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Independence Day 2024

July 4, 2024


Thomas Paine, one of America’s founding fathers, was an immigrant. He arrived from England in 1774, only two years before the Declaration of Independence was adopted. Nevertheless, Paine was a keen observer of social and political history. Prior to the Declaration’s publication on 4 July 1776, Paine published a pamphlet entitled Common Sense.[1] In that document, he wrote “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.” What was that cause? According to the Declaration, it was to create a government that derived its “just powers from the consent of the governed.”[2] In other words, to establish democracy. In the minds of the signers of the Declaration, democracy was the best way “to effect [the] Safety and Happiness” of the people. The Declaration made it clear that authoritarian regimes could only lead to “a long train of abuses and usurpations.”


Writing about those early days of the American Revolution, historian Heather Cox Richardson writes, “The representatives of the united states on the North American continent believed in a government organized according to the principles of natural law. Such a government rested on the ‘self-evident’ concept ‘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.’ Governments were created to protect those rights and, rather than deserving loyalty because of tradition, religion, or heritage, they were legitimate only if those they governed consented to them. … This new vision of human government was an exciting thing to declare in the heat of a Philadelphia summer after a year of skirmishing between the colonial army and British regulars, but by December 1776, enthusiasm for this daring new experiment was ebbing.”[4] It was then that Thomas Paine once again tried to rally the people. On 23 December 1776, he published another pamphlet. This one was entitled The American Crisis.[3] Its opening lines read:


These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”


Paine continued, “I call not upon a few, but upon all: not on this state or that state, but on every state: up and help us; lay your shoulders to the wheel; better have too much force than too little, when so great an object is at stake. Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.” Today, democracy — the cause of America — remains the cause of all mankind; and, like in 1776, America finds itself in a time that tries the souls of all freedom-loving people. Democracy is under attack from both within and without. The institutions that the founding fathers helped establish are now at risk.


Pulitzer Prize winning historian Anne Applebaum explains that autocratic governments around the world are banding together to fight the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. She writes, “These autocracies have come together, not around particular stories, but around a set of ideas, or rather in opposition to a set of ideas. Transparency, for example. And rule of law. And democracy. They have heard language about those ideas — which originate in the democratic world — coming from their own dissidents, and have concluded that they are dangerous to their regimes. Their own rhetoric makes this clear. In 2013, as Chinese President Xi Jinping was beginning his rise to power, an internal Chinese memo, known enigmatically as Document No. 9 — or, more formally, as the Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere — listed ‘seven perils’ faced by the Chinese Communist Party. ‘Western constitutional democracy’ led the list, followed by ‘universal human rights,’ ‘media independence,’ ‘judicial independence,’ and ‘civic participation.’ The document concluded that ‘Western forces hostile to China,’ together with dissidents inside the country, ‘are still constantly infiltrating the ideological sphere,’ and instructed party leaders to push back against these ideas wherever they found them, especially online, inside China and around the world. Since at least 2004, the Russians have been focused on the same convergence of internal and external ideological threats.”[5]


Applebaum insists, “This is the core problem for autocracies: The Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, and others all know that the language of transparency, accountability, justice, and democracy appeals to some of their citizens, as it does to many people who live in dictatorships. Even the most sophisticated surveillance can’t wholly suppress it. The very ideas of democracy and freedom must be discredited — especially in the places where they have historically flourished.” She adds, “Fear, cynicism, nihilism, and apathy, coupled with disgust and disdain for democracy: This is the formula that modern autocrats, with some variations, sell to their citizens and to foreigners, all with the aim of destroying what they call ‘American hegemony’.” Applebaum notes that tactics used by autocrats are finding their way into American politics. She explains, “The new authoritarians … have a different attitude toward reality. … [They try] to make their falsehoods seem real. They [become] angry when anyone accused them of lying.” Even more troubling, Applebaum concludes, “Here is a difficult truth: A part of the American political spectrum is not merely a passive recipient of the combined authoritarian narratives that come from Russia, China, and their ilk, but an active participant in creating and spreading them.”


Part of that effort aims to undermine the rule of law. This is not only bad for the average citizen; it is bad for business. Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, explains, “Businesses and investors rely on a robust legal system — especially courts of law and impartial, fact-based trials by jury — to enforce contracts and punish fraud. … For American business, the rule of law is essential. It is the soil in which commerce can take root and grow. Without this stable, predictable, rules-based environment, New York, and America, would not have become the hubs of innovation, investment, profit and progress that they are.”[6] Like Applebaum, Hoffman is concerned that Americans are loosening their embrace of things we should hold dear. He explains, “Unfortunately, many American business leaders have recently developed a kind of myopia, miscalculating what politics, and which political leaders, will truly support their long-term success. Perhaps this stems from their having lived their entire lives in a stable legal regime that they now take for granted. But a robust, reliable legal system is not a given. It is a necessity we can ill afford to live without. We trade it away at our peril.”


No one should expect or desire the American people think alike. The founding fathers certainly didn’t. They held all sorts of differing opinions. What they did do was talk about their differences with one another and then band together to promote ideals in which they all strongly believed. Back in June 2023, the PBS staff noted, “At a time when partisan tensions and divisions are on the rise in the United States, there’s little reward for meeting in the middle, rather than jumping to extremes. As part of the PBS NewsHour’s America at a Crossroads series looking into the divisions fracturing the U.S., Judy Woodruff asked Robb Willer, director of the Polarization and Social Change Lab at Stanford University, what people can do on an individual level to bridge the divide. His No. 1 piece of advice: ‘try to run towards the fire, rather than away from it.’ In other words, engage, through respectful conversation. ‘Whoever that person is in your family or your neighborhood, like, engage with them respectfully, and try to give them that interaction that they’re not getting now, where they see that you can disagree with somebody, and it could still be a respectful conversation,’ he said.”[7]


Retired Navy Admiral William McRaven agrees with Willer that it’s time for Americans to pull together. He writes, “There are thoughtful, reasonable, genuinely good men and women on both sides. Let them speak for America. Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘My dream is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope of Earth.’ It is up to us — all of us — to decide whether this is that place and time. … This is where we stand together and show the world that we can rise above … that our goodness can transcend our hatreds and bring us together even in the most challenging of times.”[8] Not everyone will get the message. According to Applebaum, “Russia, China, and sometimes other state actors — Venezuela, Iran, Hungary — work with Americans to discredit democracy, to undermine the credibility of democratic leaders, [and] to mock the rule of law.” Nevertheless, I’m an optimist. I believe the vast majority of Americans love this country and democracy. I believe they want the country to come together rather than split apart — only respectful dialogue can accomplish that goal. We should embrace that reality as we celebrate the nation’s birthday.


[1] Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776.
[2] National Archives, Declaration of Independence: A Transcription, 4 July 1776.
[3] Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, 23 December 1776.
[4] Heather Cox Richardson, “Letters From An American December 19, 2021,” Letters From An American, 20 December 2021.
[5] Anne Applebaum, “The New Propaganda War,” The Atlantic, 6 May 2024.
[6] Reid Hoffman, “American business should not empower a criminal, says Reid Hoffman,” The Economist, 6 June 2024.
[7] Staff, “How to overcome political divides, according to one expert,” WPBS, 6 June 2023.
[8] William McRaven, “How do we want America to be?” The Washington Post, 3 June 2024.

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