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Stateside with Rosalea : Freedom's Chimes Flashing

I gaze upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Dabbing at my patriotic eyes as the marching bands play and the fireworks flash, I notice that the Kleenex I'm using comes from a "format de poche". I guess I bought that "pocket pack" on my trip to Canada. It's a nice little reminder of how things came to such a pretty pass 225 years ago in a bunch of British colonies perched along one edge of a gigantic storecupboard of nature's bounty. With the French threat largely in abeyance, the inhabitants of the 13 colonies in North America, on being asked by Britain to start paying for the cost of the war, decided they'd already paid enough.

Make no mistake, the Declaration of Independence that was nutted out in Philadelphia and agreed to on 4 July 1776 was as much about commerce as it was about the high ideals it so nobly encapsulates in the section beginning: "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." The next section is a long list of Charges Against the King and Parliament, most of them to do with taxes, the manipulation or outright suspension of the colonies' own legal systems, the use of troops to protect Britain's commercial and imperial interests, and the seizing of the colonists' main means of trade - their shipping.

When I first read that list I couldn't help but wonder yet again how the united states wrote themselves a constitution that resulted in the election of a king every four years. Consider these items: "He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.... He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.... He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power." But in 1776 a constitution was still in the future.

The Statement of Separation is the next section in the Declaration, and it's here that I clearly see my mistake in thinking that the states of America are like provinces or counties. The signatories of the Declaration represented "these United Colonies" which "are, and of Right ought to be FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES", further declaring "that they are Absolved from all obligation to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved..."

In unison, these 13 British colonies on the continent of North America declare themselves - each and every one - independent states. Having decided on that course of action, the men who met and ratified the Declaration of Independence called themselves the representatives of the united states of America - that being an entity in the same way the United Nations or the European Union is an entity. In 1776 "the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" was not in any way, shape or form a single nation the way we think of it today. Nor was there any intention that it should be.

Why is the distinction between "united states" and "United States" important? It's important because, frankly, it's a bloomin' miracle that this one nation exists. And it exists despite having later created a constitution that set about to undermine the very principles the Declaration of Independence lauded, and despite its signatories having missed two important opportunities. Firstly, they took out Jefferson's listing of slavery among the evils that the British monarchy had foisted upon its American colonies. Secondly - as shown by these extracts from letters sent by Abigail Adams to a friend and to her husband John, one of the co-writers of the Declaration - they ignored the status of women.

Describing a letter she wrote to John in March 1776, Abigail tells her friend: "I thought it was very probable our wise Statesmen would erect a New Government and form a new code of Laws. I ventured to speak a word on behalf of our Sex, who are rather hardly dealt with by the Laws of England which gives such unlimited power to the Husband to use his wife Ill. I requested that our Legislators would consider our case and as all Men of Delicacy and Sentiment are adverse to Exercising the power they possess, yet as there is a natural propensity in Human Nature to domination, I thought the most generous plan was to put it out of the power of the Arbitrary and tyranick to injure us with impunity by Establishing some Laws in favour upon just and Liberal principals. ... In return he tells me he cannot but Laugh at my extraordinary Code of Laws." And to her husband she wrote, in May 1776: "I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives."

It was John Adams who said that the signing of the Declaration of Independence should be celebrated with pomp, parades, bonfires and illuminations. That is why it's a public holiday and marching bands play and there are huge fireworks displays. I watched three at once from my roof last year - San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley - but this year I decided to watch the nationally televised events. In New York (NBC) and in Washington (PBS) it rained, and the festivities had a decidedly soggy air.

But for ABC in Philadelphia, where a nationwide tour of one of the original unsigned copies of the Declaration was being kicked off, the rain held off long enough for the Declaration to be read aloud, as it was meant to be read. First, Blue Man Group provided the percussion for the national anthem, Garth Brooks sang that "when the skies and the ocean are clean again, we shall be free," and Morgan Freeman said that the real glory of the Declaration is the efforts to close the gap between the ideals and the realities. Then the Declaration of Independence was read aloud by an assortment of celebrities.

"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. - That to secure these rights Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

The United States Government doesn't have to worry about that prospect these days, I shouldn't think. The million people assembled at Philly for the TV broadcast cheered not for the words, but for whoever was their favourite celebrity reading it. Perhaps prophetically, it was an Australian - Mel Gibson - who got the biggest cheer.

And entirely coincidentally - but remarked upon in several news bulletins later in the week - thirteen people were struck by lightning in the continental United States on 4 July 2001. Howzat for the chimes of freedom flashing!

Lea Barker
Saturday, July 7 2001

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