It’s difficult to say what most Americans commemorate or celebrate on Independence Day nowadays. Many appear to focus on some vague notion of “America.” Others even take to jingoism equating the United States government with the very notion of “freedom.”
Lost in all of this is the fact that the Declaration of Independence — the document we’re supposed to remember today — is a document that promotes secession, rebellion, and what the British at the time regarded as treason.
The very first sentence of the Declaration of Independence lays it out. Sometimes, “it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another…”
The document then goes on to list in detail why 1776’s specific act of secession was justified and necessary for preserving the rights of the colonists.
By the 19th century, this philosophy of self-determination would become a foundational element of the ideology now known internationally as liberalism — or “classical liberalism” in the United States.
Not surprisingly, we find this idea in the later writings of liberals such as Ludwig von Mises who, writing in Vienna in 1927, concluded:
It must always be possible to shift the boundaries of the state if the will of the inhabitants of an area to attach themselves to a state other than the one to which they presently belong has made itself clearly known… [W]henever the inhabitants of a particular territory … make it known … that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time … their wishes are to be respected and complied with.
Mises, like Jefferson, understood that without this right of self-determination, there is no freedom.
Nevertheless, modern opponents of self-determination and secession will claim that secession cannot be tolerated because it is not “legal.”
This is scarcely relevant. After all, the colonial uprising against the King was not “legal,” and it hardly matters whether political victors consider any breakaway secession movements legal. Times and societies change, and nothing is forever or written in stone.
For Mises, secession must be tolerated for pragmatic reasons. It is “the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars.” But For Jefferson, as for his fellow secessionists, it was a moral imperative, whether “treasonous” or not.
For obvious reasons, government institutions have little motivation to emphasize the Declaration of Independence or the philosophy it represents. This would amount to the government undermining itself. Consequently, many have attempted to turn the Fourth of July into a holiday that embraces vague notions of celebrating “America.”
These ahistorical interpretations notwithstanding, Independence Day recalls resistance and a withdrawal of fealty to a hostile political power. We should not twist it into a celebration of our current rulers in Washington, the federal government, or the troops that work for and represent the federal government.
It should be a celebration against government and a reminder that Americans can once again walk away from tyranny, even if force of arms is required. Slavish displays of patriotism and loyalty to the state are inimical to the real meaning of the holiday.
It is also helpful to remember that armed conflict can be especially disastrous when motivated by the wrong ideas and the wrong ideologies. Who can say with confidence that if the US government were wiped away today, that it would not be replaced with something even worse? Under such circumstances, we must never abandon the important work of laying the foundations first for a revolution in ideas. Without a true respect for the freedoms outlined in the Declaration of Independence, political resistance is of little value. Moreover, in a society where true freedom is valued — and where a majority embraces true liberal ideals — violence will prove to be totally unnecessary. And this would be the best outcome of all.