Even as they celebrate this July 4, Americans recognize that their country is tested by a monarchical president and a robber-baron Congress that is bent on taking from the poor and giving to the rich. These contemporary Tories govern with such swashbuckling disregard for democracy and for the essential rights of the great mass of Americans that it is easy to be discouraged.
Easy, but historically unbecoming.
There was much more to be discouraged about when the American colonies pondered cutting the colonial ties with King George III and the British Empire. Yet, 241 years ago this summer, the truest of patriots saw only possibility.
This is why Americans who know their history celebrate not the machinations of elites but the radical resolve of Tom Paine that paved the way to July 4. On this day, we are reminded of what visionary and progressive peoples can accomplish when they reject the petty preachments of the powerful and choose to become their own governors.
As Americans moved tentatively toward their fateful declaration of independence in the mid-1770s, it was Paine who urged them to embrace the revolutionary spirit of the Enlightenment age and to get on with the cutting of the colonial bond.
“The cause of America,” Paine argued, “is in great measure the cause of all mankind.”
The very future of freedom depended on it.
Yes, of course, the pursuit of liberty was daunting—especially when challenging the authority of British crown was sure to inspire the mad wrath of King George III. “[But] like all other steps which we have already passed over,” Paine suggested to the colonials, “[Affronting the king and his empire] will in a little time become familiar and agreeable: and until an independence is declared, the continent will feel itself like a man who continues putting off some unpleasant business from day to day, yet knows it must be done, hates to set about it, wishes it over, and is continually haunted with thoughts of its necessity.”
The work of confronting unjust and unpopular rulers invariably begins in uncertainty and peril.
But the necessity of the challenge to unwarranted authority, and to the abuses of that authority, was Paine’s premise—and that premise was accepted by others in the founding circle. The initiators of the American experiment, with all their admitted imperfections, established procedures for the perfection of that experiment: and among the greatest of these was the power to impeach lawless presidents and their confederates.
Experience tells us that many will shrink from the vital work of objection.
Just as there were 18th-century Americans who knew that King George III and his aristocratic brigands had to be seen off but who feared the demands of the endeavor, so there are 21st-century Americans who know that the madness of President Trump must be addressed but avoid the inevitable demands of the impeachment power conjured for application in moments such as this.