The Declaration of Independence
Today marks the 239th anniversary marking the founding of the United States of America – the date when we formally adopted a Declaration of Independence which stated our national creed in the self-evident truth 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.”
It was indeed, a momentous day when a group of men representing of thirteen colonies on the edge of a far-flung empire came together in Philadelphia to take a stand and act with boldness and courage to give birth to a new country, which has gone on to rise as one of the greatest, most powerful, and influential countries in the world – a symbol of freedom, hope, modernity, democracy, and opportunity.
Today, I am proud to call myself an American and to call the United States my country, and on this day, I remember why we became independent and the values for which we fought in the process.
Those values and ideals – representative government arguably the most important of them – were in part born from the Enlightenment and political traditions of the country from which we became independent: Great Britain.
British democracy had by this time developed into a balanced relationship between monarchy, aristocracy, and the commons in which the monarch was still sovereign but Parliament (the aristocracy and commons) represented the supreme representative authority of the British people and had since the Glorious Revolution circumscribed the powers of the monarch so that on several issues such as taxation, the monarch could not act without the consent of Parliament.
This principle, that the representatives of the people should work with the monarch, and not be overruled by him or her, had its roots in Britain’s constitutional heritage going back over hundreds of years – including Magna Carta, the Declaration of Arbroath, the Petition of Right, and the English Bill of Rights. More recently, it was rooted in the Whig Party which believed that the monarch – at least at some level – was answerable to the people, and could not claim absolute authority from God.
The Whig ideal of representative government traveled across the Atlantic, where the Thirteen Colonies had established their own assemblies based on the British Parliament at Westminster in London. There, the colonists could elect their own representatives to debate matters of concern to them and make decisions for the general benefit of the population. This was especially true during the period of Salutary Neglect, when Parliament made little to no effort to enforce laws made in London on the colonists, and the colonies were largely able to do their own thing within the imperial system.
It was only after 1763 when laws started be enforced with renewed vigor. This was in response to the fact that the British military had fought to defend American interests in the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War, known as the French and Indian War. Britain emerged victorious and with the defeat of the French, had gained new territory to become the foremost economic and military power on Earth.
British North America following the Seven Years' (French and Indian) War.
Yet this prize did not come cheaply. The new imperial dominions needed maintaining and administering, and the American establishment alone – now including about half of the North American continent – became quite expensive to maintain, indeed. In the process of the war itself, Britain had gone into debt to pay for it, and now the new costs of the expanded empire were also being almost entirely shouldered by the British population in Britain itself.
From here, Parliament enacted a series of laws designed to increase tax revenue from the colonies and to enforce parliamentary authority – most notably the Stamp Act of 1765, the Townshend Acts of 1767, and the Tea Act of 1773 – and it did so in the belief that it was only fair that colonists start sharing a greater deal of the costs of maintaining the Empire and the benefits it conferred. It also did so in the belief that Parliament was not just the supreme authority in Great Britain itself, but also throughout the whole British Empire, and that as such, it had the constitutional right to levy taxes and make laws anywhere throughout the Empire without impediments.
This unlimited view of parliamentary authority without representation was not shared by the colonists, who saw the acts as being imposed from on high by a distant legislature across the Pond, where the colonies lacked representation and the ability to speak and act on the behalf of their own interests – hence the sentiment of having “taxation without representation.”
Without parliamentary representation at Westminster, the colonists nevertheless believed that the British Constitution recognized fundamental rights – such as representative self-government – which Parliament could not ignore, even if it was the supreme authority throughout the Empire. The fact remained that it did not have representatives from the colonies on which it was imposing laws and was now in some cases riding roughshod over the assemblies and laws established by the colonists – going so far as to abolish them without the consent of people living there.
In light of this, writers such as Thomas Jefferson, James Wilson, and Samuel Adams argued that without American representatives, Parliament was merely the legislature of Great Britain and that with legislatures of their own, the only thing connecting the colonies to the rest of the Empire was common allegiance to the Crown. Jefferson himself wrote in 1775 that:
“there is not in the British empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do. But, by the God that made me, I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection on such terms as the British Parliament propose; and in this, I think I speak the sentiments of America”
Those terms were the insistence on accepting parliamentary authority without representation in it, and the unwillingness to view colonial assemblies as having a legitimacy worthy of the constitutional and political traditions that led to their creation.
This was in short, Whig language being used against the British Parliament, which had first invented it.
Many Americans wished to retain the links with the mother country, and certainly did not want a disruptive conflict, but the attempt at coercion by military force and occupation was in many ways, the last straw, and the rest is history.
Since the outcome of the conflict which followed the battles of Lexington and Concord, America and Britain gradually become close friends and allies as America rose to global prominence alongside Britain, and both countries forged a Special Relationship rooted in the common bonds of language, history, culture, heritage, the rule of law, and democratic principles. Together, we have made mistakes, but when I think of us liberating the world from the forces of evil in Japan, Germany, and Italy – was well as the efforts to bring down the Soviets, and generally trying to help others, I believe we have done more good.
Uncle Sam with his eagle and Britannia with her lion.
On a personal level, Britain – now officially known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – is my favorite country in the world outside of my own.
It started with an interest in the great ocean liners of the 19th and 20th centuries, and a great many of them happened to be British, such as the Queen Elizabeth 2, which was built at John Brown’s on the Clyde and remains a prime example of Britain at its best.
From there, I immersed myself into learning about the monarchy, British history, the people of Britain, what the country is like today, British politics, and etc. All the while, I never thought of the United Kingdom as being divided according to the English, Welsh, Scots, and Northern Irish. For me, it has been one country made of different peoples with much in common, with the borders between then virtually meaningless.
Indeed, what we think of today as Britishness has been brought about by the full and joint political, economic, and social union of these four nations into a single country, known as the United Kingdom. With the melding of these places, the idea of Britishness and Britain took hold, and each part has greatly contributed to that. Take any part out, and an essential part of the UK goes missing.
When I hear songs like I Vow to Thee My Country, I think of the nation by which we have stood beside through decades of peace and war. When I listen to Heart of Oak, I think of great British ships that exported Britain around the world and helped to connect it. With Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope of Glory, I also think about the country that did so well at the 2012 Olympic Games by being united and which also celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of its storied Queen.
I look at the vast expanse of Britain – from the Welsh valleys, to the green and pleasant land of England, to the Scottish Highlands, and Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway and take wonder in the beauty of one land – indivisible. I look at the radiance of the UK’s great cities – from Glasgow to Manchester, Belfast to Inverness, from Aberdeen to Cardiff, Liverpool to Southampton, and from Birmingham to Edinburgh to London, and remain in awe of these places that are the engines of Britain’s prosperity.
Yet for all of these great things, I am not at all blinded by visions of the United Kingdom as perfect country.
There is poverty and economic suffering currently going on throughout the entire United Kingdom, for the downturn of recent years has caused pain for many people. I know that it is not entirely a land of hope and glory, but that does not mean that it cannot be.
Britain has been – and is – a great country, and much of that greatness stems from the fact that it once governed the largest empire in human history. The British Empire is long gone, but positive influences from Britain around the world live on to the present day, and the UK is still a leader in world affairs. This is something in which the people ought to take some pride.
It should also take pride in its cultural exports, such as James Bond, the Beatles, and Harry Potter – all of which hail from the land of Shakespeare and Burns. There are other contributions, like developing democracy and social welfare and leading the world in the industrial revolution, and still more, its venerable institutions such as the NHS, the monarchy, the BBC, Parliament, and the Armed Forces, all of which – in spite of their shortcomings – provide the glue that underpin British society and bind the British people together.
I see all of these things, and I think to myself: what a wonderful country, this sceptered isle, or rather isles – these Isles of Wonder, which were so beautifully portrayed by Danny Boyle at the Olympics nearly three years ago.
The present-day United Kingdom.
I cannot help but to have admiration for what Britain has done in the past, and – as the 2012 Olympic Games themselves displayed – have hope for what Britain can do in the future, both at home and abroad.
There are issues with Britain – many of them, and I sometimes wonder if the country is capable of solving them and surviving them. Among the issues are that of the drive by nationalists in Scotland attempting to break up Britain and end its very existence.
Some of them will use the American example of independence as reason for their efforts. They talk of self-determination and need to be from under the yoke of Westminster, as though Scotland was an oppressed colony with absolutely no say in how Britain is governed, and in my time defending the UK, I have come across nationalists who are incredulous at the idea of Americans believing in keeping the UK together. Upon President Barack Obama’s comments in support of the UK last year, one newspaper columnist said that he could “remind an American president of what self-determination means in his tradition.”
Well, an American president (and this American citizen) can say that we were inspired by self-determination coming from the British tradition of deciding their own affairs via sending representatives to Parliament to govern the country. In the present day, people in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, and Wales exercise self-determination as British citizens at national, regional, and local levels of government, and the British government (with Scottish representation) affirmed this principle of self-determination when it gave the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh the power to hold a referendum on secession.
So no, we have not forgotten the meaning of self-determination. Scots already have it as British citizens. The secessionists just want to change it to self-determination as Scottish (but not British) citizens.
It is also worth making a distinction between Scotland today and the American colonies of 1776, in addition to what has already been said in this post.
Scotland is part of the country known as the United Kingdom, the country from which America declared independence. America was administratively part of Britain within a colonial context; it was part of Britain the empire, not Britain the country. If America had been sending representatives to Westminster to have a say on issues affecting the peoples living there, you could make the argument that America was part of Britain the country.
But that was not the case. We were colonies of Britain, with no parliamentary representation, and that is why we fought under the banner of “no taxation without representation.” Scotland by contrast is not, and has never been a colony. It has been part of Britain the country, with parliamentary representation and a say at the top table, including Scots taking leading positions in government such as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister for all of Britain.
Today it seems as though Britain is fighting for its very existence. However, it has seen and been through worse times (i.e., World War II and the Blitz), and I believe it – and its people – will survive these trying times.
From a solid foundation of hundreds of years, this country has much potential for a more dynamic, hopeful, and united future together.
There is nothing wrong with Britain that cannot be righted by what’s good about Britain – nothing wrong with Britain that cannot be fixed by the British people as a whole from Shetland to Lands End.
It is my hope as an American celebrating Independence Day that Britain remains together (and can celebrate a Union or Britain Day), just as we remained together after our bloody Civil War, and have remained ever since, and that the Special Relationship between us shall endure.
My performance of My Country, Tis of Thee/God Save the Queen in celebration of America and Britain.