“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves” -Abraham Lincoln
The American promise (our Constitution) is not a greeting card. It is not a poster to be autographed with ink. Americans must, and are meant to, sign our contract with American liberty in a sort of existential blood. We are inclined to imagine that our American birthright promises liberty and the pursuit of happiness – no questions asked. Well, the Founder’s works did not promise freedom without the common expectation that you and I would risk ourselves to preserve it. Therefore we aren’t promised happiness or the purely self-regarding right to run after it.
The language of the Declaration of Independence, though beautiful, is rather complex; it is the formal language of a very formal century far removed from our own. Many of us focus our attention upon the introduction, the opening shot, and most think of the Declaration as being no more disquieting or personally demanding than a nicely lit HBO special about 1776. We tend to think that the Declaration is something agreeable and benevolent: people like to chase their individual pleasures and God wants it so. Out of context, that phrase evokes a smiley-faced, non-combative, self absorbed version of what it means to be American. That attitude is just what our Government hopes its citizens will swallow.
The Declaration of Independence does not say “Congratulations, you are born liberated: enjoy your yard sales and yoga.” The “Pursuit of Happiness” is not an innate right for the people to follow their appetites for catalog shopping or an extravagant personal lifestyle: whether it is a gun convention or drag show. Rather, the document says something darker and more personally challenging: you have a sacred obligation, a consecrated debt to human existence, to take the most serious possible steps and endure the most serious kinds of personal danger in defense of this freedom that is your natural right and you must rise up against those who seek to restrain you – wherever and whenever they emerge. We have an ingrained duty, a sacrosanct obligation, to rebel and all of us need to become mutineers against continuous injustice and oppression.
Thomas Paine risked being hung for sedition in England when he published Common Sense. John Hancock, when signing the Declaration of Independence, literally signed his death warrant if the Colonies had lost the Revolutionary War. To be fair, all of the signers of the Declaration would have been hung if caught by the Crown. Living in America means that we must be willing to sustain risk on behalf of liberty. Ralph Waldo Emerson stripped it to bare bones when he said, “God offers to everyone his choice between truth and repose. Take what you please – you can never have both.”
According to Andrew Jackson, “One man with courage makes a majority.” What are we supposed to do with courage? Protest! The Revolutionary-era protesters were far more unruly than we are and our right to protest is now under attack. This nation could not have been founded without ordinary citizens engaging in raucous, even violent, mass protest (yes, even protests without permits!). During the 1760’s, colonists erupted and hung stamp distributors in effigy, as well as held mock funerals for them, built gallows to hang their effigies and even beheaded them, stocked bonfires and wreaked mayhem.
The Boston Tea Party is typically taught in school as if it were an isolated incident – daring, to be sure – but not connected with years of massive eruptions of street protests. In December of 1773, hundreds of American colonists wearing face paint and Indian headdresses boarded a British ship and tossed ten thousand pounds sterling worth of the East India Company’s goods overboard. But in fact, the Tea Party was a culmination of dozens of outbursts, protests and confrontational street dramas that colonial people from all walks of life had learned to use as a powerful tool for speaking up against the Crown.
Today, those colonists would never have the chance for such provocative acts of civil defiance. They would likely be kept 500 feet away from the British ship, across a main road from it, penned into barricades, their protest against the Stamp Act barely audible…and they would be expected to tolerate that.
Today, we are very far from experiencing a connection to our source of liberty. Many of us feel ourselves clouded within, cramped, baffled obscurely from without, not in alignment with the electric force of the Declaration of Independence. Many citizens, like you and me, feel more hopeless than other citizens in the poorest and youngest democracies on the planet. Others are just angry. I feel that all of us – the hopeless and the hopeful – need to reconnect to our mentors, the founders, and to remind ourselves of the blueprint for freedom they meant us to inherit. Americans need to take personal ownership of the Constitution and the Bill of the Rights and in doing so, push back the darkness.
Today, our rights are still codified on paper – but these documents are indeed “only paper” if we no longer experience them viscerally, if their violation no longer infuriates us. We can be citizens of a republic, we can have a Constitution and a Congress, but if we have fallen asleep to the meaning of the Constitution and to the radical implications of representative and direct democracy, then we aren’t really Americans anymore.
Our “America,” our Constitution, our dream, when properly felt within us, does more than “defend freedom.” It clears space to build a society that allows for the highest possible development of who we ourselves personally were meant to be.
We have to rise up in self-defense and legitimate rebellion. We need more drastic action than e-mails to Congress or tuning into CNN with our cup of tea.
We need the next American Revolution.