January 26, 2008

I Do Declare, That's Not What It Means to Be American

by PG

I am trying to figure out what Sarah Lyall meant in the first sentence of a Times article, which says, "It was a lofty idea: formulate a British 'statement of values' defining what it means to be British, much the way a document like the Declaration of Independence sets out the ideals that help explain what it means to be American." The Declaration of Independence does not "set out ideals," but rather sets out a list of grievances against the British king.

It is, as one might expect from the name, a declaration of independence from Britain. It famously states, "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," only as the first step of an argument that because the British government has become destructive of these Rights, the colonists are justified in throwing off such government. Further contrasting with Lyall's notion that the Declaration explains American-ness are Jefferson's repeated concluding references to "Free and Independent States."

One might take the list of grievances as a kind of Don'ts For Government, and King George's tyrannies appear as a reverse blueprint for the Constitution and Bill of Rights:
Where he refused his Assent to Laws, the president's veto can be overruled by a two-thirds legislative majority.
Where he made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and enjoyment of their salaries, Article III judges have lifetime tenure, holding "their offices during good behaviour, and shall, at stated times, receive for their services, a compensation, which shall not be diminished during their continuance in office."
Where he quartered large bodies of armed troops among the colonists in peacetime, the Third Amendment prohibits same.
Where he deprived the colonists in many cases of the benefit of Trial by Jury, the Sixth Amendment guarantees same.
Etc., etc. Only in the negative can much of the Declaration be taken as ideal; that is, where the king's behavior was bad, the colonists implicitly promised to do better. The act of declaring independence, the lawyerly mindset that laid out charges against the king -- these are part of what it means to be American. As Edmund Burke remarked on the character of Americans, a year before before any Declaration,

Permit me, Sir, to add another circumstance in our colonies, which contributes no mean part towards the growth and effect of this untractable spirit. I mean their education. In no country perhaps in the world is the law so general a study. The profession itself is numerous and powerful; and in most provinces it takes the lead. The greater number of the deputies sent to the congress were lawyers. But all who read, and most do read, endeavour to obtain some smattering in that science. I have been told by an eminent bookseller, that in no branch of his business, after tracts of popular devotion, were so many books as those on the law exported to the plantations. The colonists have now fallen into the way of printing them for their own use. I hear that they have sold nearly as many of Blackstone's Commentaries in America as in England. General Gage marks out this disposition very particularly in a letter on your table. He states, that all the people in his government are lawyers, or smatterers in law; and that in Boston they have been enabled, by successful chicane, wholly to evade many parts of one of your capital penal constitutions. The smartness of debate will say, that this knowledge ought to teach them more clearly the rights of legislature, their obligations to obedience, and the penalties of rebellion. All this is mighty well. But my honourable and learned friend on the floor, who condescends to mark what I say for animadversion, will disdain that ground. He has heard, as well as I, that when great honours and great emoluments do not win over this knowledge to the service of the state, it is a formidable adversary to government. If the spirit be not tamed and broken by these happy methods, it is stubborn and litigious. Abeunt studia in mores. This study renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defence, full of resources. In other countries, the people, more simple, and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; here they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.
Stubborn and litigious -- that has been the American character for over 200 years.

If I were to try to sum up what the British character is, it would be: decent. Britons feel guilty about being really mean to people (a feeling that got them out of India without need for armed revolution); they think you pretty much should do what you like as long as it doesn't scare the horses; and the quintessentially Ango common-law system, particularly with regard to equity, is founded in the idea that rather than having many hard rules, we just ought to be fair. The Church of England is decent, the National Health Service is decent, the Queen was objected to only when people felt she was being not quite decent to Princess Diana. Some may not see this as an inspiring quality, but I think it has much to recommend it.

January 26, 2008 04:04 PM | TrackBack
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