This July 4, it’s hard not to be jealous of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. They knew what they were doing—and, to judge by their prose, they knew they knew. They had a “firm reliance on the protection of divine providence.” They were certain that a “candid world” would judge the offenses against them insufferable. And they made an unqualified pledge of “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” to their cause.
They didn’t actually have a clue about whether their campaign for American independence would succeed. They had to trust that their case and its principles would be justified by history.
We could use some of that trust today, as we sit around in our own moment of democratic instability waiting for history to decide what it wants to do with us. We, too, have principles worth defending.
We should begin by bandaging the wounds and bruises and giving thanks for the limbs that are still intact. So, a cursory inventory of the state of the Union: The plague has caused six hundred thousand American deaths, a good number of them likely unnecessary. The lab leak theory of the origins of the virus is now running neck and neck with the bat-out-of-hell theory, and we may never know how to choose between them.
Still, thanks to the vaccines, we’ve made it through with some fight still left in us. That’s not nothing. The Capitol is more or less repaired, though it will be hard to erase the memory of that January 6 rioter from Arkansas with his stun gun and his feet on Nancy Pelosi’s desk. Federal law enforcement continues to arrest the usual January 6 suspects, who number five hundred and counting. Some senior Oath Keepers have agreed to cooperate with the government. Way to go, samurai.
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) has conclusively shut down Democrats’ hopes for a comprehensive new federal voting rights bill. President Joe Biden, whose nerve doesn’t quite match McConnell’s, announced a bipartisan roads-and-bridges infrastructure bill, then said he wanted it paired with a Democrats-only human infrastructure bill, then walked back his statement that he wouldn’t sign one without the other. As of this writing, the bipartisan deal is back on.
House Republicans have prevented the formation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 riot, or insurrection, or tourist visit. They knew full well how that would turn out. So, Democrats have established a House select committee for the purpose. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) says she is willing to serve. So does Matt (“I ask good questions”) Gaetz (R-FL). So far, however, the only Republican named to the select committee is Liz Cheney (R-WY), who was recently removed from her post as chair of the House Republican Conference.
Republican state legislatures are passing bills most of which would restrict voting. The largest effects are likely to be felt by members of minority groups. The Biden Department of Justice has started suing to overturn the legislation but says it needs congressional action to do the job properly. See Mitch McConnell, above.
The Cyber Ninjas are wrapping up their Arizona audit. The nation anxiously awaits their report. “Stop the Steal” activists across the country are trying to replicate the Ninja model in their own states. Former President Donald Trump is holding rallies again to remind his audiences of the stolen 2020 presidential election and call for the electoral defeat of Republicans who have betrayed him. The state of New York has suspended the law license of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on account of an alleged lack of truthfulness in his representation of said Donald Trump (See voting rights bill, above). The Manhattan district attorney, joined in its investigation by the New York State attorney general, has charged the Trump Organization and its chief financial officer with tax crimes. The nation, anxious once more, awaits further developments.
We are politically becalmed, stalemated, dead in the water, and not getting lifelines from the political Left or Right.
We know the problem with the Right: In between QAnon and Donald Trump, the Republican Party has been reduced to gibberish. McConnell and Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) executed full frontal reversals of their initial verdicts on the January 6 event. Republican silence about the embarrassment that is Trump has become a cliché.
The Left—let’s face it—hasn’t been a source of inspiration either. When progressives are accused of hating this country, that’s not just a canard, to judge by the evidence of the past sixty years. Progressives left the defense of patriotism, religion, and family on the field, lying around for the Right to pick up and appropriate. So, when mainstream journalists denounce Laura Ingraham or Tucker Carlson for criticizing the decorated war veteran who is Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley, it’s hard not to view the charge with some irony.
Here is one of our few consolations: Our forebears don’t seem to have done it much better. The sweep of history wasn’t any clearer to them than it is to us.
Cast your mind back, averting your eyes from the bloody horror of the Civil War, to the Founding, not the high-minded debates over the 1783 U.S. Constitution but the cauldron that produced the 1776 Declaration of Independence. We can thank historian Bernard Bailyn for a look at not just the winners of the struggle for the Declaration but the losers.
As for the winners, Bailyn reminds us that the Founders were more than the sum of their colonial grievances. John Adams, age twenty-three, alone in his room at night, “declaimed aloud” Cicero’s orations on republican virtue and its contrast with the decadence of later Rome. Alexander Hamilton, with his elegant trademark snark, advised an opponent in the pamphlet wars to school himself by reading Locke and Montesquieu.
In the decade after 1763, when the Treaty of Paris ended the French and Indian War and George III crimped American colonization west of the Appalachians, classical and Enlightenment ideas coalesced into a view of America’s particular place in the world. That view impelled the colonies to independence.
“Impelled” may be too strong a word. Bailyn also left us a sympathetic account of the losers in this struggle—in particular, of Thomas Hutchinson, the last civilian colonial governor of Massachusetts.
What, Bailyn asked, were the “reasons for the ultimate failure of this otherwise successful and impressive politician and historian?”
Hutchinson was at least as learned as his opponents, but his temperament was radically different from theirs. Hutchinson was a triangulator. He had built his successful career in politics by analyzing the variables in the political situations before him and moving, guided by prudence, from Point A to Point B. As the tide of pro-independence fervor rose in Massachusetts, Hutchinson kept doing what he had always done. As a result, he was buffeted from one political controversy to another.
Finally, in 1774, Hutchinson left for England to defend himself in the capital from the list of charges that had been laid against him. He thought the trip would be brief.
Hutchinson never returned to Massachusetts. War was coming. As a loyalist and an exile, he had forfeited his Massachusetts property, including his prized home in Milton. When war finally broke out in April of 1775, the Milton house was seized for use as army barracks. Later, the state sold off the property. It was bought by members of the Otis family, old political adversaries of Hutchinson’s.
Hutchinson died in England in 1780, not before he was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws by Oxford University on July 4, 1776. It was the day of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. History sometimes puts almost too fine a point on things.
Bailyn knew how the story of the Declaration turned out, in both the short and the long run. He wrote in later years that the politics of the 1960s and early 1970s, meaning Vietnam and, later, Watergate, had sharpened his awareness of the impossible nature of Hutchinson’s dilemma. He understood that his sense of the moral and intellectual qualities of participants in the events leading to the Revolution was shaped by what he knew about the consequences of their acts.
Would that all historians were as self-aware.
But the Founders, when they signed the Declaration, didn’t know. Thomas Hutchinson, as he triangulated from crisis to crisis, didn’t know. Today, we don’t know. There isn’t a prognosticator in Washington who knows whether the country’s institutions will sustain our political continuity or collapse into something that’s still unrecognizable.
We’ll have to rely on underlying convictions and our sense of how history will treat them. It will be a heavy lift, but not impossible. Maybe we should remind ourselves, for instance, of our presumption that states can run their elections until they’ve done something noxious with their authority, which is not the same as our suspicion that they’re about to do noxious things or are inclined by temperament to do noxious things. Maintaining that presumption makes politics an endless slog, which is, for better or worse, what the system was designed to be. It’s the same presumption that made January 6 such an outrage and that’s kept the FBI out making arrests since then.
Other principles that express themselves throughout American politics are similarly inconvenient. Yes, it’s a heavy lift. It’s hard to imagine that we would look back and find some alternative shining brighter.
Suzanne Garment is senior editor of American Purpose.
Image: Library of Congress, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3483550
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