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Original Intent and the Fourth of July

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Many conservatives are concerned with the doctrine of original intent. As opposed to its diametrical opposite, the doctrine of a “living Constitution” that has no fixed meaning, the doctrine of original intent holds that not only does the Constitution have a single, definite meaning, but that we know what that meaning is both through the textual clarity of the document itself and through the voluminous record left to us by both its direct authors and by the others who had substantial influence, philosophically, economically and politically, on the cultural and intellectual milieu of the time and place when and where it was written and adopted.

As conservatives are naturally averse to change solely for the sake of change, having this access to clear, historical understanding of the actual meaning of the Constitution means we have no need to invent political novelties today. We have a the framework for government and we know what was intended, so let’s use it as intended — so goes conservative thought on the matter. This is, basically, the doctrine of original intent.

This is a good doctrine. But it is not employed consistently by conservatives aside from their longing to see its use in Constitutional matters. A case in point is the celebration of the Fourth of July.

For some decades now, and with near universal frequency in recent years, the idea has begun being expressed that the Fourth of July is a celebration of our nation’s military. The idea common nowadays is that we celebrate the Fourth in order to give thanks to our “heroes in uniform that keep us free.” This sentiment is heard on the radio, on television, and even in casual conversation. It is so commonplace in thought that most people take little or no notice of it. Conservatives especially, however, should be alarmed that this has become the common understanding of the meaning of the Fourth of July, precisely because it is most definitely not the original intent of the commemoration.

Regardless of what “our heroes in uniform” do or don’t do, this idea of the Fourth of July is pure innovation, on par with the statist innovation beloved of recent presidents that they can act to declare war or create law or kill Americans abroad, even though the Constitution expressly forbids such things. The original intent of the Fourth of July was not to lionize the military.

The actual intent of the Fourth of July was to commemorate the radicalism of our Declaration of Independence from the tyranny of the British Empire and the inauguration of our struggle to attain the freedom to exercise our natural rights without unjust interference from government.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with the military. The man who wrote the Declaration of Independence was a civilian. The men who put their names to the document, and who did so knowing that they were as much as signing their own death warrants in doing so, were civilians.

John Adams, the second president under the Constitution, was closely involved with the adoption by the Continental Congress of the Declaration of Independence. In a now famous letter to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776, he explained why the adoption of the Declaration should be celebrated.

“Time has been given for the whole People, maturely to consider the great Question of Independence and to ripen their judgments, dissipate their Fears, and allure their Hopes, by discussing it in News Papers and Pamphletts, by debating it, in Assemblies, Conventions, Committees of Safety and Inspection, in Town and County Meetings, as well as in private Conversations, so that the whole People in every Colony of the 13, have now adopted it, as their own Act. — This will cement the Union…,” Adams argued.

“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival,” Adams continued. “It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

We should continue to be celebrating Independence Day as a “Day of Deliverance,” as Adams said. But deliverance from what?

The answer is deliverance from the kinds of tyranny spelled out by Jefferson’s Declaration. Specifically, the tyranny stemming from:

  • A multitude of offices and “swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance”
  • A standing army in peace time, “independent of and superior to civil power”
  • A government protecting “troops” from punishment for their crimes
  • Depriving the citizens “in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury”
  • Imposing taxes without consent
  • Executive authority failing to give “assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good”
  • Executive authority refusing to “pass laws of immediate and pressing importance” unless the people “relinquish the right of representation in the legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only”

The deliverance Adams would have us continue to celebrate, and the independence he cherished, was from government that would cease to be the servant of the people and that intended to become the master.

This is an important point. The Declaration of Independence was meant to ward off oppression, and its remembrance on Independence Day down to the present was intended to commemorate the achievement, and more importantly, to remind succeeding generations of the singular importance of what the Founders attempted.

Those who, like Adams, worked to achieve independence, knew that retaining it in the future would require that succeeding generations should understand the consequences of what had taken place. The Founders understood, as George Santayana quipped decades later, that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This was a trenchant echo of Benjamin Franklin, who when asked what the Founders had created at the closing of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 replied, “a Republic, if you can keep it.”

If we are confused about why we celebrate the Fourth of July, thinking that we are honoring our military that day when, in fact, we are celebrating our deliverance from tyranny through the attainment of independence from a despot, then we are not likely to keep our Republic very much longer, if indeed we haven’t yet lost it.

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