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Do We Deserve To Be Free? On The Fourth of July, 2006 | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | July 2, 2006

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"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when 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." -- The Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies. In Congress, July 4, 1776, The unanimous Declaration.


This is the two hundredth and thirtieth anniversary of a political act that established the United States as a free and independent nation. This act had consequences. Immediately, it led to a war with a proud nation from whom most citizens' ancestors at the time came. In one sense, it was a successful civil war. The colonists maintained that the home government in London acted unjustly toward them by England's own principles and those of mankind. Not a few in the colonies did not accept this act of separation as legitimate. Many of them fled to Canada or back to Britain. Those that stayed eventually accepted the new government.

England, however, itself concerned with French power, could not ignore this challenge to its very empire. The war ensued, fought from Fort Ticonderoga till the final surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. The French were helpful, as were the Poles, but Washington also fought Hessians on the Delaware River. The victors subsequently proceeded to establish, with the Constitution, an effective government on the lines of thought they had set down, much of which they learned from English practice and English thinkers. They thought free men should be self-governing.

We hear and continue to hear that all wars are evil, that all problems can be solved by reason, discussion, and diplomacy. The colonists actually thought this also. But that thesis, that all can be solved (except for a few stubborn men), is itself a political philosophy that often lands a people in further, often greater tyranny. Some men and some nations will choose to act unreasonably. Not to know that possibility is to know little about human nature and verges on utopianism. Sometimes one has to fight before he can talk reason to another. The accurate realization that negotiations will not always succeed against every enemy was pretty much what the colonists realized and so stated. They did not think they were violating reason but, on the basis of evidence, following its strict requirements. This required courage and risk. They were not assured of victory.

Their "declaration" is brief. Principally, when read today--it takes but a few minutes, the text easily found on the internet--it is composed of a few tightly reasoned basic principles and a concise, trenchant list of efforts on the colonists' part to come to terms with the British Monarch and his government over their legitimate concerns. These latter are listed in specific detail. Some twenty-five separate instances of abuse are set down as evidence. Listen to some of them: "He (the Monarch) has obstructed the Administration of Justice....." "He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone...." "He imposed taxes without our consent." "He abdicated Government here by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us."

But, even more than an address to the English Monarch, was the Declaration formally an appeal to reason as such. "A decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they (the colonists) should declare the causes which impel them to the separation." The point here is not whether the "opinions of mankind," if polled at the time, would necessarily have agreed with the colonists that these reasons are sufficient to create a new political entity and to defend it even by war. We can imagine that if, say, the United Nations as it is today constituted, had existed and been called upon to agree with the reasoning given by the colonists, that UN, by a vote of 95 to 24 with several abstentions, would have rejected US views as "unreasonable." Nor would most of the world have offered much help. They would sense that their own governments are no models of the embodiment of these same principles nor are they lacking these same abuses. Americans still would have had to act on their principles that would include the question of whether world public opinion or judgment was itself objective and reasonable.

The colonists understood that they would probably still have to act on their own judgment about the rational validity of their presentation. These issues, however, in their minds, led to dictates of "prudence." These were sufficiently clear to act upon. Seldom are prudential situations obvious enough to exclude all possibility of error. If one insists on such absoluteness of rational clarity that always "one more final effort" must be made before acting, nothing in this world would ever be resolved. Part of the reason we study ethics and politics is to understand this limitation of practical things as a recurring reality. No action would have taken place were we "absolutely sure." Good thinkers like Samuel Johnson doubted the colonists had chosen wisely. But without their deciding on the basis of arguments presented, we would still be British or perhaps Russian or French or Spanish--who knows?


Chesterton said someplace that the United States is almost the only country ever to have been founded on an idea. [1] That is to say, it was founded by men who knew well the English and Western Christian tradition, themselves thinking with principles formulated in that tradition. These men who signed the Declaration also knew their Cicero and Aristotle, their Bible. They were presenting before mankind an argument that explained the validity of their political action. They did not intend to act unwisely or unreasonably. They knew it was a delicate situation that merited rational statement. They did not know whether they would succeed or not. No small part of their eventual success was in fact the persuasive force of their principles. But we know that rightness of cause does not, in world history, always assure political success. They had to risk, as they said at the end of the Declaration, their lives, their fortunes, and their "sacred honor." Not all men are so willing. Men who have no conception of what this "risk" means have no grounds for freedom or to the truth on which it is based. Nor should they really live in regimes based on "sacred honor."

The colonists knew and so stated that governments should not be changed "lightly." Hence, by implication, they, with their list of abuses, thought it was not a "light" matter. That is why they compiled the reasons. They also knew that some evils are to be "suffered," that it is a greater good so to do. Not everything can be righted, a principle the understanding of which leads to the profoundest theological and philosophical insights.

But the colonists also recognized that not all "evils" are, as they put it, "sufferable." The unwillingness of a people to do nothing about anything with itself or others is not a sign of virtue but of decadence. A kind of "slavishness" sets in and is passive before every evil. The colonists did not belong to that class of men who thought they never had to stand up to anything, never had to draw a line, never had to act. They stood on the side of those who saw with the great Burke, who sided with them, that the best way to magnify evil is for good men to think they need to do nothing about it.


The more famous part of the Declaration is the recital of the "self-evident" truths: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We still wonder whether "happiness" is a gift or something we can just "pursue." Probably both. We suspect that C. S. Lewis was right when he warned us that "happiness" is not a "right," but only the result of doing what is right, even if we suffer for it. We know that the phrase "pursuit of happiness" was a substitute for Locke's "life, liberty, and property" which itself meant more than ownership of material goods. And we know from at least Aristotle that while "happiness" is ultimately the end of all of our actions, we must be very careful to define it correctly in the first place.

We again read with care the words that governments need the "consent" of the governed. This is not all they need. Citizens of tyrannies have been known, more frequently than we like to admit, to "consent" to their rulers. We also read about differing "forms of government." This too was a consideration found in Plato and Aristotle. Many kinds of "good" and "bad" forms of rule can exist and have existed. People can rightly "abolish" abusive governments. When they do so, it is no doubt worthy and noble for others to assist them. A new form of rule should be effective for both the "Safety and Happiness" of the governed.

Worthy forms of rule--there is more than one configuration--none the less need to be "secured." We need to be aware that "change" can also be for the worse, even when we naively think it is for the best. Governments are to have "just power," not just any power. But without legitimate "power" and the willingness to use it properly, we really cannot "secure" the purpose for which governments are established. This is why the colonists complained that "He (the English king) has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies, without the consent of our legislatures." Power and force are not in themselves abuses but consequences of systematic abuse of law. Nor are power and force the essence of law, but consequences of its non-observance designed to re-establish reason.

Political institutions are designed to solve controverted issues arising from within them, by persuasion when possible. Setting up instruments of persuasion, such as legislatures, is one of the elements of a good regime. The Declaration of Independence stands, I think, as an affirmation that a reasonable estimate for the opinions of mankind can and should stand together with a willingness and capacity to use force to secure what rule should stand for. One is hard pressed to prove that the failure to have and use reasonable force has not resulted in more harm throughout history than failure to use articulated arguments of persuasion. The great risk of any government in any age is a certain "naivete" that hears no evil, or sees no evil, nor establishes means to cope with it when recognized.


If we look back on these two hundred and thirty years since the Declaration, we can see that America is a unique country. The Holy Father himself has said that our system of relation of religion and polity seems reasonable. We are much reviled and much imitated, often for the same reasons. One might even say that our record of both war and peace has been not just to defend ourselves, but also to assist others to help themselves, if they would. We are said to be a "pragmatic" people. Yet we are pragmatic with ideals that enable us to be so. We do not want to forget or fail to follow these principles.

We can say that our domestic politics have almost always been an effort to accomplish in practice our theoretic ideals, accomplish them against our own errors and corruptions, but also to figure out simply how to do them. Much of the poverty and disorder in the world is the result of refusing to learn what we have already learned, or more often the refusal to put it into practice. We are certainly a fortunate people in many ways. Few people on the whole have lived better lives in a material sense. But our good life is not unrelated to the reasons that make us unique, reasons stated in the Declaration as if they were intended in essence for mankind, so that they are not simply "ours."

A number of years ago I wrote an essay in Modern Age (Spring, 1975) on teaching ancient and medieval political philosophy. There I argued, perhaps rashly, that one of the dangers involved in not taking religion seriously was the inability to understand other religions and what motivates them. At the time, I think I had more confidence in Christians understanding this importance than seculars. Sometimes I think modern liberalism and ecumenism have actually made other religions less--not more--intelligible to us.

The most pressing immediate issue facing us today is a militant religion, however we distinguish it, which persists in an announced world mission throughout centuries and constantly brings back this effort whenever it is not prevented. Belloc understood this in his time. What too many of us cannot or will not grasp is that we have a real and shrewd enemy who recognizes our internal vulnerabilities and inability to recognize that this missionary effort is real, even if, as it is said, only embraced by a portion of Islam.

We are presently at war, not just in Iraq. There are those who deny it is much of a threat. Others admit that it is serious, but not religious. Still others maintain that it is none of our business. Still, we were attacked on our soil at a definite time and place. In the period since this attack, largely because of our being made aware of the threat by the attack itself, we have prevented, almost daily, other attacks here and elsewhere. We would hope to eliminate the cause of this seemingly worldwide problem by following what we consider the essence of our political founding. Why, in logic, we think, cannot everyone have a government by consent of the government, where people can pursue their own interests, and live in peace?

So we argue among ourselves. Many hold that in following our own principles that have universal import, we are carrying them forward. Nor can we be safe, it is said, unless others are safe. None can be safe until the main causes are confronted. These causes are often seen to be largely political or economic, because we cannot think "religion" is so powerful. Whether this political and economic view is anything more than a partial analysis, I doubt. We are involved in something more than political, though the political has its place. No one likes "war of civilization" talk, except maybe certain Muslim leaders. I do not like it myself. Islam, at times, seems to be at war with itself over precisely whether these principles found in the Declaration apply to it also--about whether it is able to become "modern" and still retain its religious premises.

One of the striking things that often seems to justify hostility to this "land of the free," as we like to call it, is frankly moral, or perhaps our morals, including those of Europe. If we read those Muslim critics most willing to attack us with force, their rational is often our own moral status. The Catholic Church in the United States has long been aware (if not particularly successful in addressing it), of the obvious inner moral disorder among us, from which its own members do not themselves seem always exempt. It is this internal disorder that prevents us most often from seeing why our better efforts are not understood.

In looking at the Declaration again, one cannot but be struck by the power of its rhetoric. Some scholars argue that this document was not intended for the world, as its authors evidently thought, but only as a kind of apologia or preface. It was not intended as an instrument of rule as was the Constitution later on. The real America, it is said, did not see itself as missioned to the rest of the world in the way in which it seems to be when reading it or its counterpart in the Gettysburg Address. America is not to involve itself in other peoples' business, only to protect its own shores when attacked. We were attacked for the first time on our own shores in the second year of the 21st century.

President Washington advised this political caution in his Farewell Address. We need to be more modest. The "world-savers," it is said, are the real threat among us, not some notion of a revitalized Islamic power or any other movement. China is still on the scene, now apparently involved in making all our clothing and artifacts, by imitating everything but our freedom. We are not sure what it is up to. We crossed them once before and tore ourselves apart, it is said, and we are doing the same thing now.

Lincoln spoke of this form of government described in the Declaration as "not perishing from the earth." If we know our Plato and Aristotle, we know that any government, the worst and the best, can disappear from two causes: 1) internal change so that the original people no longer "hold" the same truths on which it was based, and 2) from foreign conquest. Watching Europe these days, one is tempted to add, in honor of Paul VI, that governments can also cease simply when its people no longer see it necessary to have children.

I recall seeing an essay in The Economist several years ago in which it projected the population of the United States compared to Europe a couple decades hence. We would be almost twice as large. It is clear that Europe is both disappearing and being replaced, often by significant Islamic population. We cannot fail to notice that often the so-called "Catholic countries"--France, Spain, and Italy, even Ireland--are the leaders in this decline. We are also told that when families are very small, sons do not go into either the army or the clergy. This population decline perhaps can be "reversed," but thus far population size depends on importation of other people's children both in the States and in Europe.

The end of the Declaration, before the signatures, reads as follows: "As free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which independent States may of right do." The first item in the list, the "full power to 'levy' War," is not accidental. The word "levy" means legally to call up troops, to make war. Peace can also be "concluded." Alliances can be "contracted." Commerce can be "established." Anything that an "independent" state can do, the acts and things, this new nation can do.

This Declaration, finally, needs "support." What kind of support? First it has a "firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence." When the country acts it seeks to do so in such a way that it deserved the "protection" of precisely "Divine Providence." If we deny such "providence," what, we wonder, protects us? Secondly, we need to "pledge." Pledge to whom? "To each other," and we need to do so "mutually." We need to know that we stand together. Again, what is it that we pledge when we act politically? "Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." Such pledges are still what binds us and give intelligibility to what we do and confidence that we will do it.

On this, the two hundredth and thirtieth anniversary of the signing of this justly famous and profound document, we can well afford to re-read and re-pledge what it states about both the uniqueness and universality of the rule under which we have chosen and have "pledged" to live. The "new government" thus established, now one of the oldest countries on the planet, was literally to "provide new Guards for our security." Unless this provision is continually accomplished, nothing else is possible to a free people. Awareness of this truth is both common sense and high wisdom. A people unwilling to make this provision for such "guards," under reason and under law, unwilling to pledge itself to its own and to universal principles, not only will not be free, but will not deserve to be free.


[1] Editor's note: "America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence." (G.K. Chesterton, What I Saw In America [1922]. Collected Works, vol. 21)

Comments? Thoughts? Questions? Share them on the Insight Scoop blog!

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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Read more of his essays on his website and on his IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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