Sunday, July 05, 2009

July 5th

Today is July 5.

For Americans its significance is straight forward: July 5th is the day after the one on which, 233 years ago, 56 men approved and signed a document they called a “declaration of independence” -- after which a number of them left Philadelphia before agents of King George could detain them. (Overall, during the War of Revolution, five signers of the Declaration of Independence were captured by the British.)

The Americans’ main motivation for sundering relations between a monarch and his subjects was justified on the premise that the king could not impose taxes on anyone who was not represented in parliament. (This was often not the case, for members of parliament often occupied a seat because of social or economic position or because of heredity.) By the start of the 1770s, the crown and parliament were locked in a struggle over who would control the expenditure of the tax revenue flowing from the colonies to the power centers in London. The British had defeated their European rivals in North America a decade earlier only to learn that the price of defending constitutional government could be high.

Not only did London not get its taxes, the king and parliament provoked the opposite response from a number of prominent American merchants, ship owners, and other notables who felt that their interests were not being represented in parliament. At the level of the “common man” in the colonies, the chief complaint was interference by royal agents and even by British soldiers in the affairs of a public that had little affinity for the military. While neither king or parliament succeeded in wresting taxes from the colonies, the governing committee for the rebellion proclaimed by the “declaration of independence” -- the Continental Congress -- had no better success. In a sense, the Americans simply outlasted the British.

Like the British 233 years later, the United States finds itself in a similar condition. It spends more on its military forces and more on active armed conflict than any other country. But the battlefields are far away and the death and destruction inflicted on civilians undermines the very declaration on which our own independence rests.

For six years United States forces have been at war, and the outcome remains unclear even as another campaign begins. What we have failed to recognize is that our national principles are not transferable to others.

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