When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
Other than this one day a year, Independence Day is more likely to be taken as a reference to a Roland Emmerich/Jeff Goldblum movie than to that momentous day 240 years ago when America declared its independence from England. If I were a crotchety old man, I'd probably be reminiscing about the history-respecting patriotism of the Fourth of July celebrations of my youth and bemoaning the ignorant and shallow celebrations of today, but thankfully, I haven't yet arrived at that level of crotchetiness. While I might properly lament the shallowness of today's celebrations, I cannot contrast them unfavorably with those of my childhood, for when I was growing up, we celebrated the Fourth of July giving no more thought to the Founding Fathers and their revolutionary declaration than do most people today. As I remember it, the holiday was mainly about a lavish family picnic (the centerpiece of which was fresh-caught and expertly-grilled salmon) and fireworks.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Though you wouldn't know it from our Fourth of July celebrations, my family was actually quite patriotic, but in spite of that, I confess that I'm not very patriotic today. I'm happy to be an American and I don't have an anti-American bone in my body, but I'm just not very nationalistic. Not usually, anyway, but a wave of patriotism will wash over me from time to time; a profound love of country will well up from the depths of my heart now and then. That wave of patriotism will usually be triggered by something simple – seeing the flag, hearing a patriotic song or a veteran's story, or gazing at a natural wonder at one of our National Parks – but it comes in an especially powerful way at places of great national significance or sacrifice – a Civil War battlefield, Pearl Harbor, Corrigedor, the American Cemetery in Manila, the beach in Leyte where General MacArthur made good on his promise to return. Even at a cathedral in England, oddly enough.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Among the things to do in Hereford, England, is visit the Hereford Cathedral which dates from the eleventh century and houses three notable historical artifacts: the largest remaining chained library; the 13th century Mappa Mundi; and one of the original copies of the 1217 Magna Carta. As you may know, the Magna Carta was the agreement in 1215 between England's King John and his most powerful subjects, imposing limits on the former and asserting the rights of the latter to avoid civil war. Though the 1215 charter was nullified by Pope Innocent III just weeks after being being sealed by King John, it was reissued in 1217 by John's nine year old son and successor, King Henry III. The Hereford Cathedral has held one of the original copies of the Magna Carta since 1217, and of the scores of copies originally distributed to churches, libraries and officials, only four remain. The Magna Carta consisted of 63 clauses, mostly pertaining to the rights of the powerful English upper class, but the 39th and 40th clauses, recognizing rights of any “free man” and “anyone,” contained the philosophical seeds of modern democracy:
No free man shall be arrested, imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, exiled or in any way victimised, or attacked except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land . . . We will not sell, or deny, or delay right or justice to anyone.
Living 240 years into the experiment called America, it is hard to imagine that there was a time in history when royalty could trample over commoners with impunity, but that was the case at the time of the Magna Carta and was still largely the case when America issued its Declaration of Independence from England. Especially at the time of the Magna Carta, if a royal wanted something you had, he could simply take it. He might first have you arrested and imprisoned before declaring the confiscation of your property the due penalty for whatever crime he dreamed up against you, but he could take what he wanted one way or another. Your house could be entered by the king's agents at any time for any reason, and your resistance could be met with a beating and/or imprisonment. Whatever rights you possessed were thought to have been bestowed by the king, and the king could withdraw your rights at any time.
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.
Gazing at the Magna Carta at Hereford was a powerfully moving experience for me and was one of those patriotic moments I mentioned having from time to time. Maria and I had lived 18 years in Asia, traveling extensively there, and wherever we lived or visited – Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Japan, China, Korea – I looked like the foreigner I was, never blending in, always standing out, but in Wales and England, I didn't look like a foreigner. I felt a sense of belonging, as if the ghosts of my ancestors stood along the paths and lanes we walked, welcoming me to hen wlad fy nhadau – the old land of my fathers.
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.
Maria and I had been walking from town to town in the Wye Valley for a week – Plynlimon to Llangurig, Llangurig to Rhayader, Rhayader to Builth Wells, Builth Wells to Boughrood, Boughrood to Hay-on-Wye, Hay-on-Wye to Monnington, and Monnington to Hereford – seeing more sheep than people every day and doing nothing touristy, but at Hereford we changed it up by going to the Cathedral.
Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.
I enjoyed looking at the Mappa Mundi and reading its history, and I was enthralled with the Cathedral's chained library of 229 medieval manuscripts, but it was the Magna Carta that really took my breath away. I was in awe of the document itself. I mean, it was written in 1217 and was the basis not only for much of subsequent English law but of Western law generally. The Magna Carta represented a huge step forward in the betterment of humanity, recognizing that individuals should be free from victimization at the whim of rulers. As I stood before the Magna Carta, I read an annotation explaining the document:
The Great Charter of Liberties or Magna Carta agreed between King John and his barons at Runnymede in 1215 is one of the most famous documents in history. It is considered the foundation of English common law and much of its world wide importance lies in the interpretation of the clauses [especially 39 and 40] from which grew the right of the freedom of the individual or habeas corpus.
‘No free man shall be arrested, imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, exiled or in any way victimised, or attacked except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land’
As I was reading the above, I was thinking to myself, “How cool! Almost 800 years ago, these ideas of equality and justice were being written down and proposed as law in England.” But it was the next line of the explanation that got me all choked up:
This right [habeas corpus] is most famously contained in the American Bill of Rights embodied in the Constitution of the United States of America.
There I was, an American in England, standing within inches of the document that is generally recognized as England's greatest contribution to Western thought and law, and the explanatory note references the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution as the most famous exemplar of that document! I got choked up about that; a wave of patriotism washed over me; love of country welled up from deep within me.
The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
After listing some 27 grievances against King George and England and explaining that those grievances had been brought to the attention of England many times to no avail, the actual Declaration of Independence is stated as follows:
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that 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. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Later today I will celebrate the Fourth of July with family. As in the days of my youth, a lavish picnic and fireworks will be the highlights of our celebration. Some of us might give little or no thought to the founding of our nation, but amid our feasting and fireworksing, I will recall my moment with the Magna Carta in the Hereford Cathedral and the reminder it was to me of America's commitment to equality and justice, however imperfectly it has been expressed over these last 240 years. A healthy love for the United States is sure to well up from my heart. Today will be a day for patriotism and flag-waving.
Happy Fourth of July, 2016