THE MYSTIC CHORDS OF MEMORY
Attorney Jonathan Emord
June 21, 2010
Independence Day must be America’s greatest holiday. Its overarching lesson of liberty still teaches us who we are and what we must do to remain free.
We differ from the rest of the world in a very significant respect. We are tied inextricably to those who founded our republic, and we know a great deal about them--they wrote prodigiously and understood the gravity of their idyllic moment in the founding of our nation. Our very essence as Americans is defined by the Founders’ words and their remarkable deeds (in achieving independence from the British Empire and in creating the world’s first written Constitution of liberty). The statements of Thomas Jefferson etched into the marble of the Jefferson Memorial against the towering, magnificent 9 foot tall statue of the man by Rudulph Evans still captivate the reader with the powerful attraction of liberty.
The historian Gordon Wood writes in Revolutionary Characters: “. . . [T]o most Americans the founders still seem larger than life as well as possessing political and intellectual capacities well beyond our own. The awe that most of us feel when we look back at them is thus mingled with an acute sense of loss. Somehow for a brief moment ideas and power, intellectualism and politics, came together—indeed were one with each other—in a way never again duplicated in American history.”
For the Europeans, there are no “founders” comparable to our own. There are no figures from a founding era who influence contemporary public policy debate. European history has no permanent claim on the present. In America, by contrast, there is a common focus on the founding generation (from supporters and detractors alike). The founders’ words and deeds recur in the greatest orations of American presidents, jurists, and men of state. Although academia goes through periodic reexaminations of the founding era and occasionally redefines the people, events, and deeds, often to cast aspersion, the hold the founders have on the hearts and minds of the American people is incredibly strong.
The Age of Enlightenment gave birth to the rights of man and to the destruction of the Divine Right of Kings but only here in America did the Lockean philosophy of rights become the rule of law, first in the newly formed state constitutions and then in the federal constitution. While in England, the freest nation on earth before the birth of the United States, Parliament was effectively the English Constitution and its rule was beyond question, here—by contrast—a written Constitution became the Supreme Law, over and above the federal government, and it, in turn, made the people sovereign and forbad acts by the government that would deprive the people of their unalienable rights.
Our Declaration of Independence is the quintessential embodiment of natural rights philosophy. It declares popular sovereignty the foundation for the American revolution. Governments are instituted among men to secure rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, declares the Declaration, and whenever any form of government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
We are a people defined by the founding. We are a people who cherish liberty, die for it here and abroad with regularity, and proclaim our love of liberty every Fourth of July through pledges, prayer, and parades. We are united in our love of liberty and yet are more diverse in our politics and expressions of freedom than any other people on earth.
Every year patriotic citizens of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts help re-enact Paul Revere’s 1775 ride to alert the townspeople of British General Thomas Gage’s dispatch of the red coats (“The Regulars are coming out!”) to capture Sons of Liberty John Hancock and Sam Adams, capture gun powder and weapons, and suppress all signs of rebellion. They re-enact the fateful battles, the patriots’ bloody defeat at Lexington and their extraordinary rout of the Regulars at Concord. The alarm bells are rung from church steeples and the lanterns (two if by sea) are placed in the high tower of Boston’s Christ Church, as they were over two hundred years ago. Lectures recount the battle that triggered the war for independence. David Hackett Fischer writes in his brilliant Paul Revere’s Ride: “Today, a long stretch of the road that [Paul Revere] traveled . . . is a National Park. The anniversary of the ride and battle is still kept as a public holiday called Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts and Maine. Every year since the battle itself, the event continues to be celebrated...”
The greatest threat to America then as now is to its liberty. The greatest achievements of America are because of its liberty. The best hope for America lies in its defense of liberty. Without a zealous attachment to liberty and a willingness to die for it, we are not truly American. Again this July 4 we will be stirred by the ultimate price paid by so many to ensure our liberty.
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With the South seceding at the start of his presidency, Abraham Lincoln wrote prophetic words that still beckon us to recall our founding principles. At his first inaugural in March of 1861, Lincoln spoke poetically: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
We today still need those better angels. We depend upon them to reach from beyond the veil to touch the mystic chords of memory and swell the chorus of the Union, which is the song of liberty.
© 2010 Jonathan W. Emord - All Rights Reserved