“…230 years ago, the signing of the Declaration of Independence was announced to the citizens of the thirteen original American colonies. Without question, the 56 men who signed it were risking not only their livelihoods and their properties, but their very lives. But they damned the consequences,* and signed it anyway. Why? For freedom…”
Americans like the Fourth of July. They decorate their houses in red, white and blue, and they have barbecues. They watch parades. They say, “Oooh!” and “Ahhhh!” appreciatively at fireworks displays. They plan picnics. Some Americans actually take the time to devote some part of their day to listening to somebody else read the Declaration of Independence or to honor the men and women of the Armed Forces. But most of them have no notion of the irony of their celebrations. And if they did, an appalling number of them wouldn’t care.
230 years ago, the signing of the Declaration of Independence was announced to the citizens of the thirteen original American colonies. Without question, the 56 men who signed it were risking not only their livelihoods and their properties, but their very lives. But they damned the consequences,* and signed it anyway. Why? For freedom.
The signing of the Declaration of Independence resulted in the American Revolution in which many very ordinary men and women fought. The dead and the wounded paid a high price, but so did those who lost property, money, reputations, relationships — in fact, everything but their lives. Support for the war wasn’t unanimous by any stretch, but there were enough who were willing to risk what they had in exchange for what they wanted: freedom.
Eventually, the British sued for terms, and the war with its inherent suffering was over. As the newly minted Americans worked to recover from their losses, the fledgling government was in chaos and couldn’t pay the men who had just fought and won the war (in fact, many men hadn’t been paid in months). Property damage was, in some places, considerable. Trade had to be established; treaties had to be negotiated. And yet, the Founding Fathers knew that their priorities had to include a Constitution. Why was it so high on their “to do” list? Because they fully intended, even in the midst of all of the nation-building business at hand, to ensure freedom.
When the time came to craft a Bill of Rights (something that the states demanded in exchange for their ratification of the Constitution), the writers knew just where to begin: with the list of grievances they had against the British government that led to the Revolution in the first place. Though the authors of the Constitution didn’t think a Bill of Rights was necessary (they believed that the Constitution provided for what the government would do, and that anything not mentioned was something the government wouldn’t do), they wrote the list of the first ten Amendments to the Constitution to appease those who wanted them as well as to be doubly sure of preserving freedom.
Under British rule, citizens could find themselves in trouble for saying or publishing anything critical of the government, or for gathering in public to protest one policy or another. There was an official church in England which extended to her colonies, and non-members often endured discrimination at the hands of officialdom. So the First Amendment was crafted to enshrine speech, assembly, press, protest, and worship as guaranteed freedoms.
There are some gun rights aficionados who like to point out that the Revolutionary War started over gun control. They’re effectively right. The British didn’t much like to see subjects armed because armed subjects might actually be able to fight back. With the rumblings of pending plans to fight back, British soldiers were ordered to to seize some stored weapons and supplies. Some very brave citizens, members of the Minutemen, determined to prevent the seizure. They met the redcoats, and subsequently fired the “shot heard ’round the world.” The Second Amendment was written as a promise to the people that the government would never again attempt to take the citizens’ ability to hold their own freedom.
Because British authorities were wont to make accusations, conduct searches, and seize goods with little or no stated cause, the Founding Fathers wrote the Fourth Amendment. Along with providing a barrier to actions some authorities used for purposes of revenge, browbeating, enrichment, or coercion, it was intended to remind citizens themselves that their property was sacrosanct and that, absent a good — and corroborated — reason, their property was their own little islet of freedom.
To be sure that no one was railroaded into anything, the Founders wrote the Fifth Amendment. Not only did it protect people from being coerced or forced to testify against themselves, it dovetailed with the Fourth Amendment to further protect the right of private property ownership and its inherent freedom.
The Sixth Amendment was written to ensure that anyone who was accused of wrongdoing would be judged fairly by a group of peers rather than a panel of his accusers or his accusers’ cohorts. The Seventh Amendment was added so that civil litigation could get some of the same attentions from the court system that criminal matters received. Both were intended to protect the innocent from wrongly losing their freedom. The Eighth Amendment, meanwhile, considers the grievousness of the offense, and effectively ensures that the guilty don’t lose a disproportionate portion of their freedom from either vindictive plaintiffs or a vengeful government.
Although the Constitution was really a list of what the federal government can do, and was clearly intended by the writers to limit the government’s powers in that way, the Bill of Rights clarified that fact even further when it included the Ninth and Tenth Amendments. The states were happy with the Tenth which allowed them to retain some authority of their own, but it was the Ninth that really hit home with the overall point of the Constitution and the other Amendments: Just because a right isn’t listed here doesn’t mean the people don’t still have that freedom!
This summer, by all means enjoy your picnics and your trips to the beach. Fly your flag. Have fun at an amusement park. Whether it’s the Fourth of July or the fourteenth of August, feel free to read a good book or see an entertaining movie. Get up early on a sunny, breezy Sunday morning and go to church — or not, as you wish. But when you do any of these things this summer, make a point of remembering what the Founding Fathers intended to preserve, and then compare that with the government we live under today:
Congress nearly passed legislation to add another Amendment to the Constitution that would have prohibited flag desecration — and which said the Senate gets to decide what desecration is and isn’t. Remember that, when you go to the library, your reading habits or computer searches might very well be monitored. Your choice to worship or not as you see fit could be taken from you as those on the far right continue their work to “put God into government.” With the national ID card slated to be implemented soon, the current financial reporting laws, GPS-equipped cell phones, and RFID chips in your vehicle, your travel will likely be tracked. That’s in addition, of course, to the fact that your phone calls and e-mails are already being collected.
This summer, as you live, work, play, and travel, I hope that nothing untoward happens to you and that nobody tries to infringe on your freedoms by stealing from you, or hurting you or anyone you love. But I also hope you’ll recall that you have a very effective means of defense at your disposal in this country should you choose to use it, and that’s your unalienable right to own a gun. And as you feel just a little bit safer with that knowledge, take a moment to consider that there are those in Chicago, New York, and Washington DC who are quite literally prohibited by law from defending themselves in any kind of adequate way. Remember that a substantial population of San Francisco is trying to disarm residents there. Close your eyes and see again the gut-wrenching film of guns being forcibly taken from law abiding citizens in New Orleans just when they needed them most. And never let yourself forget for a moment that you could be next.
This summer, when you enjoy a ride on your Harley or in your convertible, or when you head out for an ordinary day on the job or at the mall, look around you. There are cameras everywhere. They’re at red lights. They’re in stores. They’re on freeways. On holidays, watch for drunk driving checkpoints, and take note of the fact that everyone is forced to endure a search without cause. And then remember that we used to have Fourth Amendment rights in America.
Speaking of shopping malls, you know that nice new one your local officials are talking about? The one that will increase the tax base so nicely for your town? Before you join them in their glee, take a look to see how many private property owners will be displaced. Then look closer still and see how many of them are voluntarily moving. Take just a moment then to ponder whether or not your own — or anybody’s — property is still protected under the Fifth Amendment when eminent domain abuse is so prevalent.
Celebrating what happened 230 years ago is a fine thing. The Declaration of Independence and its eventual consequences are more than worthy of the party atmosphere and the honor. But these days, our celebrations really are only about the history. The freedoms have long been mitigated, and we’re losing more of them almost every day. Whether it’s “for your safety,” or in the name of the War on Drugs; whether it’s “for the children,” or in the battle we call the War on Terror, we’re visibly regressing as we compromise freedom again and again and again.
Like most Americans, I like the Fourth of July. But you know what I’d really like? I’d like it if I was celebrating freedom instead of just the memory of the day some other Americans decided that freedom was worth any sacrifice to obtain. So now here’s the real question: What will you sacrifice to get freedom back?**
* Every year, just before Independence Day, a chain letter circulates around the Internet. Usually entitled “What Happened to the 56 Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence,” it’s a litany of the suffering endured by many of the signers. While some of the statements made in the chain letter are true, some are exaggerated or even fabricated. That being said, the risks were unquestionably considerable and the fact that the eventual fate of the signers wasn’t in all cases as awful as the chain letter claims in no way minimizes the courage or the commitment of those 56 men.
** Want some ideas? Try pro-freedom activist groups like Gunowners of America, advocacy groups like the Institute for Justice, and educational and motivational sites like my own Lady Liberty’s Constitution Clearing House to start. Stay informed of news and current events on web sites like Rational Review. And then if you really want to make a difference starting with your own life, check out Free State Wyoming and the Free State Project.
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