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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
"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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.  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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
 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 .
Collected Works, vol. 21)
Comments? Thoughts? Questions? Share them on the Insight Scoop blog!
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"Written In Courage": An Analysis of the 2006 State of the Union Address |
James V. Schall, S.J.
On Catholic Social Teaching | Mark Brumley
Plato's Ring in the Sudan: How Freedom Begets Isolation of the Soul | Dr. Jose Yulo
On Being Catholic American | Joseph A. Varacalli
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
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.
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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