From an apartment balcony this Independence Day I watched for an hour or so fireworks exploding all up and down the Potomac, and then had my eyes drawn across the skyline to the colorful explosions taking place beside the Washington Monument, the tallest building in the area named for that great father of our country. I entered into conversation with someone on these exhibits of patriotism and the praise of our Founders for what they built-- which she, in turn, described as exhibits of nationalism and the worship of a bunch of dead white men. This is not unlike I conversation I recently entered into
with a letter in the Los Angeles Daily News
taking issue with the claim
that our Founders are the benefactors of hindsight bias, receiving unworthy praise for the accident that was the success of our experiment in human liberty.
It is true that those men who pledged to each other their lives, their property, and their sacred honor in 1776 had differing views on the most suitable form of government. It is true that they who gathered to frame our Constitution years later engaged in some of the most difficult and testy political debate ever seen in the world until that time (and arguably after). You had those who sought to protect the interests of themselves and their neighbors, and others who let their heated debate lead to the destruction of existing relationships and tensions among peers. However, one thing that our Founding Fathers did all find agreement on was the need to secure the blessings of liberty by trusting in the ability of individual human beings to govern themselves.
There were indeed disagreements over how to secure those blessings, and of course there was the great problem of chattel slavery looming over the entire endeavor like the mark of Cain. But these men who fought against the greatest empire in the world at that time, and who bled for the cause of liberty, understood that in order to secure what so many had fought and died for, hard compromises would need to be made-- but not at the expense of sinking the entire endeavor. They knew whatever they tried to establish would not be perfect, especially with slavery still looming large over them, but through study of history and an understanding of liberty they sought to do the best that could be asked of them and establish a more perfect union. Its basis was the idea that government service or administration is not itself an end of politics, but that self-government is. The American people were to be a people who had the right to pursue happiness in however way they saw fit. For many people that was and continues to be just living their lives how they want to, happiness perhaps being as adventurous as rock climbing or a simple as sitting along the river with a fishing pole in hand. For others it is the realm of public life where they find happiness and satisfaction.
The Founding Fathers did understand this, and so sought to establish a government that would best secure the blessings of liberty by allowing the human spirit to thrive freely. So long as the government is doing what it is intended to do and not bothering the people too much, most go about their lives in their pursuit of happiness. They may care about politics come election time, but many are happy to, even if they lose, just shrug it off until the next election. The Founders did envision, and did plan, a society where people would not need to have their happiness tied to the whims of political life. "I must study politics and war so that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy...in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music," wrote John Adams. They wanted to secure these blessings of liberty for all Americans for all time, and by writing that Declaration and crafting that Constitution set upon the task of doing so.
Our Founders were not perfect and did make mistakes. There were problems they could not solve. They were not gods; they were mortal men with all the ailments and vanities that afflict mortal men. But this only makes what they accomplished
so much more impressive and important. Our nation was not the result of accident and force, but a clear and conscious decision by mortal men to create a tool for the advancement of human liberty. For 235 years what they created has overcome tremendous obstacles and, though with legions of problems facing it still and threats to freedom always looming, continues to generally provide the best security for the blessings of liberty than any other nation, past or present. For this we should be proud, and for this our Founders merit praise and understanding. It is right to continue to cheer Mr. Jefferson's document and the cause of our Revolution on the day of the nation's birth, and to look with proud eyes upon the colorful glows reflecting onto the monuments we have constructed to remind us of what we mortal men are capable of. May we continue to enjoy the blessings of liberty, and may the Declaration of Independence forever continue to be an expression of the American mind