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.
Trump’s obstructions of justice and abuses of power are now so well documented that the man who lost the popular vote for president by almost 3 million ballots is often portrayed as precisely what the wisest of the founders feared: an elected leader who assumes for himself the trappings of illicit and unaccountable monarchy.
Paine anticipated the Trumps of future times when he warned that “Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.”
When we celebrate the birth of the nation that Paine imagined, it is right to recognize the courage of all those who now resist Donald Trump. This resistance takes many forms. But surely the advocates for a constitutional remedy to a constitutional crisis deserve special mention on this July 4, as we recall the leap of faith that shook 13 colonies loose from the grip of King George and the British East India Company.
Because the Constitution of the United States was framed with a system of checks and balances that allows the US House of Representatives to impeach a president who serves with reckless disregard for the rule of law (and whose actions mark him as “the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions”), and because that same Constitution allows for the Senate to try to remove such a president, the way forward is clear on this July 4th. The tools of peaceful and practical assertion of the democratic ideal are at the ready. The mechanisms of accountability are in place. They need only be activated by those who recognize a constitutional duty to that extends beyond partisanship and ideology.
Of course, House Speaker Paul Ryan and the feudalists with whom he caucuses will do everything in their power to avert an accountability moment for the “elected monarchy” to which they have chained their considerable ambitions.
So be it. There were Tories in Paine’s day. The pamphleteer dismissed them as we should today dismiss Republicans, and Democrats, who refuse to respect the constitutional charge to impeach and remove errant executives.
“THESE are the times that try men’s souls,” he wrote at the opening of his great Revolutionary War call to arms, The Crisis:
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.
Opposing Trump is righteous work. It cannot be delayed by the petty politics of those who put party above principle.
If July 4th matters as anything more than a summer holiday, then surely it should inspire us to answer the call that Tom Paine issued 241 years ago—“O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth!”—with the words “Impeach Trump!”