Happy Independence Day! This is the one day of the year when Americans excuse themselves to be patriotic, to be proud of our ideological heritage. Although perhaps sad that they need an excuse, it’s still a day of celebration. This great nation was founded on the principle of natural rights, the idea that the individual is born with certain unalienable rights that it is the duty of the government to defend and uphold. The pride in our independence is not some nationalistic tribal bias, but a passion for the political innovation called America. The history of the world before America was wrought with conflict, between barbarism and pseudo-freedoms, between coercion and freedom by permission. America was the first in history to establish freedoms by right.
As Michael Berliner writes in “Put the Independence Back in Independence Day”:
“Independence Day” is a critically important title. It signifies the fundamental meaning of this nation, not just of the holiday. The American Revolution remains unique in human history: a revolution–and a nation–founded on a moral principle, the principle of individual rights. Jefferson at Philadelphia, and Washington at Valley Forge, pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.” For what? Not for mere separation from England, not–like most rebels–for the “freedom” to set up their own tyranny. In fact, Britain’s tyranny over the colonists was mild compared to what most current governments do to their citizens.
This is the meaning of the American Revolution. In the past, a naton’s greatness was measured by its conquests. A nation was great if it controlled lands across the globe, as Britain did; it was great if it wielded power. America teaches us that the power of coercion is illegitimate, and that the only power that creates belongs to the individual. It is the individual that thinks, that innovates, and trades values. There is no such thing as a “nation’s wealth”. Nations do not produce. Wealth and success in a culture is the product of individuals purusing their self-interest. The measure of a country’s greatness is the respect it shows toward man’s needs as a rational animal. The independence of America does not only mean its independence from Britain, but the independence of the individual from tyranny, whatever the source.
I am currently reading Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo. There is a particular scene that strikes me now, that I want to share, and I will leave the post with Hugo’s words. Those who’ve read the book will understand the context, and those who haven’t will have to forgive my limited introduction. The novel of course is set in France in the early to mid 19th century. There is a character by the name of Marius who was raised by his grandfather and estranged from his father by the family’s political rivalry. When he learned of his father’s past following his death, of his loving devotion to his son and to his country, he developed a love for him and for his service in the military. It was through his research into his father’s past that he developed a mistaken passion for the conquests of Napolean. At this time in the story, many years had past since Napolean’s defeat at Waterloo, and the country was still alive with revolution, still finding its direction. Marius stumbled upon a group of student revolutionaries after being kicked out of his home by his grandfather for his political views. In a lively debate, a quiet Marius found his Napolean attacked by his new friends and felt obligated to defend him. In an eloquent speech he argues for Napolean’s greatness and his passion at being a citizen in a country transformed by that greatness.
Everyone was silent, and Enjolras looked down. Silence always has a slight effect of acquiescence or in some way a backing a person to the wall. Marius, almost without taking breath, continued in a burst of enthusiasm: “Be fair, my friends! To be the empire of such an emperor, what a splendid destiny for a nation, when that nation is France, and when it adds its genius to the genius of such a man! To appear and to reign, to march and to triumph, to have every capital for a staging area, to take his grenadiers and make kings of them, to decree the downfall of dynasties, to transfigure Europe at a double quickstep, so men feel, when you threaten, that you are laying your hands on the hilt of God’s sword, to follow in one man Hannibal, Caesar, and Charlemagne, to be in the people of a man who mingles with your every dawn the glorious announcement of a battle won, to be wakened in the morning by the cannon of the Invalides, to hurl into the vault of day mighty words that blaze forever, Marengo, Arcola, Austerlitz, Ièna, Wagram! To repeatedly call forth constellations of victories at the zenith of the centuries, to make the French Empire the succeessor of the Roman Empire, to be the grand nation and to bring forth the Grand Army, to send your legions flying across the whole earth as a mountain sends out its eagles, to vanquish, to rule, to strike thunder, to be for Europe a kind of golden people through glory, to sound through history a Titan’s fanfare, to conquer the world twice, by conquest and by resplendence, that is sublime. What could be greater?”
“To be free,” said Combeferre.