Editorial: Remembering Revolution on the 4th

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday July 03, 2007

Not in my own youth, but in the Victorian novels I read as a child, it was the custom for Americans at their Fourth of July picnics to read aloud the Declaration of Independence. In the mid and late 19th century the American revolution was still part of living memory. The older folks at the picnics were still able to summon up the tremendous excitement with which their grandparents and great-grandparents seized their destinies and started a new kind of country in a still-wild place.  

These days the 4th is for most Americans just one more holiday, one more reason to waste gasoline driving long distances to play. But for many of us daily conversations, not just on the 4th, now quickly turn to the parlous state of world and national affairs. There’s a perception that there’s a profound crisis in the American system of government, with the most recent disturbing example being Vice President Cheney’s clear desire to go it alone with no regard for law or Congress. In fact, what many people see these days might be described in the language of the Declaration: “.. repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.” Under the circumstances, reading the Declaration of Independence can be reassuring: It’s happened before, Americans dealt with it, and they can deal with it again, without a bloody war this time around, we hope.  

Many passages from the Declaration resonate in the present situation, especially the allegations against George III of England which are easily applicable to the current George and his buddy Dick Cheney: 

“He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” Health care reform, environmental protection ... many examples come to mind. 

“He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither...” e.g. the immigration bill stalemate. 

“He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures....He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.” The national legislature isn’t blameless here, with their quick rubber-stamping of the Iraq invasion, but now they’re recanting, and the executive branch should follow their lead. 

“For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments...For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.” Sounds like Bush’s attempts to isolate himself from laws passed by Congress with his “signing statements,” or Cheney’s invocation of his own perverted interpretation of executive privilege, doesn’t it?  

So, in the words of Russian revolutionaries, what is to be done? Our Declaration advises that “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.. But when a long train of abuses and usurpation ....evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government....” Stirring words, attractive logic.  

Our e-mail these days is full of heartfelt pleas to jump on the impeachment bandwagon, and it’s tempting. All kinds of normally sensible people like Maxine Waters are now endorsing some kind of impeachment strategy. The best plan would seem to be Attorney General Alberto Gonzales first, then Cheney, saving Bush for last, since it would do no good to get rid of the president only to have the even worse vice president in his stead.  

If justice were the sole criterion, all three of these officials and more deserve to be thrown out of office, using the constitutional mechanism which the founders provided as a substitute for bloody revolution. But practical considerations point to more conventional remedies.  

There is, after all, an election coming up. Admittedly, the candidates now leading the pack in both parties seem tepid at best. Recent revelations of how John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson colluded with the worst excesses of the CIA during their presidencies make the Democrats look almost as bad as the Republicans from a historical perspective. But the current situation is the worst ever, without even any constitutional fig leaf thrown over the Bush-Cheney administration’s naked usurpation of power. On the other hand, no candidate in either major party, even Giuliani, even (god forbid) Lieberman as an independent, seems to be quite as villainous as the people now in office. And there really isn’t time to mount a three-impeachment prosecution before the next election. Even though all three villains and many of their cronies richly deserve to be punished by impeachment, prudence, in the words of the Declaration, seems to dictate at this point that we should ride out the next electoral cycle and hope that things will change.  

And if they don’t, of course, revolution is always an alternative. Just to keep in practice, why don’t we all revive the custom of organizing a stirring reading of the Declaration of Independence at our Fourth of July barbecues this year? A copy of the document, a genuine thriller, is provided in this issue for your convenience.