Victor Nuovo: Loosing independence on the world
What happened in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776? On that day, or to be accurate, two days earlier, the delegates of 13 British colonies in North American, meeting in Philadelphia, declared their independence from Great Britain. The body of delegates that did this was the Continental Congress. It had been meeting on and off since 1774. It was created by the colonies to consider grievances against the colonial government of Great Britain and to seek redress for them from the British King and Parliament. The Continental Congress was not at first conceived as a government. However, the colonies had been at war with Britain since April 1775, and responsibility for waging it fell upon Congress. During the summer of 1776 it met to consider the question of separation of the colonies from Great Britain, and on the 2nd of July, it concluded its deliberations by declaring the colonies to be independent from the British crown, separate from Great Britain, yet of equal standing, that is, the colonies became 13 independent sovereign states. Two days later, on the 4th of July, “The Declaration of Independence” was adopted. It is the monument of the deed. But it is more than that, for the thoughts that it conveys were the very causes of the deed.
The British authorities regarded this deed an act of rebellion against lawful authority. The Congress disagreed. They regarded it as an altogether lawful act, sanctioned by nature and nature’s God, by the law of nature discoverable by reason. They made this claim and offered proof of it in their Declaration. In this respect, the Declaration of Independence is a legal brief. But legal briefs are customarily presented to courts of justice, which have the authority to decide for or against them. In this case, there was no higher court to which the 13 colonies or the British government could appeal. There was only human reason, and on this account, The United States of America may properly be described as an original creation of reason. What was created? Thirteen independent states, united in their endeavor to remain free. But their action brought something else to be in the world: Independence itself, an idea, was let loose in history.
Having written these last few sentences, I find it necessary to pause and catch my breath, for they contain a very great thought. An entire philosophy of existence could be built upon it and in fact has been attempted many times. I’m reminded of the opening sentence of the Fourth Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word” — the Greek term for “Word” is Logos, which also signifies reason, idea, and rational or logical discourse.
What is an original creation of reason? To begin with, an original creation is the bringing into existence of something from nothing. To be sure, the elements of the created thing may have been there already; there was the land and the people, and their settlements and their several social organizations, as well as traditions of political thought and of government. But in none of these things by themselves or together was there power, let alone authority, to achieve it. What was needed was the endowment of an idea of reason with power and authority, transforming it into a powerful motive for political action. This idea is named in the very first sentence: “The laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” which entitle every people to become a separate and equal state merely by declaring it. And by what means is this authority discovered? By reason only. It was not for nothing that the age in which this nation began has been called the Age of Reason. Universal Reason is the court that decides whether the act of independence of the 13 colonies was just. Nature’s God does not preside in any Church or religious society, but in nature itself, and in the mind of every rational being, for all rational beings are creatures of nature. The court of reason is here and everywhere and beholden to no one.
There were, indeed, religious precedents to this idea. The very fact that the Congress met in Philadelphia, which was the preeminent city of Pennsylvania, founded by Quakers, who regarded truth as a common property, is indicative of the historical origins of the idea. But these precedents are not sufficient to explain it. What occurred in Philadelphia nearly two-and-one-half centuries ago was entirely new.
We must seek the originative power of the idea in the Age of Reason itself and in its central belief that the universe in which we exist is a moral universe, governed by laws. This central quality of the nature of things makes it possible to appeal to “The Law of Nature and Nature’s God” as an authority above all other authorities. Reason is its active principle, and its self-revelation is like a light radiating from the universal intelligence, which is Nature itself, which shines into all natural things. Reason created the universe and established its laws. Hence, every rational being is able by itself to discover the origin and principle of nature and the nature of things, and in circumstances such as oppression by a tyrannous government, it becomes the ultimate court of appeal.
But what if the Age of Reason has passed, and with it the validity of the idea of a moral universe, what if rational beings can no longer appeal to the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God? What if they are just another historical fashion? What if Nature is in fact no more than a random process, with neither beginning nor end nor purpose? Would this delegitimize the deed of the Continental Congress? Would it deprive the Declaration of Independence of any cogency or relevance?
I think not. For we remain a rational species, rational beings, who alone are responsible for our actions and alone capable of judging right from wrong, just from unjust, true from false. Appeals to reason become the ultimate means upon which those who are oppressed can rely when all other help fails. They are no less valid now than they were during the Enlightenment. Nature’s God may have become silent, but reason continues and remains our only guide in life. The coming of age of each and every one of us is still to attain the age of reason, to become rational adults.
It has been claimed that one of the sources that the authors of the Declaration of Independence relied on was John Locke. In his “Second Treatise of Government,” Locke introduces the notion of an appeal to heaven, and by it he imagined situations when oppressed citizens or groups of them have no recourse but to replace their government with another of their own making. Locke was imagining a situation of great risk where the die was cast, but the outcome uncertain. And there is no doubt that the members of the Continental Congress and their constituents faced such a situation in 1776. They were engaged in an undeclared war with Great Britain, which was a great empire with great power and immeasurable resources. There was no guarantee that they would succeed. In this circumstance, they had only the power of reason to guide them. That they succeeded must remain a cause of wonder.
All of this is sufficient reason to venerate the Declaration of Independence, along with its author or authors, and the Congress that enacted it. But in this case, the only right way to venerate them is to understand the document they bequeathed to us, to review its claims and its proof, and to do so rationally and critically and thereby to make it our act as well.
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