The Fourth of July

Sunday, July 4, 2010

THE DECLARATION of Independence begins with soaring pronouncements on equality and human rights, then proceeds to a somewhat less uplifting list of grievances directed against the faraway king of England and expressing a level of outrage that seems a little quaint today, given the horrors that so many of the world's governments have visited upon their people. On this Fourth of July, much of America seems to be in grievance mode again, with the complainants looking back to a golden age of limited government and sovereignty for the various states -- and with our liberties now seen as suddenly in peril from an overweening federal power.

In fact, the federal government has been lording it over us for quite a while -- since the nation's earliest days -- and with results that have, over several centuries, drawn little complaint, at least from Americans. These include the acquisition of the vast territories in the Louisiana Purchase, of Texas, of a huge chunk of Mexico, and of the Oregon Territory and Alaska. And of course there was all the government mapping and exploration that allowed this land to be divided among the newcomers sweeping across the continent, as well as the taking of rights of way for rails, roads, communication and other avenues of commerce.

"What made the American frontier experience unique," wrote Andro Linklater in a book published a few years ago ("The Fabric of America") "was not the freedom of the wilderness but the lines drawn in previously uncharted ground -- around claims, properties, states, and the republic itself. So far from being hostile to the individual, government made it possible for the individual to gain due reward for his or her enterprise."

Most Americans have benefited from this federal power for a couple of centuries now. It's a far from perfect instrument, but it is something we've created ourselves, and we have orderly processes for changing it whenever the people think it necessary. Moreover, there seems to have been a rough consensus over the years that federal power has done what governments are -- in the language of 1776 -- meant to do: secure for us certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For those who see it as a conspiracy rather than an elected government, be reassured: There is also an unalienable right to silliness.

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