Happy July 4 …

by Kenneth Anderson

to those celebrating it.  (Not everyone at OJ rains on the July 4 parade!)  For those in DC, in addition to the usual stuff, you might check out the historical reenactment of Frederick Douglass’s July 5 speech, as Randy Barnett notes, at its historic site in Anacostia (Professor Barnett has a very interesting discussion and commentary on the speech at VC):

July 5th Oration by Frederick Douglass: Tomorrow I am hoping to attend a recreation of Frederick Douglass’s Independence Day oration at his home in Anacostia, DC:

FREDERICK DOUGLASS SPEECH.  Sunday at 1. Reenactor Kevin McIlvaine delivers the speech, originally given by the abolitionist on July 5, 1852, that focused on the failure of the Declaration of Independence to fulfill its promise to provide freedom for African Americans. Frederick Douglass Home, 1411 W St. SE. 202-426-5961. Free.

The point of Douglass’s speech was to force attention to the gap between the ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution, on the one hand, and the reality on the other.  It is the usual path of reform in the United States, even if this one took the Civil War just to get underway.  For me personally, July 4 is a moment to focus on Lincoln’s view of the Constitution, viz., that it is to be understood in light of the Declaration of Independence.

There are lots of other questions, many salient to the experience of other societies – was the American war of independence a revolution or a secession, as Ilya Somin discusses at VC.  The answer, he says, is both.  Which I would frame as saying that it was a secession as to the source of power, but a revolution as to the source of legitimacy.

The Declaration, particularly as Lincoln understood it, is an assertion of human rights universalism but within the structure of popular democracy and the consent of the governed.  That is, for Lincoln, its connection to sovereignty – sovereignty is legitimate insofar as it is the expression of the consent of the governed, a self-governing political community: sovereignty defined, in Lincoln’s famous phrase in a letter to Congress, as a “political community, without a political superior.”  The Declaration of Independence melds two things: consent of the governed through democratic processes, and a level of substantive, bottom line human rights liberalism.  One without the other doesn’t work so well, even if finding a way to bring them together is difficult and often involves inconsistencies and tradeoffs between two important, closely related, but finally distinct categories of political value.


2 Responses

  1. Have a wonderful 4th of July also. Sometimes we think too abstractly. It’s the extent of cutthroat competition which has poisoned relationships within so many communities. And thus has eroded democracy and civility. My sense is that it has to understand the nature of our own contributions to the process. We tend to focus on externals to the detriment of our own unconscious messages to others.


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