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The Declaration of Independence: What does freedom mean?

Americans celebrated the 235th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence bitterly divided over what kind of government the Founders had envisioned.

“Unhappy birthday,” America, said Robert Samuelson in The Washington Post. “In this summer of our discontent,” as partisans battle over budget deficits and the debt ceiling, Americans celebrated the 235th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence last week bitterly divided over what kind of government the Founders had envisioned. For many conservatives, it has become an article of faith that the Founders were declaring not only America’s independence from Britain, but the freedom of individual citizens to live as they choose without interference—or enfeebling assistance—from the government. The Tea Party has taken this view to a “radical” new purity, clamoring for eliminating or ruthlessly cutting 50-year-old social programs “that are woven into America’s fabric.” Liberals, meanwhile, are insisting that the Founders rejected the callous aloofness of British rule precisely because they did want a government committed to mutual welfare and social justice. In their own self-indulgent fantasies, liberals think the extravagant spending now busting the budget can be financed simply “by cutting defense or increasing taxes on the rich.”

What’s to debate? said Mark Steyn in Investor’s Business Daily. The Founding Fathers could have severed ties with Britain in a single sentence if they’d wanted to. Instead, in the middle of a shooting war, they worked for days crafting a stirring testament to “the republican virtues of a self-reliant citizenry free to exploit its own potential.” The Declaration is a “song of human liberation,” said Michael Goodwin in the New York Post, promising Americans “the pursuit of Happiness.” Too many Americans today “are not pursuing happiness. They are demanding it,” in the form of government assistance paid for with other people’s tax dollars. Anyone who objects to this perversion of our Founders’ vision gets “scolded for lacking compassion.”

The Founders were anything but “anti-government zealots,” said E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post. Indeed, the Declaration states that their primary grievance against the British crown was the king’s failure “to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance” to “the public good.” The Declaration thus defines government’s central function as ensuring the general welfare of citizens—“the public good.” We rebelled to create a more caring government, not a smaller one.  Note also that the Founders objected not to taxes, but to “taxation without representation.” For modern conservatives to use the Declaration to justify their refusal to ask the rich to pay slightly more in taxes, even if it means defaulting on our national debt or letting poor people go hungry, “is, well, crazy.”

The truth, said the Los Angeles Times in an editorial, is that the Declaration was a pragmatic compromise between a group of rich white men with “profoundly differing opinions about governance,” with some bitterly opposed to a strong central government, and others insisting that only a unifying federal system could keep the nation from disintegrating into chaos. To try to use the beliefs of any one Founder or faction to justify a modern political stance is a pointless exercise. Perhaps we can agree on one thing, said Newsday. Our founding document’s most revolutionary statement is that “all men are created equal,” with an inherent right to be free. Over the centuries, that single, powerful idea took on a life of its own, not only in America but around the world, and continues to inspire people to throw off oppression. After 235 years, even as Americans argue over the definition of freedom itself, the Declaration’s breakthrough premise “is aging wonderfully well.”

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