The Shot Heard Round—and Round and Round—the World

Thoughts on gratitude for the founding of America.

Howdy,

Like most Americans, I spent a lot of Fourth of July weekend taking pictures of my mom’s cats. But I did find the time to tweet. 

One tweet in particular got a lot of attention:

Many of the responses were quite depressing. I have no serious problem with people saying I was being simplistic or glib—it’s Twitter after all. That’s like complaining my diorama of the Battle of Waterloo using guinea pigs in period garb didn’t capture all of the facets and nuance of the conflict: correct on the merits but a bit shabby given the limits of the medium. 

Many Canadians and Brits of a certain stripe smugly claimed that they have all sorts of rights, too. So why make a big deal about the founding? Others pointed out that the American Revolution had more to do with taxation than inalienable rights, which has a much relevance to me as the pedantic noting that my guinea pigs aren't carrying the standard .70 caliber smoothbore flintlocks of the period. 

But the complaints that bothered me the most were those that scoffed at the idea we should feel any gratitude toward the founding. 

That said, Adam Gurri of Liberal Currents asks a fair question:

He is right. Which is why I wrote an entire book (now out in paperback!) dedicated to this very task. 

So let me start with what I mean by gratitude: I mean gratitude

We protect what we are grateful for. We are less inclined to do so for things for which we are ungrateful, or even resentful of. Of course, you can hate the founding and even America and still cherish the Bill of Rights. But you can see how such hatred, if given free rein, could lead you in the opposite direction. At the very minimum, championing ingratitude toward the founding cuts off one important source of support for the fruit of the founding.

In other areas of life, I don’t think my claim would be very controversial. If you had good parents who worked hard to provide for you and teach you right from wrong, your gratitude for their sacrifices would be one of the benchmarks of how you define good character and decent decision making. Again, it’s not the only one. Right conduct can be deduced from other principles. But the fear that you are betraying something at the heart of what your parents expected of you is an important restraint on bad behavior. 

If you worked your way up through a business or institution and became its leader, your sense of gratitude for what it has done for you and others would be one of the guideposts for managing it with integrity and aiming to pass it on in good order when you retire. Gratitude creates a sense of obligation. Ingratitude breeds a spiteful spirit and indifference. I’m not a Christian, but I find it difficult to imagine a good Christian who would be ungrateful or indifferent to Jesus’s death on the cross. The sacrifices of martyrs, not just for Christianity, but for any faith or righteous cause fortifies our sense of commitment to that cause. Sure, guilt plays a role, but guilt is often simply the word for knowing you’re not living up to your obligations.  

I suspect that if I wrote that no one should have a sense of gratitude for Martin Luther King Jr.’s sacrifices, many of the same people would denounce me from the opposite direction. 

Now, I’m not arguing that one should feel personal gratitude to the founders who risked a traitor’s death when they signed the Declaration, the final words of which were, “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” I have no problem with that argument, but I don’t spend my days thinking, “What Would John Adams Do?”

My point is that we should feel grateful for the founding, because it was a massive advance for all of humanity.

The shot heard round the world.

I understand that race is the most important issue—even the only issue—for a lot of people today. But it wasn’t then. The 1619 Project people can claim the American Revolution was intended to protect slavery all they like, it won’t make it true. Similarly, people can dust off their Charles Beard and claim that the founders were nothing more than taxophobic landowners uninterested in real human liberty until they’re blue in the face. 

But it’s worth remembering what people at the time thought of the American Revolution. In response to the Declaration, Austrian Empress Maria Theresa conveyed to George III her “hearty desire to see the restoration of obedience and tranquility in every quarter of his dominions.” Her son Joseph, a nominal co-ruler, told the British ambassador, "The cause in which England is engaged ... is the cause of all sovereigns who have a joint interest in the maintenance of due subordination ... in all the surrounding monarchies."

As Henry Fairlie recounted in The New Republic more than 30 years ago, the revolt in America horrified the despots of Europe: “The rulers feared that their subjects would see the American action not as a rebellion against a rightful monarch in his own territories—there had been plenty of rebellions against European sovereigns—but as the proclamation of a revolutionary doctrine of universal application, as the Declaration indeed announced it to be.” A. P. Bernstorff, the Danish foreign minister wrote to a friend, “The public here is extremely occupied with the rebels [in America], not because they know the cause, but because the mania of independence in reality has infected all the spirits, and the poison has spread imperceptibly from the works of the philosophes all the way out to the village schools. … I am grateful for the American founding. I am grateful for the Declaration of Independence. I am thankful that I was born in this country. I am grateful for the founders and their revolutionary—in every sense—break with the past.” 

Fairlie quotes at length from newspapers and letters across the continent, demonstrating how the American cause was seen as one of universal appeal and a sharp break from the arbitrary rule of even enlightened despots. In England, public sentiment was obviously mixed, but many saw how the colonists were in fact fighting for the best traditions of English liberty (which is why Edmund Burke was always sympathetic to their cause). “When the news of the Boston Tea Party reached England,” Fairlie writes, “the London Packet called such resistance lawful and even honorable against ‘tyrannic’ measures. After Lexington and Concord the London Evening Post said that ‘the prevailing toast in every company of true Englishmen is, 'Victory to the Americans, and re-establishment to the British Constitution.’”

All of the smug Twitter gadflies boasting that England and Canada have their liberties, no thanks to the American founders, have no idea that the American cause inspired Englishmen and their loyal colonists in Canada to recommit to those very liberties. As one Danish historian observed,  “the Declaration of Independence had a decisive impact on the course of events leading to the attainment in 1849 of Denmark's first democratic constitution.” 

The American founding did something profoundly radical. For thousands of years, every nation had some notion of heredity status, royalty, nobility, aristocracy. The Founders did away with that. By all means, we can condemn their decision not to carry that democratic logic all the way and end the institution of slavery. But can’t we also be grateful for the enormous stride they took in the right direction? 

Similarly, the Founders took the best parts of England’s traditions of liberty and codified them. They took mere cultural norms of liberty that previously had been in open conflict with other cultural norms of tyranny and said, “These are our principles.” They refined them, elevated them, and turned them into rights for all the world to emulate. Again, they fell short on the issue of slavery. As I keep saying, the choice the Founders faced at the Constitutional Convention wasn’t between a Constitution without slavery or one with it, but a choice between a workable Constitution or no Constitution at all. 

And it was the principles in that document, as well as the Declaration, that gave moral and intellectual force to the cause of abolition. That’s why Martin Luther King Jr. invoked the Declaration as a “promissory note” that was long overdue. 

I am grateful to the Founders for that gift. I suspect King was as well, because it gave him the best ammunition possible to persuade white Americans that they were falling short on their own highest ideals. After all, if white Americans were as dedicated to “white supremacy” as so many radicals claim, they would not care about those ideals. True believers in white supremacy, whether we’re talking about Hitler or the idiot poltroons of the alt-right, recognize this fact better than the radicals of the new alt-left, which is why they disparage constitutionalists as “paper worshippers,” “vellum supremacists,” and “parchment fetishists.”

The founders are guilty of hypocrisy when it comes to slavery—not all of them, but enough of them. But that hypocrisy is a gift we should be grateful for. You can only be a hypocrite if you have ideals. If you believe in nothing other than your self-interest, it’s very difficult to be a hypocrite. But if you have ideals, noble and revolutionary ideals, it’s very easy to be a hypocrite because ideals are hard to live up to. But that’s the great benefit of hypocrisy, it highlights where you are falling short. It would be nice if the Founders had been angels, but they were the first to concede they weren’t, which is why they set up a constitutional order designed to protect against the worst aspects of human nature. That constitutional order, and the principles that inform it, is the greatest weapon for justice and progress toward a more perfect union you could reasonably ask for in the 18th century. And it is—or at least should be—the best tool for those grateful for our liberties and eager to live in a just society. 

And despite its flaws, real or perceived, I think we should all be grateful for it.

Photograph of the Howard Chandler Christy painting The Signing of the Constitution of the United States, with George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images.