The Fourth of July is called Independence Day with good reason. Our Founders were willing to die for the right to control their own lives. They were not seeking war with the most powerful nation on Earth in 1776. They were not attempting to dictate to King George III how the English should behave. They sought only free will for America to determine its own course. In these troubled times we are now navigating, perhaps a look back to America’s early struggles might be helpful.
We may wish we could ask George Washington or James Madison for advice. But the best we can do is read about past heroes’ courage and sacrifice and try to learn lessons that will help us during our own battles.
For example, one of my heroines is Frances (Mad Fanny) Wright, that fighter for women’s rights, Black rights and freedom from religion who spoke in New Harmony, Indiana on July 04, 1828. Oh, how much we could learn if we could speak with her now. However, we do know she dedicated her life and fortune to eliminating slavery. Had she lived only nine more years she would have experienced the start of the Great Struggle that ended a whole race of Americans’ loss of control over their lives.
Control, isn’t that what matters most to all of us? The visceral need for the freedom to make our own choices is why on that day we now call Patriots Day, April 19, 1775, at Lexington and Concord those suppressed colonists “Fired the shots heard ’round the world”. And in our current political climate when Americans get embroiled in political discussions it sometimes feels as if both sides have muskets at the ready.
When I find myself surrounded by the competing political mini balls, I try to remember this is nothing new. Over the two or three hundred thousand years we Homo sapiens have been around, after air, water, food, shelter and procreation we seem to have two more basic needs: the control of our own lives; and the strong desire to control the thoughts and behavior of others. These two related but directly oppositional impulses apply to groups of people and nations as well. You know, we will each defend to the death the right of our political adversaries to agree with us. But conversations can rapidly turn to confrontation if someone comes down on what we believe is the wrong side of such issues as religion, race, global warming, immigration, war and peace, who should or should not be President of the United States and a thousand other subjects.
The right to control our own lives makes us smile. The desire to control other peoples’ lives can lead to such things as vitriolic statements and sometimes even vicious interchanges in our public and interpersonal interactions. Sometimes today’s discussions about control may center on sexual assault and the “Me Too Movement” or hate crimes and “Black Lives Matter”.
Rape is a terrible crime not because of forced sexual contact, billions of humans have had sexual relations. No, rape is a terrible crime because of the victims’ loss of their right to decide for themselves whether and with whom to have sex. The fear, terror, anger and humiliation caused by losing total control of one’s body is incalculable. It is in itself a life sentence that can lead to permanent bitterness toward and distrust of our legal system much as lynchings can result in an entire race of people living with constant concern about their freedom.
Lynchings, such as those that were committed on the Posey County, Indiana courthouse lawn on October 12, 1878, are a collective denial of another’s right to control their own destiny. And it is not just the victims who lose, but even those who deny justice to others may reap the whirlwinds of retaliation and political correctness.
Wars of aggression, not constitutionally authorized wars for national defense, are our country’s intentional denial of another country’s or people’s right to independently determine their own destiny. One of the main causes of our country’s post-WWII denials of the right of other countries to control their own lives are wars instigated by independent executive action without congressional authorization.
We can each quickly cite evidence of such wars based on false premises and rash executive action. President Lyndon Johnson used the shaky premise of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution to get us hopelessly embroiled in Vietnam. President George W. Bush relied on false intelligence reports that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was involved in 9/11. President Bush then precipitously led us into what appears to be an endless and pointless war in the Middle East. As Pete Seeger’s song “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” asks us, “When will we ever learn?, when will we ever learn?”
Our Founders’ wisdom of placing the authority to wage war in congress is that such a procedure keeps all of our citizens more closely involved in these grave decisions. And, it requires much more careful deliberation when congress is involved. Also, when we eliminated the military draft, we turned from a citizen minute man type military to a professional and less ecumenical type force. To make the tragic choice to go to war all Americans should feel the direct cost. It is too easy to hire others to impose our will on the powerless. With a professional standing military our armed forces never stand down. And the temptation for any of our presidents to play with these awesome powers as if they were toy soldiers is too intoxicating for most to resist. Of course, the draft is one of the ultimate impositions of loss of control. Our country should only use it when our national survival is truly at issue. And then it should include all able-bodied adult citizens. Not everyone needs to serve on the front lines but everyone can serve somehow.
One of the good things we received from one of our British cousins were John Locke’s Enlightenment philosophies as highlighted by the doctrine of separation of governmental powers. Our independence as a nation has survived great trauma due in large part to our three separate and equal political powers: Executive; Legislative; and, Judicial. We forget this at our peril. Control of our lives is an inherent need for individuals and nations and, if lost, can lead to long-term bad effects for both the invaders and the invaded. Freedom of choice is essential to our personal and national well-being. Our Founders enshrined that opportunity for us in our Constitution and that is what we celebrate on Independence Day as we struggle to afford that right to all of our citizens.