As we approach July 4th, social media will be filled with messages and memes asserting that we owe our independence and treasured freedoms to armed men who fought to secure them. The greater truth is that our freedoms were won not at the point of a gun, but the point of a pen. Words, carefully crafted words, words written after long, hard thought and study, words inspired by philosophers and historians, words published and distributed throughout the land, these words are what established and illuminated the freedoms we now treasure.
Force of arms became the tool used to secure them from the British government, but it was a messy affair costing dearly. Its was a war successful in the end more by happenstance and French help than by strategy, tactics, or the abilities of those who fought.
July 4th celebrates not armed rebellion, but words that prepared the way for something entirely new on the face of the earth: a democratically elected representative republic established through a constitution that could not easily be amended. It took another thirteen years of informed debate, and the failed trial of a confederation of independent states, for the Constitution to become the law of the land. It’s worthwhile to remember that democratically elected in those days meant the right of free, white males of some wealth to nominate and elect those who would rule. Democratic rights were for those to whom it was granted, not for all. That took a lot longer to work out. We are not yet done working it out. We still have work to do.
The point is that without well educated persons working hard to craft into words the foundation of what would become the U.S.A. that we celebrate on July 4th, whatever armed rebellion might have emerged would have been just another violent, bloody brawl ending in disaster for all.
As we raise the flag, watch parades, and enjoy fireworks, it would do well to remember that it is only through a well educated citizenry that we can hope to continue our experiment in democratic government. In a time when the liberal arts are sometimes belittled as having no economic value, we might recall that they are the corner stones of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. We need them now more than ever. We need well educated men and women who will bend to the task of hard thinking about who we are and where we are going. We need well educated women and men to engage in the political process through which we decide how we want to live with each other and the world at large. Failing that, we will drift ever closer to the plutocracy from which we emerged, and from which we may not be able to emerge again.