Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Fourth of July!

Happy Independence Day to everyone! It's a great day to be an American.

I had intended to send you all to a TNR column I have out today, a little Fourth of July tribute to politicians, and this is going to be a companion to that one. But when I went over there to see if my thing had posted, I saw that it was...but also up was a Fourth of July essay by the great historian of the revolution and early America, Gordon Wood. Yeah, I'm not going to be able to compete with that, am I? Oh well. Read Wood; he's always excellent.

Wood's essay mentions the pursuit of happiness, that odd-sounding inclusion of Jefferson's. I've talked about this in depth before: I subscribe to Hannah Arendt's interpretation that "pursuit of happiness" can be read as an ambiguity straddling between private happiness and public happiness. The former is self-interest, and the right to find self-fulfillment in whatever we each, individually want to do; the latter is the fulfillment that we can find in collectively organizing our lives through political action. It's pretty clear that both of these themes were very much part of the American Revolution. In my view, the Constitution was very much an effort to combine both of them, the liberal and the republican ideas of politics.

What this all means is that from birth 235 years ago, and from rebirths again and again since then, the United States has been a nation conceived not only in liberty, but in politics; it's not only a nation dedicated to a proposition, but to acting on that proposition, to working it out in all its complexity and practical choices. Which is why during one of those rebirths Lincoln ends, quite rightly, with his famous invocation of "government of the people, by the people, for the people."

Of and by, not just for. And of course in the United States there are only the people; there is no aristocracy, no Church, no Crown.

But all that Madison and the others in Philadelphia could do, in the very first rebirth, in the crisis of the new republic, was to provide a structure that Madison hoped (in my view) would yield government of and by the people.

Whether it works or not is, when it comes down to it, up to us. Some of that "us" needs to hold political office, and that's what my TNR column is about. But in this post, I want to celebrate everyone else, because we're needed too, or else it's not of the people and by the people.

So on the Fourth of July, we properly celebrate everyone who has involved themselves in politics. Those who have walked precincts, and those who have attended local government city council meetings; those who have given money to candidates and groups, and those who have founded their own groups; those who talk to their neighbors and those who have blogged or commented on blogs; those who have worked the phone banks, and those who have written letters to their elected representatives. We properly celebrate the people who make their careers in politics, for whatever motives: partisan campaign and governing professionals, and nonpartisan civil servants. We properly celebrate the little old ladies (and those who aren't little old ladies!) who administer elections in all those precincts on election day. We properly celebrate party officials and staff.

We properly celebrate reporters and editors, because without information a healthy politics isn't really possible. We properly celebrate teachers, because citizens cannot be real, active citizens without education.

Of course, we do plenty of "private happiness" on the Fourth of July, and rightly so. We also quite properly remember our military as military, and not (just) as a particular form of government workers. But the United States is and has always been a particularly political nation, and so I urge everyone not to stop with private happiness, and not to turn a national holiday into a celebration of (only) the troops. Today, remember to celebrate politics, and the Americans who truly fulfill the the best ideals of the nation by engaging in politics -- by participating, in ways large and small, in collective self-determination.

And once again, Happy Independence Day!


  1. Great post, thank you for sharing that. :)

  2. Reading this, near the end of Woods' essay:

    "We Americans were a state before we were a nation, and much of our history has been an effort to define that nationality."

    I remembered this, written by Robert Frost:

    "The Gift Outright"

    The land was ours before we were the land's.
    She was our land more than a hundred years
    Before we were her people. She was ours
    in Massachusetts, in Virginia,
    But we were England's still, colonial,
    Possessing what we were unpossessed by,
    Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
    Something we were withholding made us weak
    Until we found out that it was ourselves
    We were withholding from our land of living,
    And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
    Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
    (The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
    To the land vaguely realizing westward,
    But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
    Such as it was, such as it would become.


    Elsewhere, I have read that the "many deeds of war" were, for Frost, the Civil War...

  3. doc -- the same line brought the same thought to me. I've been in a classroom where fellow students disdained the poem as excluding Native Americans or even anyone of non-English descent from America. But I read it the other way: as affirming that we all build, and choose, Americanness, and therefore, though there are people who have lived here longer and shorter periods of time, there aren't people who are more American because their ancestors came from certain places at certain times. (No, not Native Americans, either, insofar as we mean America as a political unit.) People always think they've understood Frost after one reading, but they're rarely correct about that.

    Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go read Molly's Pilgrim ....

    Oh, also: we deserve to be celebrated just for commenting on blogs? Cool.

  4. Today, remember to celebrate politics,

    Worth remembering that idiot─ôs is the Greek word for someone interested only in his own affairs, and the origin of the English word 'idiot'.

    Self-government is hard work. Not doing it is the easy, lazy way out.


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