Matthew Yglesias at the Atlantic writes, “I think the United States is a pretty awesome country but it very plausibly would have been even awesomer had English and American political leaders in the late 18th century been farsighted enough to find compromises that would have held the empire together.” I think this is an interesting comment. It’s hard to tell in just what way things would have been “awesomer,” but I would guess he means it would have been nice to have avoided bloodshed by coming up with “compromises.”
What form would such “compromises” have taken? In June 1775, a year before declaring independence, the Continental Congress sent Parliament an “Olive Branch Petition,” seeking a peaceful redress of colonial grievances. The king, however, refused to read the petition. This was not the only attempt that the colonists had made to find some peaceful resolution to the crisis, and not the only time they were rebuffed. But what they understood—and what many today do not understand—is that there is a limit to appropriate compromise. What they understood is that bloodshed may be an awful thing, but it is not the worst thing, and some things, particularly freedom, are worth shedding blood.
The British had asserted a right to “bind [us] in all cases whatsoever”—an assertion of absolute, despotic rule which renders compromise impossible. Compromise, after all, is available only to people who can come to an agreement on fundamentals. When one party claims the right to rule another without their consent, and in all cases whatsoever, it is simply not possible to compromise, or appropriate to try. July 4th is, if nothing else, a time for gratitude that our forefathers recognized this fact. When in February 1775, Lord North offered a “conciliatory proposal” to the Americans, they responded
when the world reflects, how inadequate to justice are [North’s] vaunted terms; when it attends to the rapid and bold succession of injuries, which, during a course of eleven years, have been aimed at these Colonies; when it reviews the pacific and respectful expostulations, which, during that whole time, were the sole arms we opposed to them; when it observes that our complaints were either not heard at all, or were answered with new and accumulated injury; when it recollects that the Minister himself on an early occasion declared, “that he would never treat with America, till he had brought her to his feet,” and that an avowed partisan of Ministry has more lately denounced against us the dreadful sentence “delenda est Carthago,” that this was done in presence of a British Senate, and being unreproved by them, must be taken to be their own sentiment, (especially as the purpose has already in part been carried into execution by their treatment of Boston, and burning of Charlestown) when it considers the great armaments with which they have invaded us, and the circumstances of cruelty with which these have commenced and prosecuted hostilities; when these things, we say, are laid together, and attentively considered, can the world be deceived into an opinion that we are unreasonable, or can it hesitate to believe with us, that nothing but our own exertions may defeat the ministerial sentence of death or abject submission[?]
Abject submission is what you get when you try to “compromise” with those who would destroy your liberty and reduce you under absolute despotism. What a shame—and what a comment on contemporary politics—that many opinion-makers today would think of such a route as “awesome.”
It should not surprise us that Yglesias would say such a thing, however. Elsewhere he writes of the difference between liberals and conservatives that “liberals do a better job of recognizing that much as we may love America there’s something arbitrary about it—we’re [sic] just so happen to be Americans whereas other people are Canadians or Mexicans or French or Russian or what have you.” But this, of course, is getting the deal exactly wrong. These other nationalities are based on ethnicity and chance, while American nationality is based on choice and the assent to certain basic principles that make up our nation. Nobody explained this better than Abraham Lincoln in a speech given almost exactly 150 years ago,
Now, it happens that we meet together once every year, sometime about the 4th of July, for some reason or other. These 4th of July gatherings I suppose have their uses. If you will indulge me, I will state what I suppose to be some of them....
We hold this annual celebration to remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time of how it was done and who did it, and how we are historically connected with it; and we go from these meetings in better humor with ourselves—we feel more attached the one to the other, and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit. In every way we are better men in the age, and race, and country in which we live for these celebrations. But after we have done all this we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else connected with it.
We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French and Scandinavian—men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things. If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.
When Yglesias ridicules the idea “that the citizens of Iraq or Russia or China or wherever will drop their own patriotisms and come to see things our way,” what he is ridiculing is the idea that people can come to believe in the premises upon which our nation relies—the premises of equality and liberty—premises which, of course, should never be bargained away in an abject search for peace at any price. He is ridiculing the idea that Americanism is anything more than ethnic happenstance. He is therefore ridiculing the idea of government by the understanding, principled consent of the governed.
What July 4th is about is to remind us that all those who stand up for freedom and refuse to “compromise” their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are brothers and sisters and at heart Americans; that all who today try to move their countries toward a fuller recognition and implementation of these principles are working hand in hand with our founders; that American nationhood is the first ever founded on anything but an arbitrary ethnic or historical basis, but on the basis of certain shared principles, principles that can be grasped by “a candid world,” and that give hope to all men for all future time.