Six All-American Readings For The Fourth Of July

Photo: bigmaud.com

Photo: bigmaud.com

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July 22, 2016

Allan Stevo

On the anniversary of America’s Independence, there are two texts I always find myself returning to that capture the essence of what the core spirit of America is at the time of its founding and two texts, that I say truly celebrate the Spirit of 1776. The Spirit of 1776 is a very different spirit than the Spirit of 1787.

1787 is a year to celebrate the Constitution and the state. The Spirit of 1776 is practically the opposite, it is a spirit of the victory of the individual over the state. This is a unique spirit present in the American experiment not present elsewhere in the same way and in my experience is a quintessential ingredient in what makes America special.

There are many American holidays for celebrating the state

  • Constitution Day – when a group of people known as the federalists overcame the tremendous opposition to a strong central government and put into place a document that empowered a government that puts so many limits on individual freedom. A celebration of the Constitution is a celebration of the state (ostensibly over the individual though it is a state that takes steps to protect individual freedom), a state that is in so many way contrary to the American Revolution, and the founding document that empowered that state to trample so many of the ideals of 1776.
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  • Presidents’ Day – this is the day we celebrate highly fallible men as if they were infallible kings, descended from God. American presidents have with few exceptions grown government and become increasingly tyrannical in a country that was founded out of a revolution meant to escape a despot. Not only is this a celebration of the state, it is a celebration of concentrated power in the structure of the state.
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  • Lincoln’s Birthday – The Civil War was not a civil war. South Carolina did not want to wrestle control of Washington DC from the federal government and take over the administration of the country. It was a war of independence, or a war of secession, just like the America Revolutionary War. In both instances a group of people wanted to walk away from a central government that it did not feel represented it any longer. Lincoln preserved the Union (the Spirit of 1787) that was created by the Constitution, while tyrannically thrashing the ideals behind the Spirit of 1776, such as the ability of a people to peacefully dissolve temporary political ties with other people. To Lincoln’s benefit, this inveterate racist (Yes, Lincoln was tremendously racist in public speeches, writings, and public and private correspondences), finally saw to it that the slaves were freed. Because he did that, this period in American history has been whitewashed by ninnies as being about slavery. If you are intellectually honest and ever find yourself telling people that this period in American history was about slavery, I suggest you immediately silence yourself and seek out broader reading material on this subject matter. Slavery was an aspect of this time, and was certainly not the cause for war. The Civil War was an incredibly complex time in American history. The hagiography of Lincoln is an important touchstone in American history that identifies who asks themselves the intellectually tough questions and who merely finds comfort in pretending that they know what they are talking about. Born in Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, this is a particularly evident trend in American thought and letters for me.
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  • Flag Day – Flags represent states not people. Flag Day is a celebration of the state. It is a celebration of the Spirit of 1787 and not the celebration of the Spirit of 1776. As much as I appreciate shows of patriotism and national pride, it would please me beyond belief if July 4 became the day that no American Flag was flown. Flying the American Flag on July 4 is inconsistent with the Spirit of 1776, when the great victory of the individual over the state was in vogue. And while I love the text and tune of “The Star Spangled Banner,” it would please me beyond belief if this song were never played on July 4. This song is about the War of 1812, a war in which the American government acted as aggressors and got their butts kicked to the extent that the White House was burned to the ground before the British graciously stopped kicking our punk butts up and down the Eastern seaboard. One of the reasons the insightful anti-federalists did not want a Constitution was because centralized power in a pigheaded president would lead the people into senseless wars that the pigheaded president was certain were necessary. The War of 1812 is a particularly sad part of American history. The fact that such a foolish war could take place demonstrates much power already at that early stage taken from the individual and put in the hands of the state. That brings me to the next two American holidays.
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  • Memorial Day & Veterans Day – are the celebrations of the soldiers of the federal government. War is the health of the state. The military draft, the concept that the individual is subservient to the state, is anathema to a free people, as is a standing army. There are more holidays that celebrate the Spirit of 1787 much more than the Spirit of 1776. Am I grateful to hail from the world super power rather than some vassal state? Absolutely. Do I value these holidays? I certainly do. I also recognize they are more consistent (like many other American holidays) with the Spirit of 1787 than the Spirit of 1776, a time and spirit that I like to recall on the unique and single holiday we have for recalling it, July 4, on and around which I like to read the following, which I hope you will too:

 

1.) The First Draft of the Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson, a man of great intellectual consistency in many ways, wrote a document in 1776 that so brilliantly elucidated the principles of the victory of the individual over the state. That was the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. In it Thomas Jefferson writes that all men are created equal. He shortly thereafter announces that in America there will be no slavery henceforth. Thomas Jefferson stood before his peers in a national body in 1776 and insisted that if America were to be a free place that slavery would have to be no more. What a tremendous idea. How revolutionary and consistent.

Unfortunately, like all writing created by a committee, the document was significantly watered down and, well we ended up with the better polished, not so totally awful document we now have – the third draft of the Declaration of Independence, but far inferior to the first draft. This might be the lone exception I know of to Hemingway’s truism “the first draft of anything is shit.”

In addition to the beautiful first draft, every year, I read:

2.) On Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

The text inspired Gandhi and MLK and was written by a total gadfly of a man. If there were one text that I had to pick as the best work of American letters ever given to the world it would be this one – intellectually challenging, civically minded. Thoreau embodies the Spirit of 1776 as he writes it. I cannot read a single page without either underlining a concept or breaking off to write about one of his ideas. This essay, a few dozen pages long is brilliant and can be read in just one or two hours. If you’ve never read it, or haven’t read it lately, please pick it up and channel the Spirit of 1776 as seen by this challenging and inspiring thinker.

Why Stopping There Is Not Enough

There is an economic component to what happened in 1776. As the history teacher in the movie Dazed and Confused states before they let out for the summer of 1976, “Okay guys, one more thing, this summer when you’re being inundated with all this American bicentennial Fourth Of July brouhaha, don’t forget what you’re celebrating, and that’s the fact that a bunch of slave-owning, aristocratic, white males didn’t want to pay their taxes.” There was undoubtedly an economic component to 1776 that was indivisible from the overarching concept of freedom.

Personal freedom and economic freedom are indivisible concepts. Some on the American political right will tout economic freedom while undermining personal freedom, some on the American political left will tout personal freedom while limiting economic freedom. Both people get it wrong.

Many of the founding fathers got it right. Freedom is one. Intrusions on freedom are intrusions on freedom. A free country must not have intrusions on the economic freedom of an individual or the personal freedom. July 4th is a holiday to celebrate this unique victory of the individual over the state that is at the essence of America.

Europe has run a different experiment – one of democratic socialism in small ethno-centric nation states. This has been largely successful for Europeans where they love their lagging, restrictive economies and watered down concepts of what a free individual is. America through it all for the entire world has been able to be a beacon of freedom in the world – not through television or McDonald’s or politics or being the world’s policeman. Those are mediocre things. America has a few points of individual freedom that simply make it a much more free place in a lot of respects. It is far from perfect, but still very good.

When speaking to friends, clients, or even strangers who are at a loss for what their proper next step is in life, I often identify with them what it is that makes them who they are. What the core values and behaviors are that make them unique. This is often where the greatest happiness and success is for most people. Leveraging those unique aspects tends to be the ideal for the individual.

In a similar way, it is often important to me to recall what exactly it is about America that is unique. America as a country composed of individuals is good at many things and mediocre at many more things.

There are a host of European countries that are better than America at military occupation as one example. They have been doing it longer and have a history of the cruelty it requires. There are a host of countries that are better at socialism, it speaks to the core of what those people truly desire – limited social mobility and limited worry because they can always be safely ensconced in the success or failures of the herd. There are countries that are better at religious extremism, while America has religious extremism, and it is a component of our culture, it is not that thing that we best excel at.

What America best excels at is the primacy of the individual over the state, the ability of the individual to have as much individual freedom as possible and as much personal freedom as possible. When America does exactly that we are pursuing the thing that culturally we excel at, which challenges the social organization we have by constantly innovating and pushing it to new limits, and it sets an example for the rest of the world of what good can come from human freedom. In that respect there are four more texts that are perfect reading for July 4, as a way to celebrate the Spirit of 1776, for they illustrate the economic freedom that is so easy to overlook and to loose sight of amidst the complicated world of technocrats and talking heads obfuscating very basic economic tenets to the point that the average person is left unable to have any input on the matter.

3.) Isaiah’s Job by Albert Jay Knock
speaks to the value of the remnant, the value of speaking to a small body of believers in a cause rather than the masses, the intelligentsia, or the decision makers. This is a truly inspirational essay.

4.) I, Pencil by Leonard E. Read
in a short essay speaks to the important interplay of economic factors that come into play simply to create a pencil. In it he tells of the beauty of that cooperation that occurs and how the world is far better off when that cooperation is left alone to spontaneously take place.

5.) Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt is such an amazing primer on economics. In little 3 and 4 page snippets, Hazlitt demystifies economics in about 200 pages. I hate to say that everyone should ever read one text, because we are never served as a society when we share the exact same reference points, because groupthink inevitably ensues. This text is so effective at demystifying economics, an intentionally and overly mystified topic, that it makes for such a good economics primer for anyone interested in the topic. If you have not read Hazlitt, you probably have little place talking about economics. He addresses simple and common fallacies based on a short one lesson introduction to economics that you can read in just a few minutes. If you are economically minded, or if you feel lacking on the topic of economics, please pick up a copy today.

6.) The Law by Frederic Bastiat
, a French parliamentarian of the 1800s who wrote so convincingly and so simply about freedom does such a good job of illustrating basic concepts of personal and economic freedom in one. This book is under 100 pages and like Hazlitt, the subject matter is handled in brief snippets that so effectively communicate and simplify.

After reading so much (at some periods in my life as much as a book a day) while constantly asking everyone I meet about their favorite books, seeking to constantly find reading that offered new insight and challenged both my opinion and established orthodoxy, there are tomes more I can recommend that get into the nitty gritty of discussions, but these texts here illustrate founding concepts of America freedom and point to the roots of the success of the American experiment with such tremendous simplicity and clarity. These are the texts I turn to during the week of July 4 to re-invigorate in me the Spirit of 1776.

What do you like to read or do at this time of year that re-invigorates the Spirit of 1776 in you ? What are you reading now? What are the most challenging and impactful books you’ve come across in recent times or over the course of your life? What would you like me to read ?

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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