Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Column 105 – Independence Day

Happy Independence Day. Yes, Independence Day – that's the name of the holiday, not "the Fourth of July." July 4 is the date of the Declaration of Independence, but a lot of things happened on July 4 and even on July 4, 1776, so I think it's important to remember what we're celebrating today, and that is Independence.


History has somewhat clouded the significance of that date. On July 4, 1776, the thirteen colonies of Great Britain in North America declared themselves independent. No one had ever done that before. Countries had been won and lost in wars, traded as colonies, and various dukes, earls, kings, princes, and queens had formed alliances to create new countries, but never before in history had a country declared itself independent. Naturally that declaration then had to be fulfilled, in this case by a bloody war, but that war is not what we celebrate today. The Revolutionary War is generally considered to have ended when Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown on October 19, 1781 – five and a half years later, and that surrender was the fulfillment of the possibility declared in 1776.


The Declaration of Independence stands as one of the seminal documents of Western Civilization both because of its irrefutable logic – that all people are created equal, that they share "inalienable rights," and that governments exist to protect those rights – and because of what it inspired in other nations, notably France. But just as the possibility of independence had to be fulfilled through defeating the British, the fact of independence had to be fulfilled through the creation of a system of government that would protect it – that also took time and it was not until the adoption of the US Constitution in 1789 that we had that government.


This was also very significant. It was, to my knowledge, the first time in the history of the world that an intentionally secular government was created with an ironclad prohibition against the institution of a state religion and the guarantee not only of freedom of religion, but freedom from religion if one chose not to believe or not to affiliate. Again, 200+ years has clouded the magnificence of the creation of a constitutional democracy and its importance to world history. John Adams, paraphrasing the English political theorist James Harrington, called this "a government of laws and not of men," a phrase that has held its power to this day.


And yet democracy is only as strong as our will to uphold and defend it. Today officials as high as the President and Vice President seem to be trying for a government of men who are above the law, and this has filtered through to the point where it seems that some people think we have a "government of opinion, and not of laws." In the debate over beach access we've heard what one attorney characterized as "more bad and false law than I could have imagined." Many in this debate seem to think that because they believe something to be the law, it must be the law and how dare anyone suggest otherwise? Fortunately four of our five Trustees are intelligent enough to see through this bombast and have moved toward a very reasonable stopgap compromise and to get a qualified opinion on the points of law as a basis for moving forward.


Another misconception about constitutional democracy is that the majority always rules. While this is ultimately true – a sufficient majority can change the constitution – it is not true in the interim. Until the law is changed, the law always rules in "a government of laws and not of men." It doesn't matter if everyone in Incline wants our beaches to remain private if the law says they must be opened to others. Don't like it? Get the law changed, but don't accuse those charged with supporting the law of being deaf to the majority – they hear the majority, if such it is, but the law speaks louder – again, I applaud the Trustees who voted to hear what the law has to say and wonder about the one who is so certain he is right without qualified rulings on the law.


The point is this, folks. Independence is a gift hard-won. Jefferson said "The tree of liberty must be refreshed, from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants." You've heard it said that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. It is my sincere hope that, on this Independence Day, we redouble our vigilance against those, whether in Washington or in Incline, who would put themselves and their opinions ahead of the law.

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