As with anything done by committee, the Declaration of Independence was not the product of a single day’s labor, but the product of long back-and-forth. Even in the end, John Adams expected July 2 to be considered “Independence Day,” because that was the date that the Second Continental Congress adopted a resolution to declare independence, whereas we celebrate July 4, the date the congress adopted the Declaration of Independence as a document.
Celebration of Independence Day has had something of that protracted feel for me, this year. My family began the holiday yesterday, at the Rockwell Amusement Carnival on Bristol’s Town Common, where we watched the lines gradually lengthen as the crowd grew into a veritable embodiment of America. On the familiar side of that impression were the many people we knew, taken as if by selection across the many years of our lives in the area.
But then there were the unfamiliar faces, bespeaking the different experiences that make America a constant experiment in civic evolution. While waiting in one line, an oriental woman with a baby carriage turned to me and spoke the word, “where,” and reached for the word, “fireworks,” which she conveyed by starting a sound with the letter, “f,” and pantomiming an explosion with her hands. I pointed down the road to the waterfront and told her the start time.
Next came the tribute band playing the peculiarly appropriate music of Jimmy Buffet in Independence Park as the crowd produced dinner from picnic baskets or gathered it piecemeal from the line of food trucks. Here again, the unique ingredients of America blended on the palate: for the ears, the soundtrack of touristy American leisure — a country-music fusion with island aesthetic — and for the taste buds, a cross-section of America delivered by mobile kitchens that trace their heritage to both the frontier and the urban industrial centers of the Northeast, all as part of an Independence Day celebration that began, organizers report, in 1785.
Approaching 9:30, “Margaritaville” accompanied the march to the water for the fireworks. My family settled in among the rocks just off the little boardwalk, sitting near a bearded young man in American flag swim trunks who was obviously working through the effects of some disorienting substance. Somewhere in the midst of the fireworks a woman in his group poured the last of a beer over his face as he lay there with his eyes closed, and he sprung up looking for the culprit.
First he turned his aggression toward an acquaintance who was sitting in the six feet of space between him and my son. Instinctively, I stepped between the disturbance and my children (as I’ve observed men do my entire life and as my uncle, a Marine, once did when he and his Taiwanese wife took me to Chinatown and an honest-to-goodness karate fight broke out in a video game arcade). A comment about the young man’s language drew his attention to a pair of older men sitting on the edge of the boardwalk (by appearances, long-retired veterans), and he grabbed one of them by the shirt. A peremptory voice: “Get your hands off me.” He did. “Get back over where you were.”
The young man stood, looking pitiful and perplexed, as the woman confessed. Then he moved back toward where he’d been lying on the rocks, but kept going into the water. He swam away, rippling the reflected light of the fireworks.
The truly complicated emotions of Independence Day arrived, however, this morning, during the annual reading of the Declaration of Independence at the Doughboy monument next to Grinnell’s Beach in Tiverton. In prior years, notably 2013 and 2014, attendees commented that the complaints in the Declaration felt frighteningly similar to current events. This morning, it struck me that the same feeling may have spread to those on the other side of the political aisle, now that they are out of power.
This has local implications, too. Some there are — and some there were at this very event — who are telling people in our community that I am like the tyrant described in the Declaration of Independence. Some of them surely know it to be a slanderous lie, but others clearly believe it, and therein is the complicated wonder of these United States. Our system of government is designed to channel irreconcilable differences into political processes that preserve our individual rights.
But still, I can’t help but feel as if something is slipping away. Those of us gathering in the early days of the Tiverton Declaration reading were decidedly of the Tea Party bent. We saw looming tyranny in government, and we organized. We voiced our opinion and bided our time until the next election. We decried the gathering cloud and sought to defeat it in a way that moved the country back toward its ideals, not farther into the tyranny we opposed, albeit with a tyrant we preferred.
The mirror image of that impulse, these days, seems very different. Waiting for the next election is not treated as the default option. The victors of earlier elections are not only harshly judged for their actions, but berated as somehow illegitimate, as if elections were stolen and electorates deceived.
This is dangerous ground. We unite around the Declaration of Independence not because the tyrant it describes is still a viable threat to our freedom, but because it articulates opposition to tyranny itself. If we reach the point that we hold up our neighbors as the tyrants simply because they won the last election and we did not and then use any means available to invalidate those votes, we’re no longer fighting tyranny, but inviting it.
The Declaration begins with the acknowledgment that:
… in the Course of human events, it [sometimes] becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them…
This cannot apply when the political bands that are dissolving are not between one people and another, but among a single people. We shouldn’t treat our neighbors as a different people as a means of driving voters away from them. The “other side” must mean the other side of our community, not the other side of some impassable barrier. The other side of the aisle is still within the same chamber of Congress.
The Declaration’s acknowledgment can also not apply when the objective of the dissolution is not to respect the sovereignty of others, but to gain control of the whole.