I will be out of town most of the July 4 weekend. Consequently, I am posting my July 4th essay early. Posting on July 2 is not really inappropriate. In fact, the Continental Congress voted to sever ties to England on the 2nd. We celebrate independence on the 4th because that was the day the Declaration of Independence was formally adopted. Whether you view the beginning of our nation as having occurred on the 2nd or the 4th, I wish all my readers a happy and safe Independence Day.
Late in the summer of 1821, as Greece began to break free from 400 years of Ottoman Turkish rule, Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria all conspired against the Greeks to maintain the status quo. In this post-Napoleonic Europe, the Great Powers of the Continent feared any revolutionary spirit that could threaten the anciens regimes that were restored in 1815 following a generation of revolution and turmoil. Even the despotism and corruption of the Ottoman Empire were preferable to nationalistic aspirations for liberty.
Thomas Jefferson, now an old man living in retirement in his beloved Monticello, watched the reactionary events taking place across the Atlantic with disgust. In one of his letters to his former rival and aged friend John Adams, he compared the actions of the Great Powers of Northern Europe to the Barbarians who destroyed classical civilization in the 5th century. This time, however, the world could not descend into the darkness of despotism. The spirit that was unleashed on July 4, 1776 was too strong. Wrote Jefferson:
And should even the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and liberties of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them. In short, the flames kindled on the 4th. of July 1776 have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble flames of despotism. On the contrary, they will consume those engines and all who work them.
Nowadays, Jefferson’s idealism is often derided. How could the man who wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” nevertheless own human beings as chattel? Some say he betrayed his own Republicanism once he assumed the Presidency, suddenly converting to the Federalist’s preference for a strong Executive Branch. Jefferson, it seems, is no longer “in”.
Still, Jefferson is one of my American heroes. And the words he wrote just 5 years before his death contain more than naïve idealism. They contain Truth. To be sure, America’s involvement overseas has not been without blemish. Far too often, our actions have hindered the spread of liberty rather than encourage it. Our frequent support of petty dictators mirrors the actions of the reactionary powers of 1821. Even if our actions don’t match our words, however, it is our words that move mountains.
In the summer of 1972, my teenaged sister visited the Soviet Union with a group of high school students. While there, she met and befriended a Russian student her own age. He was not concerned with America’s support for totalitarian regimes in South Vietnam or Latin America. He asked my sister if she could send him a copy of the Declaration of Independence. It was the words of freedom that interested him.
When Hungary opened its borders to the West in 1989, precipitating the fall of the Iron Curtain, its citizens were not thinking of the West’s failure to support their struggle for freedom in 1956. Likewise, East Germans were not thinking of the failed Revolution of 1953 when they replaced the hammer and sickle with hammers and chisels to chip away at the Berlin Wall. Vaclav Havel and his revolutionaries didn’t contemplate the West’s passivity when Russian tanks destroyed the hopes of millions during the Prague Spring. These brave men and women were not concerned with our failures or inaction. They were envious of our liberty, and wanted the same for themselves.
Jefferson’s “flames that were kindled on the 4th of July 1776” have been burning for more than two centuries, and are burning still all over the world.
They burned 54 years ago in Montgomery Alabama, when an African-American woman named Rosa Parks decided to ride in the front of the city bus.
They burned south of the Rio Grande in the 1990’s, when the entrenched Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was deposed after 60 years of authoritarian rule.
They burned in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and I suspect those same flames are still smoldering in China, and will burst out once again.
They burn today in the streets of Teheran, where a young woman named Neda was recently martyred to keep the flame alive.
There have been times when America has played an active and positive role in fanning the flames of liberty. Sadly, there have been times when America’s actions slowed the fire’s spread. Most often our role has been passive, and probably rightly so. Rarely do we need to inject ourselves directly into the struggles of others. We can let the words of 1776 speak for themselves. The flames of freedom that were ignited that year will not be suppressed. The fire will spread regardless of what American does. The liberty that we, as Americans, have enjoyed for 233 years has spread over much of the globe, and it is spreading still. Call me naïve, or call me Jeffersonian, but I agree with the Sage of Monticello when he says that freedom will consume the engines of despotism.
Happy Fourth of July.