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America's long and glorious celebration of grievance

Francis Wilkinson, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Op Eds

If you're weary of America's politics of grievance, fed up with its constant churning of resentment and bitterness, then the Fourth of July might be just the festive reprieve you need. Provided you don't pay too close attention to the holiday's bill of particulars.

Over the course of more than two centuries, America has buried most of the Declaration of Independence beneath a dense canopy of aspiration.

The part we celebrate -- the rhetorical crown rising to the sky -- is the Declaration's preamble. And not even the entire preamble. It's really just the second paragraph, in which Thomas Jefferson & Co. assert which truths they hold to be self-evident. To be more precise, it's not even a whole paragraph -- just a bit at the top about human equality, divine endowments and the American trifecta of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

That exceedingly brief patch of writing has earned centuries of praise. It inspires. It uplifts. It defines. In Jefferson's day it set a revolutionary standard of human dignity -- albeit an incongruous one given the cruelty-tiered classes of the new nation.

The Declaration's aspirational high lasts for a sentence or so. After that, the deluge.

The remainder, and by far the longest section, is a sour litany of complaint, a bitter protest against the "long train of abuses and usurpations" inflicted by a king prone to "repeated injuries" against his long-suffering (and loudly caterwauling) American subjects.

Whether protesting police brutality and centuries of racial injustice, or whining and venting via Twitter from the Oval Office, contemporary Americans have nothing on the seething colonists. They raged against a foe who "plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people." The Declaration rails against mercenaries dispatched by the king "to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages."

There was plenty of barbarism about. The Declaration's main author, whose able mind was free to roam while his slaves took care of business, grew so spiteful of Britain that he soon abandoned his very English taste for Madeira and Port, proving a true patriot could survive on fine Bordeaux.

 

It never ceases to amaze that such fortune-favored hands were so tightly clenched. Those who signed risked death, and soon inflicted it. Yet despite their deep anger, and the high stakes, their grievances faded quickly. It wasn't long before fireworks and parades supplanted abuses and usurpations as the stuff of the 4th. At the Declaration's jubilee, in 1826, there was an outpouring of self-congratulation but very little in the way of outrage. In our own time, the royal target of the founders' rage has been reduced to comic relief.

Now all that remains is the heart of the matter: a concise moral vision, and a spur to reimagining the human condition. The vision laid the basis for a more equitable nation. The spur is a reminder that the leveling of human value that the founders declared self-evident is not evident at all -- at least not in the ways and means of the modern nation.

The vision and the spur are also what distinguish protests against injustice from rancid complaints from the White House. The former seek to realize the self-evident truth. The latter are solipsism. Only one grievance is anchored in the higher calling that, for many Americans, is all we remember of the Declaration:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

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