This Fourth of July, Celebrate the Right to Revolution

This special Fourth of July edition of Trial of the Century will take the place of tomorrow’s. We will return on Friday, July 7th. 

There is something special about being an American, and much of it lies chiefly in the right, codified in the document that formally severed us from the British Empire, to rebel. All people everywhere possess this right, of course, but in no place is it esteemed as it is here in the United States. It is easy enough to forget that we, the body politic, used to be British, and it is understandable enough that—separated by a few centuries from that bloody conflict—we might too forget that we staged an upstart rebellion against that empire that ended with a bunch of gentlemen farmers and colonial cobblers victorious over the most powerful army on the planet at the time.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Jefferson wrote about, in part, the right to revolution—but this truth wasn’t self-evident at the time, not to many people, and it remains largely un-self-evident even today. Our progressive friends tend to get very agitated over the thought of an armed citizenry—hence their continued campaign against the Second Amendment that guarantees that very thing—but Americans more generally are apt to balk over the thought, even in theory, of an armed uprising. This is understandable: nobody wants to go to war, least of all against their own country and countrymen.

But it is easy, also, to forget that the country which we currently call home was forged in the fire of a rebellion, that the government we call ours was forged more or less in that same conflict and by many of the men who had fought it in, and that our sovereignty and our liberty were both purchased with the blood of rebels. There is no America without revolution. It is baked into our national and political DNA. The Congress that meets today on Capitol Hill can trace its existence in a big bright line back to the Continental Congress, a body composed of honest-to-goodness revolutionaries who faced the prospect of hanging from the neck until dead if their little experiment failed.

The preamble to the Declaration of Independence explicitly affirms both a “right” and a “duty” to “throw off such Government” that has become abusive of the people. We might spend some time thinking about that, this July Fourth.

We are at a strange crossroads in our nation’s history. A century of congressional abuse, judicial overreach and executive misconduct have eroded a great many of the rights and liberties to which every American is heir, and the constitutional order bequeathed to us by the founders has undergone quite a bit of torture; the American people, meanwhile, are increasingly ambivalent about those rights and liberties, less interested in the Congress’s flagrant abuse of the general welfare clause and more interested in whichever Kardashian sister is currently banging Dirk Nowitzki. It turns out the anti-federalists were largely right about the Constitution, and it turns out that Huxley was more or less right about sexual overstimulation.

And yet we are still here—the American experiment is still chugging along, bruised in parts, battered in others, but still intact. Our right to free speech has, by many measures, never been more strongly protected. The Fourth Amendment is still a crown jewel among the great many jewels of the Bill of Rights. Our system of government has ensured peaceful transfer of power for over two hundred years. When compared to the nation-states of Europe, many of whose personal liberty indexes range from embarrassing to horrifying, or the Middle East, an unstable powder keg of theocracies and sectarian brutality, or the next-great-superpower of China, which within living memory was a genocidal murder-state—it is hard not to feel somewhat proud. Those farmers and those cobblers were on to something. So, still, are we.

What they were on to, of course, is what we celebrate every July Fourth: not just the birth of a new nation but the ratification of a new idea and the establishment of a certain unbending principle. I hope it is not unbecomingly Jeffersonian to say that the ideal Fourth of July, for me, is one in which our elected officials and executive administrators and lifestyle bureaucrats feel a mild bit of fear and consternation—not anything debilitating, nothing that will keep them up at night, a momentary chill and nothing more, but still something significant: this celebration is about revolution. 

We do not shoot fireworks into the sky every July Fourth solely in order to smell the sulfur and hear the pop and watch the lights. We do it to commemorate our rights as freeborn citizens, as sovereign men and women who, at all times, retain supreme authority over the government of the United States of America, up to and including the right to throw it off.

In the midst of the revolution, George Washington wrote to the Continental Congress: “[A]s the Sword was the last Resort for the preservation of our Liberties, so it ought to be the first thing laid aside, when those Liberties are firmly established.” This is a wonderful principle: the sword should always be the last resort, and the first one laid aside. But we must never forget that it is there, and that we forever retain the right, should the age demand it of us, to use it.

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