Freedom in Union

July 04, 1995|By IRA STRAUS

MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE — Memphis, Tennessee. -- This Fourth of July we Americans will once again fill our minds with self-defeating slogans. We will glorify separation from Europe and from central power as if it were the essence of our freedom. We thus give, unwittingly, moral and intellectual support to the ''patriot'' militias, which would destroy our freedom in the name of defending it. And we damage our country's ability to understand what is really good and great in itself.

The habit of treating Independence as the basis of our national identity is not just a mistake. We do our country real harm with it. The true historical basis of America lay in the Anglo-European traditions that settlers brought here and developed further.

Our political heritage consists of a cumulative series of constitutional achievements: the Magna Carta, the growth of parliamentary power and representative government, the English constitutional settlement of the 1690s, the American colonial charters and assemblies, the state constitutions, the federal union and Constitution of 1787.

The Founding Fathers themselves thought of the Constitution as their proudest achievement, not Independence. They came to Independence with reluctance, as a regrettable necessity, not an inherent virtue. The reason for Independence was not that it was the same thing as freedom, but that the British had failed to adopt their plans for reform of the empire along equitable lines, and had instead tried taxation without representation as a way of getting America to share the burdens of the French and Indian War.

The false equation of our freedom with our independence has been the inspiration for our country's most tragic mistakes: the secessions of 1860, the Europhobic isolationism, the sitting out of the Allied cause in 1914 and 1939 until it was nearly too late to save freedom at all.

What inspired our greatest successes at home and abroad -- the Constitution, the Marshall Plan, NATO, support for European unification -- was not independence, it was federalism. Basing themselves on the centuries-long progression of construction of representative institutions, American leaders saw new vistas opening up for even greater construction, and had the courage to act on their vision.

Wars for independence have been a dime a dozen. Most of them have resulted in governments worse than the ones they replaced. What was special in America is not that we separated, but that we built a Union among the new states and invented a new efficient form of federalism with the Constitution of 1787. This is what enabled democracy to work well in America. It reversed the 2,000-year-old assumption that democracy could function only in a small turbulent city-state, and turned democracy from a term of reprobation into the political ideal of the world.

Freedom-in-union, not Freedom-in-separation, has been the formula for the success of our freedom. As the world grows smaller, we need more of the spirit of Freedom-in-union. Some of the earliest American celebrations of the Fourth of July were celebrations of the Union as much as of Independence. That is a tradition worth reviving. Let us celebrate only what is right in the Fourth of July.

Ira Straus teaches international studies at Rhodes College. He is U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO.

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