What is behind the past year’s Arab street protests? Extremism? A cry for democracy? Something else? Former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft recently cautioned against interpreting these Middle East protests as an “upsurge of an innate instinct for democracy.” While speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. two weeks ago, he suggested that the Arab Spring is an urge for “dignity” rather than “democracy as we know it.” The outcome will not be apparent for a long time.
Fortunately this Independence Day weekend, our nation’s history is clear. What started out as colonial cries for dignity led to the radical Declaration of Independence that we celebrate today. Dignity was the heart and soul of it all.
When Thomas Jefferson began writing the Declaration of Independence in June 1776, he knew his fellow colonists had done their best to reconcile their differences with their British king. From signing peaceful petitions against the notorious Stamp Act in 1765 to violently throwing 300 chests of tea into Boston harbor in 1773, they had tried every antidote they could prescribe. Yet, the more these British subjects demanded dignity, the more invasive, tyrannical and sickly their monarchy became.
Over time the colonists lost their right to assemble in legislatures, receive jury trials and trade in commerce. The crown imposed “taxes on us without our consent” and worst of all, took away “our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws.”
While he wrestled with finding the right words for this now-famous document, Jefferson knew the final blow had come after the Continental Congress sent an olive branch petition to King George III. Referring to the shots fired at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, they called on him “to use all the means . . . for stopping the further effusion of blood.” The petition beseeched his “Majesty . . . to settle peace through every part of our dominions.”
How did King George III respond to their olive branch petition? He refused to even read it. Instead he issued his own document, the Declaration of Rebellion, which called America “dangerous” and in “open and avowed rebellion.”
When they learned in January 1776 that the king had rejected their peace petition and declared war against them, Jefferson and other leaders knew they had to do something. As the famous pamphleteer Thomas Paine put it: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. . . . Every thing that is right or natural pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ’TIS TIME TO PART.”
And it was time. The Continental Congress was ready to take Paine’s advice and begin the world over again. Central to their Declaration was a cry for dignity.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Jefferson famously wrote, with editorial oversight from committee members Ben Franklin and John Adams, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Dignity is the heart of this belief that God—not a government or king—gives humanity its rights. Massachusetts minister Nathanael Emmons described it this way: “The dignity of man appears from his bearing the image of his Maker.”
These founders hoped that dignity would lead to a form of democracy.
“For, in free republics, where liberty is equally enjoyed, every man has weight and influence in proportion to his abilities, and a fair opportunity of rising, by the dint of merit, to the first offices and honors of the state,” Emmons proclaimed.
Jefferson believed that dignity could be best upheld when government came from representation, not royalty.
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
This primal cry for dignity led 56 patriots to put their lives on the line by issuing the Declaration of Independence, earning them a place on the king’s most-wanted list. On that day, July 4, 1776, they boldly declared: “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.” And so we are today.
Jefferson had one last word for the king: “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”
Indeed. He was right.
It remains to be seen where the Arab Spring will ultimately lead the Middle East—to forms of democracy, stable governments or tyrannical kingdoms. Yet, as we celebrate Independence Day, let us remember Thomas Paine’s optimism about the promise of liberty: “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.”
Jane Hampton Cook, is the author of "Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War" and a new book for children on presidents and technology: "What Does the President Look Like?' She will be a guest speaker at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Saturday, July 30.