Independence, The Founding Fathers, and the Fourth Commandment

Declaration II
John Trumbull, The Signing of The Declaration of Independence (1817)
(AUTHOR’S NOTE:  Now that Independence Day has past and the celebrations are winding down I feel it is prudent to publish this piece for I did not wish to spoil the image of the motivations which brought about our breaking away.)

The Declaration and the Why of Independence 

I often wonder if professors, journalists, and clergymen don’t wait expectantly for the arrival of a special public celebration of some largely secular event such as Independence Day so they can don their spoiler mask and throw a real monkey wrench into the gears.  Yesterday morning Robert Parkinson an assistant professor of history at Binghamton University, New York, published a piece in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times titled “Did a Fear of Slave Revolts Drive American Independence?” He states that for over two centuries we have been reading the Declaration of Independence wrong.  Or rather, we have been celebrating the Declaration as people in the 19th and 20th centuries have told us we should, but not as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams wrote it. To them, Parkinson says, separation from Britain was as much, if not more about racial fear and exclusion as it was about inalienable rights.

Parkinson goes on to say that the heart of the Declaration was not the beautiful preamble[1] which speaks so eloquently of men being created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights but rather the twenty seven accusations against George the Third.  He contends further that the twenty seventh and last was the deal breaker:

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured[2] to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

He explains that the phrase “domestic insurrections” is 18th century speak for rebellious slaves. In this regard he laments that the Declaration could have been what we yearn for it to be, a statement of universal rights, but it wasn’t. Parkinson presents a proof in the form of accounts of a celebration held in a New York Village after receiving news of the Declaration.  The residents of Huntington, New York created an effigy of George III and according to the account of a New York newspaper they then blackened his face, and alongside his wooden crown they stuck his head full of feathers like savages wrapped his body in the Union Jack and lined it with gunpowder then set it ablaze. This says Parkinson shows the relationship between independence and the incitement by the King of slave and Indian atrocities. He states: “They were indeed celebrating an independent America, but one defined by racial fear and exclusion.  This celebrated further the notion that “some people belong as proper Americans and others do not: and “that notion has marked American history ever since.  Like the people of Huntington Americans since 1776 have operated time and time again on the assumption that blacks and Indians don’t belong in this republic.

The Decalogue and The Fourth Commandment

Well, there it is. If you accept Professor Parkinson’s premise he is telling us that the notion that some of us belong and some of us don’t comes from the very founders we revere this Independence Day.  We tend to refer to them as the “Founding Fathers”.  When someone is called father for reasons other than that they have generated children biologically it implies, for a Christian, that they have exemplified the faith in their life and work[3]. To me this means two things:  first that these men were possessed of a gift from God which literally moved them to exercise a creative power in such a way as to bring God’s grace into the world.  And, second, we are bound, in the words of the fourth commandment (Exodus 20:12), to honor and obey them.  In this context we would be bound to honor their memory and to obey them by staying faithful to that part of their work which reflects God’s grace.

Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Middleton[4] were not exemplifications of the Christian faith by a long shot. However, in breaking away from Great Britain they indirectly opened a door to something greater.  While they most likely acted out of “enlightened self-interest” they planted a seed which has blossomed into something which bestowed a measure of divine grace on this nation.  They spoke of equality and inalienable rights with a tinge of self-interest only to have those words move from the status of window dressing  dicta[5]  into the status of de facto substance A colonial collection of gentlemen farmers, merchants and bankers has made easier the rise of those who exhibit talent and industry regardless of their social and economic background.  That’s not to say that this upward mobility has not been derailed from time to time.  It has been hindered and thwarted mightily in recent times.   But as their disciples it is our job to honor that part of their work which was of a divine nature and obey them by seeing to it that the good work continues.

So despite the premise as posed by professor Parkinson I very much favor continuing to celebrate our Independence Day and honoring our “Founding Fathers”.  I realize that Parkinson s probably right but even so we should continue to celebrate the acts of these men we call “Founding Fathers”  not because they were perfect men who acted totally without regard to self interest but rather because  their acts had the effect of  establishing an economic and governmental system which made upward mobility much easier than it would have been had we stayed with Britain and ensconced in generations of Americans to come the notion that all men truly are created equal and endowed by their creator with unalienable rights reaching even beyond life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  By these acts they truly deserve to be called “Founding Fathers”.

Happy Independence Day

[1] We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

[2] You might notice the use of the “u” in the endings of colonial documents . In today’s American English or words end in or.  So endeavor was endeavour in 1776.

[3] See Hauerwas and Willimon, The Truth About God – The Ten Commandments in Christian Life.  Abingdon Press, Nashville 1999, Page 73 quoting Saint Thomas Aquinas The Catechetical Instructions , 91 for the proposition that “in the church some men are called “father” not because they generate children but because they deserve reverence.” Hauerwas and Willimon go on to say that we call the Apostles and the early churchmen “ fathers” because of their exemplification of the faith.

[4] Thomas Middleton of Middleton Place, near Charleston, South Carolina, was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

[5] This means language which sounds good but is not really material to the decision of a case not the ratio decidendi or basis for the ruling.

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