Considering she is 234 years old today and accounting for all the wrinkles
and scars, the United States of America is looking pretty good for her age.
On the wall of my office I have a framed copy of what is called the
"Gadsden flag," one of the original flags of the American Republic. It
displays a coiled rattlesnake on a yellow field with the words "Don't Tread
on Me" below the snake. The flag's history -- like all American history -- is
fascinating and complex.
Over the last two centuries-plus, different groups have used the Gadsden
flag; at the moment the Tea Party Movement has tried to appropriate it.
Well, like so many icons and concepts of American liberty and freedom, it
doesn't belong to them. It belongs to us, like the other tenets of the
American Constitution which expresses reserves in the 9th Amendment --
that rights not otherwise enumerated to the government belong to . . .
I must confess that I get profoundly depressed by the general lack of
knowledge about the Constitution, American history, and the reason for
the symbolism that is laced through our popular culture -- the reciting of
the Pledge of Allegiance at public meetings or the singing of the National
Anthem at sporting events. Because, like words, symbols matter. A lot.
The history behind Independence Day is so radical, even today, that it
bears examination and reflection. Much of my thoughts were triggered by
the receipt of an email from Professor John Barrett, a law professor at St.
John's University in New York and the biographer to someone who is my
personal legal hero. Often called "the most important American no-one
has ever heard of," Robert Jackson was friend and Attorney General to
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Justice on the Supreme Court and, most
famously, Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. On July
4, 1941, then-Attorney General Jackson (who had just been nominated to
the Supreme Court) gave a speech. It was scheduled for the steps of the
Washington Monument, but the weather turned bad and was instead
broadcast nationally from a radio studio later that day.
Since context is just about everything, it's important to remember that this
was about two years after the Nazi invasion of Poland and then Europe,
and German efforts to bomb England into surrender. There was a great
deal of anti-war sentiment in the United States, fueled in large part by the
still-fresh memory of the terrible toll of what was then called "The Great
War" but, even more, a belief that the United States should just keep its
nose out of what was happening in Europe.
Jackson was having none of that. (Keep in mind he was about to be voted
on as a nominee to the US Supreme Court, just as Elena Kagan is right
now.) Imagine a Supreme Court nominee in the last 30 years pleading
with America to remember that: "The Declaration of Independence speaks
strong doctrine in plain words. It is the master indictment of oppression.
The fervor of its denunciation haunts and challenges dictators everywhere
and in every field of life."
Jackson goes on to challenge the Congressmen who don't want to face
Nazi aggression: "One fact emerges clear above all others. We Americans
cannot cease to be the kind of people we are, we cannot cease to live the
kind of life we live. We are not the kind of people the dictators will ever
want in the world. They will never have any use for our kind of life, nor we
So, for America's birthday it is all well and good to have parades and
barbecues, and fireworks that make our pets hide under the bed. But let's
remember what this is all about: that government is for, by, and of the
people. Those of us in the government have one boss -- you, the people.
And exactly 184 years ago today, which was the 50th birthday of America
(1826), two of the greatest Americans who helped make July 4th what it is
died. Thomas Jefferson at his home in Montecello, Virginia, and his long-
time friend and adversary John Adams, at his home in Quincy,
Massachusetts, whose last words were, "It is a good day, a great day.
And today, if we remember, if we learn to tell others the meaning of
American liberty, independence and justice, they survive too.