The Patriot Act, sweeping as it is, does not ban every expression of radicalism. On at least one day each year, Americans still celebrate revolution.
Indeed, so long as no one tells John Ashcroft or Dick Cheney that the Fourth of July honors revolutionaries who threw off the chains of colonialism, empire, monarchy and the state-sponsored religion that were – and remain – the primary threats to freedom and human advancement, the holiday is probably safe from interference from our contemporary King George and his churlish courtiers.
But how should Americans who take seriously the promise of a revolution – “that all men (and women) are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights” and “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among these men (and women), deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” – go about celebrating this Fourth of July?
Here, in a reprise of this writer’s annual reflections on the Fourth, are some thoughts on how patriots might celebrate what Tom Paine referred to as “the birthday of the new world.”
Should we raise the red-white-and-blue banner of the Republic? Well, of course. Though it has been dragged through the mud by so-called “patriots” who continue to engage in the sort of military adventurism that both Washington and Jefferson warned against in their farewell addresses to the nation, this remains the flag of the Wisconsinites who marched south to banish the crime of slavery from this country’s soil. No flag has yet been associated with a nobler military endeavor than the Stars and Stripes when it flew above those who battled the Southern scoundrels who marched beneath the banner of human bondage.
Should we celebrate the founders themselves? Yes, within reason. It is true that many of the men who made this nation were flawed. The best of them admitted as much at the time. The worst were revealed in time. But no one who cherishes liberty should hesitate to raise a cheer for old Tom Paine, who wrote of Americans in 1776: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation similar to the present hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of the new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months.”
As America celebrates the 228th birthday of the new world, however, it is important to recall that Paine also reflected upon the prospect: “If you subvert the basis of the revolution, if you dispense with principles and substitute expedients, you will extinguish that enthusiasm and energy which have hitherto been the life and soul of the revolution; and you will substitute in its place nothing but a cold indifference and self-interest, which will again degenerate into intrigue, cunning and effeminacy.”
Paine’s warning anticipated this degenerate moment, in which Americans are awakening to the prospect that the president and his advisers intrigued the country into a foreign misadventure that stinks rather too much of the imperialism Americans once associated with the British crown their forebears revolted against.
Should we despair at the realization of Paine’s worst fear for the land? Perhaps a bit. But Paine would surely warn against surrendering to that despair. These may, in fact, be the times that try men’s souls. But as Tom Paine suggested in 1776, such times are where the false patriots are separated from the true: “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, as definitional a pair of summer soldiers as ever will be found, can lead their sunshine patriots in celebrations of imperialistic conquest and their allegiance with Tony Blair and what remains of the tattered British realm. The sons and daughters of Tom Paine will stand this Fourth of July and honor the revolutionary spirit that revolted against the corruptions of empire.