"Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved." -- Richard Henry Lee, June 7, 1776
This proposal was adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 2, 1776. So technically speaking, July 2nd is America's true Independence Day. Certainly John Adams fully expected it to be celebrated as such:
"The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival . . . It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade . . . from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."
July 4th is the day in which the Declaration of Independence was adopted as the rationale for the separation which had just occurred. The fact that Americans started celebrating the 4th, and not the 2nd, means their Independence Day was not the celebration of an act, but the acclamation of an underlying reason. It means Americans recognized that while many nations have been birthed in revolution, few have been reared in principle. It was perhaps the proudest distinction of Americans as they recognized this holiday far before the Federal government codified it as such.
And what is this principle? The recognition of individual rights derived from natural law, including the right of revolution. Amazingly, this discussion in the Declaration accounts for a fairly small portion of the document - because late 18th-century Americans readily accepted and agreed with these ideas. But they did not all agree that separation from King George was warranted, so most of the document is devoted to proving a conspiracy theory against the King: "when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism." The Declaration is primarily an indictment.
Today's citizens of America are no longer late 18th-century Americans. By this statement I refer not to time, but to temperament. Few Americans today embrace the philosophy contained in the Declaration. Today in America, the exercise of individual rights is more alien than inalienable.
When did this change? While there are certainly many steps, both large and small, but I believe the definitive end can be marked by the Supreme Court's reversal of Hepburn v Griswold (February 7, 1870). Hepburn found the issuance of fiat currency by the Federal government to be unconstitutional. Incredibly, the opinion was written by Chief Justice Chase - the very man who issued the "greenbacks" as Treasury Secretary. The reasoning behind his majority opinion was well stated:
". . . to make notes a legal tender . . . carries the doctrine of implied powers very far beyond any extent hitherto given to it. It asserts that whatever in any degree promotes an end within the scope of a general power, whether, in the correct sense of the word, appropriate or not, may be done in the exercise of an implied power. . . It would convert the government, which the people ordained as a government of limited powers, into a government of unlimited powers. It would confuse the boundaries which separate the executive and judicial from the legislative authority. It would obliterate every criterion which this court . . . established for the determination of the question whether legislative Acts are constitutional or unconstitutional."
447 days later, the Supreme Court reversed this ruling with Knox v. Lee (May 1, 1871). With Knox, every criterion was obliterated. All it took was the appointment of two justices by President Grant. Such was the fragility of American liberty.
Knox did not inflict the first damage on the Constitution, for it had previously sustained Marbury v. Madison and endured McCulloch v. Maryland.[¹] It was not its last breath, for Korematsu v. U.S. and Wickard v. Filburn awaited.[²] But it was the last chance to restore restraint. Knox was the mortal wound. With this power, the Federal government could inflate the currency at will. It could transfer wealth from the populace to itself, facilitate proliferate spending, and create the recessions so commonly used as a pretext for government encroachment on American liberties.
This Thursday, while most Americans will be celebrating with "pomp and parade", I urge American readers to mark the day with a somber reflection of how much their society has changed, a fond remembrance as to what made America great, and a firm resolve to never abandon the principles of the Declaration.
[¹] Marbury v. Madison (1803) promoted the theory that the Supreme Court, and thus the federal government, was the arbiter of powers between the federal government and the states. McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) asserted the primacy of the federal government over the states.
[²] Korematsu v. U.S. (1944) condoned the internment of innocent Americans of Japanese ancestry. Wickard v. Filburn (1942) excused unlimited power by the federal government through the Commerce Clause.
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