioned Post clan wants to redefine the holiday as something celebrating the country’s “tradition of dissent.” If dissent does not mean political liberty, it means support of bigger-than-ever government programs and agencies, one gathers.

Independence Day….But independence from what? Everybody, we are now told, has a right to whatever demagogues dream up to paid for by others. Politicians arise in that framework, which expands, by increments and occasionally leaps, as decades pass.

It used to seem more obvious that “rights” in a political setting allow one to act without interference. Rights did not impose obligations on one’s fellow Americans, except to leave you alone.

The “silken bands of mild government” envisioned during the U.S. colonial era have yielded to a government whose primary pursuit is transferring wealth and regulating private affairs.

I turn here to one of my favorite writings embodying the difference between today and the past, when even the Constitution itself, to which so many of us now appeal as a constraint, was seen as a power-grabbing overreach. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton stridently defended the new Constitution under the pseudonym “Caesar.”

During the ratification debates, to much consternation, the Articles of Confederation gave way to Hamilton’s doctrine of discretionary powers ultimately embodied in the Constitution’s “necessary and proper” clause (Article 1, Sec. 8).

Not everyone was as impressed as Franklin with the Constitution, seeing arrogance in the Federalists’ vision of  centralized power. New York Governor George Clinton, writing as “Cato” in opposition to “Caesar,” appealed to the public this way on October 11, 1787:

Is not your indignation roused at this absolute, imperious style? For what did you open the veins of your citizens and expend their treasure? For what did you throw off the yoke of Britain and call yourselves independent? Was it from a disposition fond of change, or to procure new masters?—if those were your motives, you have reward before you—go, retire into silent obscurity, and kiss the rod that scourges you, bury the prospects you had in store, that you and your posterity would participate in the blessings of freedom, and the employments of your country—let the rich and insolent alone be your rulers. …. But if you had nobler views, …are you now to be derided and insulted? Is the power of thinking, on the only subject important to you, to be taken away? And if per chance you should happen to differ from Caesar, are you to have Caesar’s principles crammed down your throats with an army? God forbid!

Where are such voices today? Is there a genuine groundswell of interest in limited government to counter the despotism of ideologies like socialism, even after their 20th century body-count? While the Fourth of July holiday ideally celebrates individual liberty and the freedoms and rights that allow us to achieve and prosper, we decided to “procure new masters” in Washington rather than keep the Republic.

What of the future? I constantly joke that there’ll always be an America, it just won’t be here.

But in seriousness, the combination of “progressive era” victories defending the (not actual) rule of “experts,” surrender by those who should have stopped big government long ago, and the decline of individualism in favor of a “society organized for collective action” (as Justice Clarence Thomas described it), and the ratchet effect that expands but does not reduce government power imply that a resurgence in limited constitutional government is not imminent using political levers.

Yet I have always maintained a positive, optimistic viewpoint, though; and I said at the outset that plenty still unites us. Most Americans haven’t been born yet. The entire edifice of human liberty is something new historically; there can and will be setbacks (some hope very temporary and speedy). The overall trend should be one of more human liberty and Independence, rather than Dependence fostered by power lust on the part of leaders.

Rest assured different sorts of leaders emerge under democratic socialism than under a republic.

So here’s to a Happy, Happy Fourth of July to everyone living.

And Happy Independence Day to our Framers — and to our Descendants!

Originally published at Forbes.