In 1776, Thomas Jefferson and others – among them the justly celebrated Roger Sherman of Connecticut -- drew up our Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. The Declaration contained what we might call a bill of particulars that formed the root of separation.
My father, Frank Pesci, born in Italy, memorized portions of the Declaration and read it every Independence Day. The Declaration was read by some outstanding student in our parochial elementary school, because the sisters of Saint Joseph, a teaching order in the Catholic Church who tolerated us from first to eighth grade, were fiercely patriotic.
George Bernard Shaw, a Fabian Socialist, often expressed his distain of patriotism: “Patriotism if you must, but please, no parades.”
Had Shaw been a student of Saint Mary’s Parochial School in Windsor Locks way back when, his knuckles would have been daily bruised by some ruler-wielding, patriotic nun.
The bulk of the Declaration consists of a long and detailed list of grievances against the British Parliament and Britain’s King George III, who had failed conspicuously to protect his American subjects from parliamentary depredations. In a Declaration of only 1334 words, 823 words are devoted to detailing “a long train of abuses and usurpations,” preceded by the words “let facts be submitted to a candid world.”
A good part of the world was listening intently. Yet poor in power, John Adams summed up the new nation’s prospective foreign policy with other nations, friendly or antagonistic to the American experiment in small “r” republican government. The Unites States, Adams said, was “the friend of liberty everywhere, but the custodian only of our own.”
Domestically, the founders looked forward to a future in which the governed, resisting all assaults on their liberties, would govern themselves, and they provided in the U.S Constitution a clearheaded framework for self-governance that divided power among three coequal branches – legislative, executives and judicial – to prevent tyrannical accumulations of power under one head of government in which the exercise of force would produce, in the long run, a more efficient government.
All the founders of the American Republic were familiar with the history of Rome’s ancient republic and its subversion by succeeding emperors.
Reading about the collapse of the Roman Republic today, students may consult Cicero – very persuasive, very republican, always an outspoken thorn in the side of Caesar.
Marc Anthony finally got rid of the pest, tore out his tongue, and displayed his dissevered head on a post in the Roman Forum, so that the senators of Rome could appreciate the fate that awaited them were they brave enough to defend the republic against tyrannical emperors.
Caesar, Cicero said, was not alone in pensioning off Rome’s liberties. “Do not blame Caesar,” Cicero thundered. “Blame the people of Rome who have rejoiced in their loss of freedom, who hail him when he speaks in the forum of more security, more living fatly at the expense of the industrious.”
Never was a truer word spoken.
The Roman Republic, most of the founders knew, died over a long period of time from a thousand cuts. They knew as well that the cutters could best be frustrated by a system of governance in which power was constitutionally distributed in such a fashion that it could not combine in one person, or indeed in one legislative body, the powers distributed by the Constitution to three separate branches of government.
It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the architects of the U.S. Constitution said what they said and did what they did because they had not forgotten the lessons of history and were, in the best possible sense, Ciceronian to the bone – fierce defenders of the liberty of the person.
This undying spirit of liberty was best articulated, then and now, by Sam Adams, known in his own day as the Father of the American Revolution. Addressing defenders of the crown, Adams thundered, “If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude than the animating contest of freedom—go from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you.”
Whether the torch of liberty lit by the founders continues to burn brightly in the breasts of the men and women of our own generation is a subject worthy of discussion. Here in the United States, it is past time to put away childish things and to remember Cicero’s injunction: “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.”