Independence Day — Local Declarations and Lessons of Leadership

Happy Independence Day!

Billy Kristol in today’s New York Times writes that he may add a new text to his cookout’s annual reading of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Roger Weightman of June 24, 1826.

With regret, the 83-year-old Jefferson wrote that his ill health compelled him to decline the invitation to travel to Washington for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of American independence. But then, perhaps knowing this would be his final word, Jefferson sets forth in stirring prose his faith in the universal significance of the Declaration of Independence:

“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government.”

Then Kristol continues with one of his major themes in life — great men make history, some should be honored for great accomplishments, and a president should be such a man.  Today this notion of honor means attending to the Founders who courageously led and the people followed. I’m all for acknowledging the greatness of the Founders, but according to history, this progression is mistaken.

Kristol writes:

In the letter, Jefferson pays tribute to his fellow signers — “that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword.” He wishes he could meet with the few of that band who still survived “to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made.”

So the signers of the declaration made the bold and doubtful choice for independence. Their fellow citizens ratified the choice. But they might have been slow to act if the worthies had not moved first.

Here’s a sketch of how it went down.

Battles in the War of Independence began in 1775 with separate colonial armies fighting the British. In the 18 months before the Declaration of Independence was written, edited, approved, ratified and signed, over 150 local towns, grand juries, and guilds published written calls for a united colonial army for independence. Jefferson used these as a template, a source for language and list of grievances. Nearly a full year after the King George III’s August, 1775 decree to suppress rebellion and sedition, the Continental Congress formally claimed the power to tax and thereby raise an army.

The War of Independence began in smaller, more intimate places when neighbors and members of other associations (civil society) discussed the events of the day, decided on a course of action — that the Continental Congress should unite the colonies to wage war, and then formally published this decision. We cannot make a pilgrimage to the real source of US Independence, the determination of ordinary folks to influence their representatives.

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