I’ve celebrated quite a few Independence Days, but this is the first where I have a palpable sense that a political faction is making a powerful claim to own the holiday and the Declaration of Independence at everyone else’s expense. Perhaps it should have been plain from the very beginning of the Tea Party movement that it involved a lot of fairly privileged people who thought others were trying to ruin “their” country by advocating “un-American” idea like universal access to private health insurance. But this July 4, the idea that the Founders would all be out there today campaigning avidly for right-wing causes and candidates seems to be an article of faith for many conservatives. For a good example of the interpretation of the Declaration that holds the unique purpose of this country is to let individuals accumulate vast personal wealth and then stockpile shooting irons to protect it, you can read the latest essay of Victor Davis Hanson, a writer who is often wrong but never, ever in doubt.
E.J. Dionne responds to this line of argument for those that conservatives would exclude from the national holiday:
We need to recognize the deep flaws in this vision of our present and our past. A reading of the Declaration of Independence makes clear that our forebears were not revolting against taxes as such — and most certainly not against government as such.
In the long list of “abuses and usurpations” the Declaration documents, taxes don’t come up until the 17th item, and that item is neither a complaint about tax rates nor an objection to the idea of taxation. Our Founders remonstrated against the British crown “for imposing taxes on us without our consent.” They were concerned about “consent,” i.e. popular rule, not taxes.
The very first item on their list condemned the king because he “refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” Note that the signers wanted to pass laws, not repeal them, and they began by speaking of “the public good,” not about individuals or “the private sector.” They knew that it takes public action — including effective and responsive government — to secure “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
It’s fine to have this sort of perennial debate over the ultimate meaning of documents like the Declaration of Independence. But you can’t have a debate when one side is convinced it not only represents the sole correct point of view, but the only people who can be considered true Americans who love their country. You’d think, in fact, that the growing, angry disdain conservatives have for roughly half the population of the United States would make them feel a bit more doubt about their own patriotism towards America as it actually is. Truth is rarely as self-evident as the self-righteous often believe.