July 2

17 years ago

To the editor:
“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”
Aldous Huxley
    On July 2, 1776, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were putting the finishing touches on the greatest of all American documents, the Declaration of Independence. When they fixed their signatures to the Declaration, the revolutionary leaders of colonial America were irrevocably committing themselves to a course of action that promised one of only two possible results: victory or certain death. They were firing the shocking first shots in a war which was nothing less than an assault upon pure tyranny.
The colonialists’ Declaration put the King of England on notice that his dictatorial acts were so abhorrent to them that they felt they had no choice but to throw off the mantle of British rule. The Declaration of Independence is a laundry list of these unacceptable acts, which included the King’s imprisonment of individuals without notice of charge, conviction without trial, searches of homes without warrants, and manipulation of the judicial system.
The Declaration was a clarion call to the inhabitants of America to rise and unite to form a new government unlike any before it – a true democracy where the rule of law would ensure the exercise of freedoms the colonialists said were due to them as a matter of right. While we may today take some or all of these rights for granted, it was a very novel thing to say that people are guaranteed certain rights of liberty solely because they exist as human beings and for no other reason.
At the time, it was not at all clear that the revolutionists would succeed at this frightening experiment in human freedom. It was dangerous, and decidedly against the interests of the colonialists, to sever ties with their mother country. Britain was the greatest military power in the world, and by far the colonies’ largest trading partner. In this context, we begin to understand how unhappy the founders of our country were with the terrible behavior of the King, and how highly they must have prized this concept of liberty.
On July 2, 1863, Maine’s own Joshua Chamberlain battled desperately atop Little Round Top in the second day of a three-day apocalypse in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which was and remains the largest battle ever fought on the North American continent. (It is said that the success at Gettysburg, the turning point in the American Civil War, was a direct result of Chamberlain’s crazed bayonet charge against the Alabama regiment facing him that allowed him to hold the southern flank of the entire Union Army and to bring the fighting to a standstill on that second decisive day.)
For all its soaring language about self-evident truths – that all men are created equal – the shortcomings of the Declaration of Independence were readily apparent. The country was at war because the founders of our nation were unable (but not unwilling) to settle the issue of people in bondage at the time of our country’s birth.
While much is made in the South about “northern aggression” and the tyranny of a strong centralized Union government seeking to impose its will on the Southern states on issues which included but were not limited to slavery, the real tyranny was the steady and steely effort, from the birth of the United States until the end of the war, of a minority of citizens in a minority of states to continue the enslavement of human beings despite the principles upon which our government was founded.
Six months before Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. After Gettysburg, Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address. These two important utterances underscored, in unequivocal terms, the cause for which the Union fought. The Civil War was not only about saving the Union. Nor was it only about ending slavery. The war was, as the great historian Bruce Catton said, the “final acid-test of the idea of democracy itself” — about preserving the “Spirit of ‘76” and the promises about basic human freedoms our founding fathers made when they created the United States.
One hundred one years after Gettysburg, on July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act. While the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery, was proposed before the end of the Civil War, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, (guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens and granting blacks the right to vote, respectively) became law shortly after the war, the end of post-war reconstruction in the 1870s meant the there would be no enforcement of many of the rights these Amendments conferred.
Meanwhile, our government’s treatment of Native Americans was a holocaust. From the time of the end of the Civil War, brave civil rights activists fought on behalf of minorities for the realities of human freedom that the revolutionaries of 1776 had identified in name only. At many times their voices were silenced through violence, or were met with their government’s own silence.
The Government’s failure to learn the lessons of history — to honor the great ideas, forged into law, upon which the country was founded – was another great misstep in the cause of human freedom. The voices of the champions of civil liberty could no be so easily quieted, however, and by the time Lyndon Johnson inherited his presidency from another fallen hero, the civil rights movement – a remarkable force that convinced a skeptical majority to protect an embattled minority from tyranny – had secured a commitment for congressional support for a civil rights bill. The greatest moment of Johnson’s first full term as president was his July 2 signing of the Civil Rights act of 1964, a testament to the Spirit of ’76.
And now, another July is before us. Four springs ago our nation was taken to war, in a conflict our President characterized, at various times, as a fight against tyranny. Long after our stated goal – the deposition of one particular distant dictator in a world that has many – our men and women of the armed forces remain engaged in a terrible conflict in far away Iraq.
President Bush sounds again the clarion call of freedom, claiming a peculiar desire to bring the principles set down in our great Declaration to a corner of the world whose people appear less enthusiastic, ready or able to receive them. If sincere, the President can only be faulted for his selective application of American resources, as the cause is a noble one – the drafters of the Declaration felt that the liberties they sought were universal, which all mankind had a right to enjoy. The great tragedy, though, is that our President is clearly more committed to mouthing the language of freedom to critics of his ill-conceived war than he is to preserving the principles of freedom at home. And the list of abuses to those principles here at home at the hands of this current administration is both startling in its breadth, and eerie in its resemblance to the list of abuses our revolutionary fathers set down in the Declaration of Independence when they railed at another George’s tyranny: incarceration of people without notice of charge or right to trial, unlawful searches of citizens, control of the media, torture of our prisoners, and interference with the independent judiciary.
It is frightening, too, that when a Democratic-led Congress finally possesses the power to investigate these wholesale assaults on American democracy, supporters of our President attack those who seek to safeguard that democracy with cries of, “Enough! It is a waste of precious time to investigate these things. The American people want you to do something constructive with your time in power!”
Respectfully, there can be nothing more constructive, nothing more urgent, than investigating, exposing and correcting wrongs which, if left unaddressed, will tear apart at its very seams the founders’ imperfect but wonderful experiment. Shortly after the start of the war, President Bush was asked whether our presence in Iraq might encourage insurgents to attack our troops there. His answer, which I’m sure he directed as much to his critics at home as he did to the insurgents, was, “Bring ‘em on.” Unbearably simplistic and hollow when set beside the words of Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln and Johnson, that regrettable threat was uttered by our President on July 2, 2003

Jeff Ashby
Fort Fairfield