Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

David Bromwich Headshot

The Mirror of 1776

Posted: Updated:

"Things are in the saddle,/ And ride mankind." The words were written by Emerson in a poem about the Mexican war--the first crisis that took America out of itself. The second such crisis was the Spanish-American war, and we are now in the middle of the third. The extent of our empire would have shocked the signers of the Declaration of Independence. On July 4, 1776 they sought to establish their right to live within themselves; to affirm the integrity of a republic as something separate from an aggrandizing power that aimed at subjugation.

Things are in the saddle in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Guantanamo. There is talk of Iran, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa.

Montesquieu observed of the elite of Augustan Rome that

virtue seemed to forget itself in order to surpass itself, and it made men admire as divine an action that at first could not be approved because it was atrocious.

Washington had in mind a similar warning against vainglory when he spoke the words of his Farewell Address on the infinite mischief of foreign entanglements. There may, he saw, be a wrong as well as a right love of one's country. The wrong overpowers by a loyalty that takes us out of ourselves. The right leads back to constitutional integrity and self-sufficiency.

We think of the Fourth of July as a holiday of actions. Hence the fireworks, the military music, the memories of heroic deeds. But to get the order of things right, we ought to commemorate not the War of Independence but (before it) the setting down of first principles. The Declaration was a special way of meaning what one said. It pledged its signers to follow a path of belief into action until their energy was spent.

Why did they publish their reasons? "A decent respect to the opinions of mankind" required that a body of men, situated as they were, "should declare the causes which impel them to the separation." Everyone knows the "certain unalienable rights" by which American liberty was here defined. The words about rights are a kind of mirror, in which we trace the true or distorted image we have made of our freedom since then. But the Declaration also speaks of the wrongs of the king, which impelled the signers to declare their separation.

They hold George III answerable, they say, for his crimes against the common rights of citizens:

For depriving us, in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:--For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offenses.

What happens today when we look in this part of the mirror? Have other parties conspired to deprive Americans of trial by jury, or do we ourselves now deprive others?

A mark of the Old World, all the founders agreed, was the addiction of monarchs to war as a means of commercial and imperial expansion. In the case of Britain, the surest proof of the corruption of the wars was the lack of trust by the government in the loyalty of British subjects to fight them. They paid contractors, or as they called them, mercenaries:

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun.

Yet the wars instigated by the king were not merely wars of an empire against rebellious colonies. They could also take the form of civil wars, started up by the empire to extend its control:

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us.

And here again the mirror darkens; we seem to witness ourselves in a second-sight procession. For what is the doctrine of counterinsurgency but a program for exciting insurrections in other countries--countries whose existing order we find it to our advantage to disturb or overthrow?

To explain the difference between the picture of America in 1776 and the picture we see today would require political courage as well as imagination. We hardly have a leader or leaders in possession of such qualities; but when they do come, it is clear what knowledge they will have to impart. An empire and a republic cannot coexist. So long as they try to, the empire will ride the republic. Life to one is death to the other. The founders said so to George III in other words, but the thought is simple. No nation is an exception for the same reason that no man is an island.

Declare Independence from War video