Once again, this weekend, Americans will gather with their families to “celebrate” the 4th of July. What are we celebrating? What stirs us on this day? How much time will be spent reflecting upon its relevance to our way of life? Is it, as it should be, a celebration of the founding of this Republic, and its independence as a nation? Will many Americans talk with one another or with their children about the impossible dream made true by a handful of remarkable men? Will many of our fellow Americans even think about the new concept of government they created for us, one based upon the adoption of a Constitution, which established the principles of self-government and the limitations on the powers granted to that government?
Unfortunately we fear that the answer to the rhetorical questions posed above, increasingly, is “no”. If somehow our national government were to set aside that day as “National Take a Day Off from Work Day” little would change. Families would gather for a mid‑summer day of hot dogs, hamburgers, barbecue and good old fun. Yes, the 4th of July features flags and parades but they often seem divorced from what it is we are all celebrating. They provide a sort of faux patriotic pageantry with an abundance of food, sparkle and noise.
Actually the 4th of July, by its correct name, is Independence Day. It signifies the true meaning of what was declared on July 2, 1776 and affirmed by the Continental Congress on July 4: the document known as the Declaration of Independence. This simple document lays out the fundamental meaning of America and it touched off a bloody revolution and several years of war to establish that all our citizens have the right to an independent life, to the liberty that allows for the freedom to exercise one’s own judgment and to the right to pursue one’s own path, career, associates, friends, etc., e.g. the pursuit of happiness.
John Adams, in a letter to his wife Abigail, correctly predicted that the day (he referred to the actions of July 2 not July 4) would be celebrated for as long as the American experiment in government continued.
“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, 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 commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryump in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.”
How Adams’ fervor has been eroded by time. What Adams did not and could not know is how, and what, future generations would learn about the meaning of Independence Day. Adams, we suspect, would be heartbroken given the woeful performance by grade school and high school students on standardized American history tests, and the current minimization of demonstrations of patriotism by elitist intellectuals and their near embarrassment to exalt American Exceptionalism.
What, in fact, we are celebrating is not just the meaning of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness embodied in the Declaration. Equally as important is the form of government that was established and then enshrined in the Constitution adopted in 1787 as the foundation and source of legal authority for the United States. What was provided to us by the Founders is captured by an exchange (perhaps apocryphal) between a bystander and Benjamin Franklin. At the end of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia a woman awaiting some announcement of the results that had been produced asked Franklin: “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy” to which he responded, “a republic, if you can keep it.”
It is important to note that he did not answer “a democracy or a democratic form of government.” The distinction between the two is important and worth considering, particularly this year. In a “democracy,” majority rules with no protections against absolute and unlimited power. It was “tyranny by majority” that the framers feared could run roughshod over the inalienable rights of the individual envisioned in the Declaration. Jefferson, in particular, feared the excesses to which a mere majority could go. He said, “an elective despotism was not the government we fought for.”
A Republic, on the other hand, embodies a different form of representative government. Of course it is the people in democratic elections that choose their representatives (although initially, prior to the Sixteenth Amendment, the members of the Senate were chosen by the legislatures of the several states). In a Republic, the rights and liberties of the individual are protected by a written Constitution and in our Republic there is a division of power between the three branches of government. The overarching theme of our Constitution is limited government possessing only “just powers.” James Madison, who is rightfully considered the father of our Constitution, feared the concentration of too much power in a national government and did not sign it. He thought it granted too much power to the federal government, but nevertheless saw enough good qualities in human nature to justify some confidence, and he summed up his position in Federalist 55 by stating, “Republican government presupposes these [good] qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”
A Republic attempts to safeguard the rights of the individual and the minority from the actions of a runaway majority, whereas in a pure democracy free elections at regularly scheduled periods render majority rule sacrosanct. Both systems obviously incorporate a popular form of government but in a pure Democracy there are no safeguards against abuse of ordered liberty by whatever majority is in power.
This year in particular we can see what a large enough majority can do. We need not repeat here all of the mandates and impositions included in health care reform, but we must, at least, mention the requirement in the law that every American must purchase health insurance or be subject to a penalty. This new federal requirement is predicated upon the Constitutional provision that gives to Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce. The political left, always seeking to impose more and more government control over our lives, is once again attempting to stretch the meaning of interstate commerce beyond what the framers could possibly have imagined and clearly beyond what they had intended. The Constitution grants only certain limited powers to the Congress and then reinforces that limitation in the one-sentence-long Tenth Amendment (the last amendment in the Bill of Rights), which states “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
As we have seen, this is a far cry from the views of today’s Congress. Virtually everything in our daily lives seems to be subject to the interference of, or regulation by, the federal government. George Will, in his column published in theWashington Post on June 27 which discusses the forthcoming confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan, the president’s Supreme Court nominee, proposes that the Senate panel ask Ms. Kagan a series of questions designed to elicit her view of whether there are any limits on Congressional powers in our Republic. He proposes, among others that the Senate panel ask the following questions:
- If Congress decides that interstate commerce is substantially affected by the costs of obesity, may Congress require obese people to purchase participation in programs such as Weight Watchers? If not, why not?
- The government having decided that Chrysler’s survival is an urgent national necessity, could it decide that “Cash for Clunkers” is too indirect a subsidy and instead mandate that people buy Chrysler products?
- If Congress concludes that ignorance has a substantial impact on interstate commerce, can it constitutionally require students to do three hours of homework nightly? If not, why not?
- Can you name [any] human endeavor that Congress cannot regulate on the pretense that the endeavor affects interstate commerce?
These questions and the concept of American Exceptionalism, as first described by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831, are the kinds of things Americans should be pondering in addition to watching fireworks and enjoying the company of friends and family this July 4th. This is a Republic we have been given, “if” as Franklin is reported to have said, “we can keep it.” Keeping it means knowing what it is to be fortunate enough to live in a republic such as that bequeathed to us by the founders, and how important that is to maintaining both our freedom from the oppressive government our founders feared and the liberty necessary to pursue our individual dreams.
By Hal Gershowitz and Stephen Porter