When they first heard the Declaration of Independence in July of 1776, New Yorkers were so electrified that they toppled a statue of King George III and had it melted down to make 42,000 bullets for the war. Two hundred twenty-eight years later, you can still get a rush from those opening paragraphs. “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” The audacity!
Read a little further to those parts of the declaration we seldom venture into after ninth-grade civics class, and you may feel something other than admiration: an icy chill of recognition. The bulk of the declaration is devoted to a list of charges against George III, several of which bear an eerie relevance to our own time.
George III is accused, for example, of “depriving us in many cases of the benefits of Trial by Jury.” Our own George II has imprisoned two
It would be silly, of course, to overstate the parallels between 1776 and 2004. The signers of the declaration were colonial subjects of a man they had come to see as a foreign king. One of their major grievances had to do with the tax burden imposed on them to support the king’s wars. In contrast, our taxes have been reduced – especially for those who need the money least – and the huge costs of war sloughed off to our children and grandchildren. Nor would it be tactful to press the analogy between our George II and their George III, of whom the British historian John Richard Green wrote: “He had a smaller mind than any English king before him save James II.”
But the parallels are there, and undeniable. “He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power,” the declaration said of George III, and today the military is indulgently allowed to investigate its own crimes in
The signers further indicted their erstwhile monarch for “taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments.” The administration has been trying its best to establish a modern equivalent to the divine right of kings, with legal memorandums asserting that George II’s “inherent” powers allow him to ignore federal laws prohibiting torture and war crimes.
Then there is the declaration’s boldest and most sweeping indictment of all, condemning George III for “transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.” Translate “mercenaries” into contract workers and proxy armies (remember the bloodthirsty, misogynist
But it is the final sentence of the declaration that deserves the closest study: “And for the support of this Declaration we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Today, those who believe that the war on terror requires the sacrifice of our liberties like to argue that “the Constitution is not a suicide pact.” In a sense, however, the Declaration of Independence was precisely that.
They signed anyway, thereby stating to the world that there is something worth more than life, and that is liberty.
Thanks to their courage, we do not have to risk death to preserve the liberties they bequeathed us. All we have to do is vote.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company