Celebrate the patriotism of dissent

July 04, 2006|By GREGORY D. FOSTER

WASHINGTON -- Let's take note of what Independence Day has become and what it should mean.

To the faux-patriotic pomp and bombast we have come to associate with this day of celebration-cum-commemoration have now been added the devil's ingredients of indefinite post-9/11 security paranoia and militaristic arrogance.

We have taken too much to heart, too unthinkingly, John Adams' vision for the day, described in a July 3, 1776 letter to his wife Abigail: "I am apt to believe that [Independence Day] will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival. ... It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shews [shows], games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more."

Sadly, we have ignored the vision expressed by Thomas Jefferson 50 years later. In his last letter before he and Adams died July 4, 1826, he declined an invitation to come to Washington to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, saying of the document and the day set aside to commemorate it: "May it be to the world, what I believe it will be ... the signal of arousing men to burst the chains ... and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form, which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. ... For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them."

With the measured reason often necessary to balance Adams' passion, Jefferson instructed us that Independence Day is a day for celebratory reflection. It is a day not for chest-thumping martial ardor and jingoism, but for honoring and giving renewed life to the ideas that made the Declaration of Independence what it is: an "expression of the American mind," the philosophical foundation for our idealized way of life and a beacon for those everywhere who aspire to govern themselves democratically.

Four score and seven years after the declaration, Abraham Lincoln offered reverential tribute at Gettysburg to the 7,500 soldiers who gave the last full measure of their devotion in a single battle of a profoundly divisive war that threatened to destroy the nation that America's founders had created.

Magnificently wrong in his modest judgment that the world would little note nor long remember what he said, Lincoln reminded all posterity of the declaration's central importance and meaning: that all human beings (undifferentiated by trait, origin, status, capability, belief, preference or practice) equally deserve to enjoy the inestimable rights - specified and unspecified - that nature (not government) universally bestows; that government - of, by and for the people - is formed for the very purpose of securing and preserving these rights; that where government, through its abuses and usurpations of power, denies those rights, a state of despotism exists; and that, faced with such tyranny, it is the right, indeed the duty, of the people to dissent against - even to overthrow (for justifiable reasons neither light nor transient) - the government in power.

So let us look beyond the cannon fire and pealing bells of "The 1812 Overture," the rousing tempo and stirring piccolo obbligato of "The Stars and Stripes Forever," the spectacle of exploding fireworks over the Washington Monument, the rhythmic cadences of ubiquitous marching bands, the visceral physiological stimulation of fighter-jet flyovers.

Let us instead reflect on the fact that this country's founders were patriots in the purest but most contrarian sense: dissidents who acted treasonously to rid themselves of despotic, yet legally constituted, government that abused its authority at the expense of its "subjects."

Let us reflect on the words of the American Revolution's spiritual voice, Thomas Paine, the same who spoke of summer soldiers and sunshine patriots who shrink from the service of their country in time of crisis. "It is the duty of the patriot," he said, "to protect his country from its government."

And let us reflect on the statement, often (if erroneously) attributed to Jefferson, that captures the true essence of Independence Day: "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism." This is a powerful sentiment that commands our eternal assent - today even more than in less-ambiguous times.

Gregory D. Foster is a professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces at the National Defense University in Washington. These views are his own. His e-mail is fosterg@ndu.edu.

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