Thursday, July 4, 2024

Some Thoughts on July 4

July 4 is when Americans celebrate the Declaration of Independence, even though they know very little about it.

In the weeks leading up to July 4, 1776, white European or European-derived men met together in Philadelphia to figure out a system of government that, it must be admitted even by its critics, had not been seen before in Europe, Asia, or Africa.

One characteristic of this system of government is that, the Founding Fathers claimed, it was based on the laws of nature. Thomas Jefferson was particularly clear on this point. Democracy is essential for a healthy nation. Jefferson pointed out that, in Europe, many centuries of inbreeding (though he did not use this term) had produced a nobility and royalty that consisted of defective people. In other words, we would say today, the scum rises to the top. Jefferson was personally acquainted with at least a dozen European rulers who were mentally and physically defective. The fresh water of democracy must be allowed in to flush out defective rulers. Not necessarily all of them, but most of them, by putting them in competition with the superior men (they still ignored women) who worked their way up from the middle and perhaps even lower class. This was almost a century before Darwin and natural selection, but the rudimentary idea of natural selection was well understood by almost everyone: rulership by the superior white men who had proved their superiority, not just inherited it.

But in other fundamental ways the Declaration was profoundly flawed. One of these ways was that the Founding Fathers pretended that they got their ideas from European philosophers. To them, the Native Americans were just savages who had essentially no organized government. However, it was clear to them, though they rarely admitted it, that the kind of government they wanted to create was already in existence among Native American tribes, who made their decisions based on (as close as they could get to) consensus among the villages that made up the tribes or even entire coalitions like the Iroquois Confederacy. Jefferson and Franklin admitted it in writing.

The Founding Fathers created a form of government that was new to whites, but already existed among Natives. But it started with a strong momentum of violent racism which we are, even today, trying to eliminate.

Another major flaw is that the system is more fragile than we normally admit. When someone asked Franklin whether America would have a democracy or a kingdom, Franklin answered, “a democracy, if you can keep it.” Today, about half of Americans are worried that the other half will support a presidential candidate who is poised to destroy constitutional democracy. Trump will not recognize the legitimacy of any election—even before it has occurred—that does not choose him as its winner.

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