LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Reflections on the Declaration of Independence and what’s left to accomplish in the U.S.
This is not the hottest July I remember. Of course, last week when John and I were unloading a truckload of compost into a raised bed at 3 p.m., it felt pretty damn hot. But I remember Julys when my clothing stuck to me as soon as I walked out of the house, and the sun baked my shoes to the street.
As a teenager I went through a phase of wearing antique Victorian clothing or reproductions of them that I had made. I almost had a heatstroke one day in all those petticoats. At least I got to escape inside to air conditioning; I cannot imagine wearing those layers, day in and day out, before AC—especially in our humid hometown. I frequently say, if we had known how great air conditioning was going to be, we would have harnessed electricity 200 years earlier—maybe even 500 years. Discomfort can be a great motivator.
Our modern relationship with air conditioning required Nikola Tesla to develop the alternating current induction motor. Once that leap forward occurred, a young man named Willis Carrier developed a central air-conditioning system that would change the daily lives of many Americans, especially those of us living in the South or West. He unveiled his excitement for the public at the Rivoli Theatre in Times Square in 1925. Afterward, movie theatres quickly became associated with air conditioning and would advertise how cool it was inside on colorful banners and signs. One of my favorite pictures of the now defunct Bailey Theatre on Front Street is exactly that.
My mother spent a summer in Chicago with her aunt as a little girl. Not knowing how to entertain a child in the city during the heat, her aunt took her to the movies everyday. This was back when folks paid admission and just stayed as long as they wanted to watch features, newsreels, cartoons, shorts—whatever the theatre had prints of on hand. As an unintended consequence, my mother had an incredible and broad working knowledge of film up to 1954.
No matter how warm we might think it is, this is nothing compared to what life must have been like more than 240 years ago in Philadelphia. In a meeting hall in Philadelphia, delegates of the Second Continental Congress gathered. At any given time 50 or 60 men were present to discuss and debate the future of the colonies—to discuss us. Really, we are living the consequences of that meeting. They decided to move forward with a Declaration of Independence, essentially a declaration of war, to sever ties with one of the most powerful empires on Earth at the time.
Now, here we are, still reading their words, still arguing about their meaning. The world has changed dramatically since the late 1700s, yet, still, we look to those words for guidance.
Or has the world really changed?
Here are a few grievances cited as reasons to sever relations with England:
“He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
“ He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
“He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
“He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
“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, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
“He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.
“He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
“He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.
“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.
“He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation.
“For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us.
“For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States.
“For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world.
“For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.
“For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury.
“For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences.
“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.
“He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
“He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
“He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
“He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.”
That’s not all; there is more. But it is interesting to see the grievances enumerated. Many of us have grown up with a nice, packaged idea of the American Revolution—an abbreviated idea of events, such as the Stamp Act, The Boston Tea Party then Lexington and Concord, or in our neck of the woods, Moore’s Creek Bridge. Many complaints we know because they fit into neat packages, easy to hand out in our American mythology: taxation without representation, cutting off trade, no trial by jury, etc. When looking at the complaints, the are not small matters. Forced to house soldiers who were not constrained by any rule of law? Transporting people for trial elsewhere? Calling the legislature into session in a time and location they cannot reasonably attend—thereby making it impossible for representation to be part of government? Waging war against your own colonies and subjects? That’s pretty much a point of no return.
Still, there were many loyal to The Crown, convinced these issues could be mediated. The breakup was not made in haste, with a rush of words uttered in anger that could not be retracted. They carefully were thought out, debated and argued in a stifling room, filled with men of all sorts of temperaments. Somehow, they found enough agreement in the complaints and arguments to affix signatures and, thereby, their fates to the document.
Now 240 years later, we sit in our cool, comfortable homes and read of them, barely noticing their names beyond the stars: Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Hancock. Everyone else is a glossy footnote because history is perceived in simplistic terms rather than as the messy, chaotic process of living and dying we still experience everyday. It’s a hell of an experiment we’ve got going here. No longer is our fate decided by a shadowy figure across the sea. Rather, we are grappling with the realities of domestic rule of law. We sabotage the very entities we create in our own self-interest. We have proven time and time again in the last 200-plus years that we are incredibly human and therefore not only fallible, but short sighted and selfish.
The mid-point in the year is frequently a time of reflection and evaluation for me. What have I accomplished? What is left to do? What do I need to work on? Maybe this year, when we celebrate our independence, we could take a moment to ask ourselves questions about our country—because, friends, we have a lot of work to do to fulfill the promises made all those years ago. Too many children in this country are drinking poisoned water; too many adults can’t read; too many people are unable to provide for their families within the confines of the legal system. We have questions to ask because it’s no longer a great looming shadow across the sea that we have to confront—we must confront ourselves.
Where do we want this country to be in the next 240 years?