Burn, baby, burn

Take down that flag and for the love of God turn off that Lee Greenwood. Independence Day is not about the United States. (There was no such country in 1776, before or after the Declaration; the Declaration only claimed to absolve the former colonies from any allegiance to the Crown.) Least of all is this a day for the government or for its loyalists. 4 July is for rebels and radicals.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. —That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it …. [W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

— Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776

Jefferson, of course, claimed that the natural consequence of altering or abolishing government was to “institute new Government.” So much the worse for Jefferson (and especially for those whom he later came to govern), but that affects what’s entailed by the principles enunciated in the Declaration about as much as the fact that Jefferson pretended like he didn’t have a moral duty to immediately release his slaves from bondage affects the fact that the Declaration’s defense of complete equality and inalienable natural rights nevertheless condemned slavery beyond hope of appeal. Whatever Jefferson’s failings, his argument, if sound, is an argument against any form of coercive government whatsoever. If indeed we do have the “right to alter or abolish” government—any government—in virtue of our right to withdraw our consent to their authority, and we retain that right as free human beings no matter what institutions we may have been born into or roped into, then no government can ever rightly demand our allegiance against our will; we are, all of us, free to withdraw that allegiance and (thereby) remove ourselves from any obligation to any government at any time. The only question that remains is whether that right to alter or abolish government is a right that belongs to each of us, individually, or a right that has to be exercised collectively (by some group of us acting together). But if our right to refuse government authority derives from (1) our birthright to equal station as sovereign individuals, and (2) the natural and unalienable rights that follow from that, then it’s hard to see how these individually held rights could entail anything less than an individual right, as the political equal of any puffed-up prince or president on Earth, for you, personally, right now, to sever all political connections if you want, and to tell your would-be rulers just where they can go promulgate their law.

Over at Catallarchy they’ve been singing the praises of flag-burning. I might be more enthusiastic about it if I thought the flag were really the problem; but, aside from being even uglier than most of the world’s military colors, there’s not too much harm that you can say the flag itself has really done. But flags aren’t all that you can burn. Here’s how William Lloyd Garrison, for example, marked the occasion 151 years ago today, when Boston was outraged by the use of armed federal troops to force Anthony Burns back into Southern slavery:

The rally began with a prayer and a hymn. Then Garrison launched into one of the most controversial performances of his career. To-day, we are called to celebrate the seventy-eighth anniversary of American Independence. In what spirit? he asked, with what purpose? to what end? The Declaration of Independence had declared “that all men are created equal … It is not a declaration of equality of property, bodily strength or beauty, intellectually or moral development, industrial or inventive powers, but equality of RIGHTS—not of one race, but of all races.

Massachussets Historical Society, July 2005

We have proved recreant to our own faith, false to our own standard, treacherous to the trust committed to our hands; so that, instead of helping to extend the blessings of freedom, we have mightily served the cause of tyranny throughout the world. Garrison then spoke about the prospects for the success of the revolutionary spirit within the nation, prospects he regarded as dismal because of the insatiable greed, boundless rapacity, and profligate disregard of justice prevalent at the time. He concluded his speech by asserting, Such is our condition, such are our prospects, as a people, on the 4th of July, 1854! Setting aside his manuscript, he told the assembly that he should now proceed to perform an action which would be the testimony of his own soul to all present, of the estimation in which he held the pro-slavery laws and deeds of the nation

— from Thoreau: Lecture 43, 4 July, 1854

Producing a copy of the Fugitive Slave Law, he set fire to it, and it burst to ashes. Using an old and well-known phrase, he said, And let all the people say, Amen; and a unanimous cheer and shout of Amen burst from the vast audience. In like manner, Mr. Garrison burned the decision of Edward G. Loring in the case of Anthony Burns, and the late charge of Judge Benjamin R. Curtis to the United States Grand Jury in reference to the treasonable assault upon the Court House for the rescue of the fugitive—the multitude ratifying the fiery immolation with shouts of applause. Then holding up the U.S. Constitution, he branded it as the source and parent of all the other atrocities,—“a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell,”—and consumed it to ashes on the spot, exclaiming, So perish all compromises with tyranny! And let all the people say, Amen! A tremendous shout of Amen! went up to heaven in ratification of the deed, mingled with a few hisses and wrathful exclamations from some who were evidently in a rowdyish state of mind, but who were at once cowed by the popular feeling.

— from The Liberator, 7 July 1854 (boldface added)

Happy Independence Day.

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9 replies to Burn, baby, burn Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Eugene Plawiuk

    Great post and I agree with you though I come from a left libertarian position. But hey we agree Independence day is for radicals and rebels. See my blog on American Independence day: New American Revolution

— 2007 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2006-06-14 – Festive occasions:

    […] So perish all compromises with tyranny! And let all the people say, Amen! —William Lloyd Garrison […]

  2. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2006-07-03 – Independence Day:

    […] GT 2005-07-04: Burn, baby, burn. […]

— 2008 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2005-09-02 – Definition 2:

    […] the Constitution for a second and read a book, for the love of God. Or a letter for that matter, or a newspaper, or anything else, […]

  2. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2008-07-04 – Revolution Day:

    […] GT 2005-07-04: Burn, baby, burn […]

— 2012 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People's Daily 2012-06-14 – National holidays:

    […] So perish all compromises with tyranny! And let all the people say, Amen! —William Lloyd Garrison […]

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