This was little more than an invention. Nothing like our iteration was ever attempted before in history…nothing. Yes, there were the Greek versions of it, Athens being the most prominent. Athens, in the end, was destroyed by its own arrogance, an arrogance born of success both military and economic. Eventually, that superior attitude, well deserved at the time, contributed to their societal laziness which paved the way for their own destruction. Even such a mind as Socrates himself, criticized the Athenians and their version of democracy, so much so that some of his very students led revolutions against it, killing many in the process. This led to Socrates being put on trial for “poisoning the minds of his followers” as they questioned the existence of democracy by his urging. In the end, he was forced to drink hemlock as his punishment.
Even the Romans, known for creating a Republic after the barbarity of Lucius Tarquinius eventually fell under the spell of a series of Emperors, who at one time were given the status of “gods” after their deaths. The republic of Rome a once proud beacon of that great civilization, also brought itself to ruination by greedy senators constantly fighting for power, and emperors more concerned with their own luxury and placating the army then doing right by the Roman people. Oh, there were a few good emperors sprinkled in there, men like Marcus Aurelius, Trajan, Nerva, but they were few and far between, the temptation of wealth, absolute power, and glory too much for most.
Few attempts to create a lasting republic have worked for very long. History tells us that the Roman Republic lasted from 509 B.C. – 27 B.C. but even that is not wholly accurate as Sulla, Marius, and Caesar, along with the entire First Triumvirate could be said to have usurped the power of the Senate.
The French Revolution in 1789 attempted the same, implementation of a Republic after over throwing the monarchy of Louis XVI, yet even that fell apart once the revolutionaries lost sight of their goal. Again, greed, avarice and ambition led men like Robespierre who in the end, declared himself the leader of the “Cult of the Supreme Being”. His was an attempt to place himself at the head of the Revolution, itself a non-religious movement. He suffered the fate of so many others, dying by the guillotine as the Revolution itself devolved into the Age of Napoleon.
Some years earlier in 1776, Thomas Jefferson penned The Declaration of Independence, declaring in that document the freedom of the colonies from what they considered tyrannical British rule. The Declaration itself is a remarkable document. Remarkable for a few items of Jefferson’s observations which go unnoticed by many.
First, the document itself, if taken in context, is the embodiment of much eighteenth century Enlightenment thought. I’m willing to wager that most of you reading this piece right now have never really truly read the document itself. You’ve been told what’s in it, but have never taken the time to actually peruse it and find out what it says. Even most members of Congress have not read it either, a sin in itself for those that are “serving” this nation. We take it for granted, and focus on a few parts that today have created controversy, a controversy created because of the lack of historical context.
The document itself was written by Jefferson, but went through a “vetting” process by Congress, with some of the more controversial phrases thrown out. An example would be Jefferson’s blaming Great Britain for the existence of slavery in the colonies. Here is the deleted portion:
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
This was removed from the original document as it was controversial. The Southern slave owners as well as others felt it also indicted them, so it was removed. Why? The Declaration itself would not have been adopted and the embryonic nation would never have come to be if certain compromises weren’t made. We don’t like it today, but in historical context, the reasoning was logical. An issue, the Founders knew, that would be addressed later which it was, resulting in the deaths of over six hundred thousand but the eventual freedom of slaves.
Jefferson was also a keen observer of human behavior, especially when it came to change. He, and others that contributed to the writing of the Declaration, understood the human unwillingness to embrace change, preferring to continue on a path less productive but familiar. He also knew that the very idea of breaking from Great Britain, despite the abuses heaped upon the colonies, would not be easy.
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.
This suggests that Jefferson knew quite well that the process of independence would not be easy, and that the Framers knew people would rather avoid the upheaval to come as to embrace change means to jettison the familiar, something analogous to the human condition. However, I would suggest also that Jefferson was taking a barb at those slave holders, himself included, when he made that statement. Much easier to keep what you’ve been accustomed to than jettison it for the unknown, a South without slavery, for it would require a complete reorganization of thinking, something that Jefferson knew would be a monumental and almost impossible task at that particular moment.
Finally, Jefferson understood one thing; there was a duality in Western thought during the eighteenth century. There was, and could be, the existence of God and the intellect of men at the same time. Previous periods in history did not allow that, preferring one or the other, or in some cases, wrapping the two together as the Egyptians and Chinese did, among others, in creating their Theocracies. Jefferson addressed this duality, by saying, “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Notice the capital “C”? Many of the eighteenth century thinkers were Deists, and also Christians, and here is the proof that God had a role in the Founder’s thinking. However, he also suggested that men had a hand it it also when he states, “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This is taken directly from John Locke, and asserts that the people have the right to determine their best form of government, not some king or emperor or the military, the people. A revolutionary thought before the French Revolution, but also a reference to the Romans and Greeks. An experiment that failed in the past, but one that Jefferson and the Founders were willing to revisit with adjustments.
It wasn’t until 1789 that the Constitution of the United States was adopted, and that, not without significant controversy. The Federalist Papers, a series of newspaper articles written by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were designed to address the importance of unity among the states and argue for the the adoption of the Constitution. Again, most of you reading this have never read them or if you did, were limited to the most famous of all, Federalist #10 in which Madison argues AGAINST allowing factions to take hold in our nation. I guess we didn’t listen to either him or Washington.
We may not like some of our past, and even think of the Declaration of Independence to be hypocritical when it comes to “all men are created equal”. Think31 gets that, but urges you to consider this:
This nation has taken steps, significant ones despite what those with agendas want you to think, to live up to its ideals. We’ve created prosperity, given people from all backgrounds, nationalities, and ethnicities and opportunity to flourish, and many have, significantly. We’ve created world changing technologies, have been, until lately, relatively stable in both nation and government. People come here from all over the globe, for, if nothing else, the chance to become something, not remain as they are. This is the promise of the Declaration of Independence, the promise of the Founders, and the covenant of our Constitution.
Take off your partisan glasses. Forget your hatred or love of a President that can be removed or retained by the power of the vote. Disregard the platitudes of those that would seek to divided us from within, arguments that appeal to emotion rather than reason. Put aside your rabid partisanship which does little more than unravel the ties that bind us all, the commonality that your condition, even that of the poor, is exponentially better than those throughout the world. No less than the eminent Thomas Sowell reminds us of that.
We enjoy freedoms here enshrined in our Constitution, freedoms that most others dream about, and what makes them willing to endure hardships we cannot fathom to arrive at our shores. Do not let those same freedoms wither away by the promise of something greater for that almost never comes to pass, not without sacrificing your personal freedoms along the way. The siren song of perfection is little more than a temptation to our own ruination, and always has been. We are the embodiment and continuation of what Athens and Rome tried to build, a legacy furthered by our very existence, but ultimately doomed by their own hand.
Often I wonder what the citizens of Rome thought as Alaric the Hun and his hundreds of horsemen were coming over the seventh hill, the great beacon of light, Rome, being extinguished before their very eyes. I wonder if they regretted allowing Rome to decay. I muse upon the fact that so many didn’t realize what they once had, the glory that was, to be replaced by barbarians that gutted and dismembered their once great empire. I picture a man and his daughter standing side by side, his arms around his offspring. They listened to the sounds of a thousand hooves, the dust kicked up clogging their nostrils, and the screams of thousands as the horses of the incoming horde ravaged their once proud and prosperous city, realizing that soon they would become part of history in the most brutal way.
It was the end of something that world had never seen, only rivaled by China’s glory or the great African city of Meroe, all of which perished themselves by carelessness and shortsightedness. I wonder if they cried. I wonder if we will allow that to happen to us, by our own hand and our own selfishness as so many have allowed in the past. And should it come to pass, I wonder if we’ll cry too.