July 4, 2002, Episode Nine:   The Uses of Anger in the U.S. Declaration of Independence

Most people in the United States know that July the 4th is a holiday. Read newspaper ads or watch commercials on television and you will see the "July 4th" sales. Some of these ads will also use the words Independence Day interchangeably with July 4th. Red, white and blue are the colours associated with the holiday, and in a number of states, fireworks are bought, displayed and watched by thousands of onlookers. 

Because we are Americans living in Canada, because we have reasons for being here, because we are living in a time when people are not satisfied with their governments, not only in America but all over the world, because many people in Canada and a few people in America are asking some hard questions about "the war on terrorism," we spent some time this year reflecting upon Independence Day and more specifically, on the U.S. Declaration of Independence and what it means to the American culture and the world. We are going to devote this hour to sharing with you these meditations.

The transcript of this show is found below:


Part One: The Declaration of Independence as Cultural Icon


When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That wherever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to 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 began with the question: What do other Americans think about the Declaration of Independence?

We searched the World Wide Web for information on "the Declaration of Independence" or "United States Independence Day," yielding a plethora of essays, news articles and advertisements using these words to promote ideas and items, including:

· movements to lower taxes
· spiritual discussions about the real meaning of freedom
· psychological discussions about whether independence was possible on a personal level
· a wide variety of patriotic e-cards ready to inspire you friends through e-mail
· barbecue recipes
· fireworks safety
· and, almost as many hits on the blockbuster sci-fi thriller, Independence Day as on the historical markings.


While there are numerous sites allowing us to read the official history of the making and signing of the Declaration of Independence, and of course, the actual text of the document is available online, we didn't find any indication that Americans knew anything about this history or about the document itself. The words, quote, Independence Day, close quote and, quote, Declaration of Independence, close quote, are hegemonic symbols evoking patriotic fervour, but beyond the life-liberty-and-the-pursuit-of-happiness quotation or the evoking of inalienable rights, it seems that not many people discuss what the document contained or how it might be relevant to contemporary life. It is certainly not part of the tradition of the day to read the document or talk about its contents, though historical 4th of July speeches abound, and usually evoke Americanism as a philosophy that seems quite different from the original intent of the document. Consider Calvin Coolidge's 1919 speech evoking religious metaphors along with American ones:

[play 1919 Speech by Calvin Coolidge called "Equal Rights"]


We decided to examine the US Declaration of Independence as a cultural icon rather than an historical event. In doing so, we found quite a contrast between the American dream expressed in the declaration and contemporary American culture.  The history of the piece of paper is outlined in detail by the United States National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Keeping the document safe during the Revolutionary War was a high priority. Several copies were made and distributed to the colonists after it was adopted but before it was signed. Most especially copies were sent to troops in the field. These are called the Dunlap Broadside copies because they were set and pressed by Dunlap. Only 24 copies are known to be in existence today. A rouge draft written in Jefferson's own hand with notes and corrections made by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin has survived. Jefferson indicated in his journals that he rewrote a "fair" copy to be read and reviewed by the Congress, but that copy has not survived.

The copy that most Americans think of as The Declaration is an engrossed copy that was made in late July and signed by all but two of the members of the 2nd Continental Congress by August 1776. That copy, however, was kept secret, as were the names of the signers, until 1777 for fear of British reprisals against them.  The whereabouts of the engrossed copy were sketchy until after the Revolutionary War. In 1785, it was taken to New York City, then the centre of federal government, and was kept at the Department of Foreign Affairs (now known as the State Department). It was moved to Washington D.C. in 1800. 

The document has left Washington three times since 1800. For two months in 1814, when the British attacked Washington D.C., it was hidden in a gristmill at an undisclosed location in Maryland. In 1941, two weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, it was taken, along with the constitution, to Fort Knox, Kentucky, and kept in a vault under armed guard until 1944. The only other time it was moved was for the centennial celebration in Philadelphia in 1876, where it was displayed as part of the festivities.


During the first 100 years of the existence of the copy, it was not handled with care. Kept in direct sunshine, handled by onlookers and reporters, traced by a number of people, and possibly used for a wet transfer to create copies, it suffered considerable wear and tear. In 1876, several writers observed that the signatures were almost gone they were faded so much. Since 1876, more care has been taken, though it was 1903 before it was kept out of sunlight. The National Archives have been the keepers of the document since 1952.

Like a religious icon, the document is kept in specific atmospheric conditions, protected by people who learn the best techniques to keep it intact. One wonders with all this attention if the fear is that the fading of the document will render it null and void. Certainly the fear that it would be destroyed during the war attests to its symbolic value beyond its legal standing. Consider also that with so many copies of the document being published, and its declarative nature (it is a resolution, not a law), it is misleading that we even use the definite article at all. "The Declaration of Independence" actually underwent several iterations and multiple duplications.

The attention and care is telling, especially when one considers that a corresponding attention and care to teach Americans about the content of the document isn't apparent. When one walks through the National Archives in Washington, D.C., one is rushed through a showcase of around 30 such documents or pieces of documents. Yes, there are signs on the wall giving the text of each document, but with long lines of admirers waiting - in the spring and summer, the wait can be 30 minutes or so in hot sticky weather -- one feels the need to pass by the parade. No interpreter is available of whom to ask questions, though guards are certainly everywhere. The assumption is that because you have come you know the importance of these documents. With the low lights and controlled climate, one feels like one is viewing a body at a funeral home. It suggests a show of respect for the past and a desire to honour the symbol of the history, but the soul is regarded as being somewhere else.


Part Two: Legitimation Through Grievances


Prudence indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.


What makes this document so important anyway? 

The Americans cite it as the birth of the United States of America. However, combat in the Revolutionary War began the year before the document was crafted and signed. Two years before, a similar list of Colonial complaints with their treatment by the British, the Declaration of Rights and Grievances, was drafted. Colonists were angered by the British Parliament's passing of what came to be known as the "Intolerable Acts" or "Coercive Acts by Americans," a set of laws which punished the colony of Massachusetts for, among other things, the Boston Tea Party. They were also fuelled by anger over, and this may surprise some Canadians, the establishment of Quebec as a Roman Catholic colony and of the new system of government in Canada (one that Americans feared would be imposed on the 13 colonies). Twelve of the thirteen colonies sent delegates to the First Continental Congress, where it was decided to boycott the British, declaring the Intolerable Acts as, quote, impolitic, unjust, and cruel, close quote. The document stopped short, however, of declaring an independence from Britain. Instead, it asserted the British rights of citizenship and representation in government for the colonists and it did not show the unity that the later document did. With the absence of anyone representing the colony of Georgia and with not everyone signing it, the 1774 document presented less than a united front.

Thus, the legitimacy of the Declaration of Independence is found in the fact that all thirteen colonies had agreed to this split from Britain. It is no accident that the document begins "The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America…" But this unity came at a price, especially for women and slaves. A great deal was discussed about slavery within the 2nd Continental Congress, but in the end nothing was mentioned in the document. In order for the document to be legitimated, it was decided that all members of the Congress must sign it, though two members refused to sign, an enduring myth of unanimity was born and perpetuated. Anything less and it would not stand up against the King and British laws.


The shooting war had already begun and this document was going to be used to keep the morale of the troops high. Among other things, the Declaration of Independence can be regarded as war propaganda. It was a symbolic gesture to the troops to reassure them that they were not going to be the only ones who sacrificed for the cause. It was a symbol that wasn't lost on the British. Many of the signers of the document were dead by the end of the war, several of them hung for treason. Of those who didn't die, many of them lost everything. Their properties were targeted by the British and what didn't get taken or burned was contributed to the war effort. The symbolic gesture had teeth in the end and this added to its legitimacy as well.

The fact that the war is now called "the American Revolution" and not "the American rebellion" (revolutions are won, rebellions are not) also adds to the legitimacy of the document. History is written by the winners, and the document remains important in history because the Americans won the war. Thus, the effort was legitimated, in part, by the choice to bear arms and by the violent use of those arms in the cause. Many things in this world are legitimated by force.

With all this context to the document, one wonders if it stands on its own merit. Much is made about the words "inalienable rights" and "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" and the political theory that stands behind this declaration that when a government refuses to represent the best interests of its people, it is no longer the government. But in truth, most of the document isn't legal theory or political theory. Most of the document is a list of grievances against King George III:

  • PATTIE: He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
  • CARL: He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained, and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
  • PATTIE: He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
  • CARL: He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
  • PATTIE: He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
  • CARL: He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the meantime exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
  • PATTIE: He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.
  • CARL: He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.
  • PATTIE: He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
  • CARL: He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.
  • PATTIE: He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies, without the consent of our legislatures.
  • CARL: He has affected to render the military independent of and superior to the civil power.
  • PATTIE: He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their Acts of pretended legislation:
  • For protecting them by a mock trial from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these States:
  • For cutting off our trade with all parts of the world:
  • For imposing taxes on us without our consent:
  • For depriving us in many cases of the benefits of trial by jury:
  • For transporting us beyond seas to be tried for pretended offences:
  • For abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighbouring province, establishing therein an arbitrary government, and enlarging its boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these colonies:
  • For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable laws and altering fundamentally the forms of our governments:
  • For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
  • CARL: He has abdicated government here by declaring us out of his protection and waging war against us.
  • PATTIE: He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
  • CARL: He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation.
  • PATTIE: He has constrained our fellow citizens taken captive on the high seas to bear arms against their country, to become the executioners of their friends and brethren, or to fall themselves by their hands.
  • CARL: He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

PATTIE: In every stage of these oppressions, we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms. Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. 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. Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren.

  •  CARL: We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us.
  • PATTIE: We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here.
  • CARL: We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence.

PATTIE: They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.


Since the crown had lost much of its power in 1689 when the English Bill of Rights was signed into law (yes, a full 102 years before the American Bill of Rights), one might wonder why the beef with the King and not Parliament. Unlike those who had reigned immediately before him, George stretched (and by some accounts broke) the limits of the powers of the crown. He manipulated the prime minister's office and Parliament to his own ends and the colonists were quite right to locate their grievance with him, as much of the legislation against them was the result of his machinations. Nineteen grievances (with some sub-points) were listed against George and only three against the British people. It was an interesting tactic not to go directly after the Parliament. This was in part motivated by their desire to keep the best of what parliamentary government had while getting rid of the crown and the lack of representation afforded colonists.

Part Three: Uses of Anger in Social Change


We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare. That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent States; that they are absolved from the all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent States, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. For the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divide Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.


The heart of the Declaration lies in these final words. It is called a declaration because it is a declaring of the intent of the colonies to form their own government. It does not rely upon legal theory or history as much as it does the anger the people felt towards their government. It is the grievances that make the case for the Declaration. In short, the Americans were mad, fighting mad, and any government that could make the people or any significant segment of them this mad was no government at all, according to Jefferson and the Congress. Lack of consent by the colonists for the government's actions towards the colonies was taken in the document as sufficient reason for the claim that British rule of the colonies had ended. Not "had been ended," but "had ended."

Contrast this anger and passion to the ways that the document is used in American society today, and a picture of how different the world is 226 years later will emerge. The cultural metanarrative of the Declaration of Independence is one of personal independence. "I" have a "right to life." "I" have a "right to liberty." "I" have a "right to the pursuit of happiness." The collaborative and collective efforts needed to accomplish protection of human rights are not part of the symbol anymore.


Feelings of anger are still often linked to the Declaration. Popular narratives that make such a connection often centre on stories of radicals who are depicted as somehow misusing the text of the Declaration for their own misguided anger. Episodes of the American television show Law and Order in which far-left or far-right terrorists bomb buildings or rob armoured cars and then evoke the Declaration of Independence in court as part of their defence, asking juries to reject the tyranny of the government, replicate the meme that it is crazy to be that angry at the American government. After all, the American government, unlike King George's, is the keeper of "law" and "order." There is a fear of such anger and, perhaps, rightly so. It is from anger that revolutions are forged. Social change often begins with anger over the status quo.

However, it would be misleading to suggest that anger is repressed or absent from American culture. Hostility is everywhere in cultural productions and in everyday life. News programs emphasize violence as much, if not more than television dramas and films. Talk shows built their audiences on the basis of how loudly guests scream at each other and how often fisticuffs break out. Road rage is now considered as dangerous as drunk driving. People call in and call each other names on radio and television feedback shows on a daily basis. All of these examples of hostility are paraded as spectacles for consumption across cable television and broadcast radio or in newspapers and magazines daily.

When do expressions of anger become the basis for social change? Or perhaps a better question might be: Why doesn't all this anger lead to social change?


An answer may lie in Jean Francois Lyotard's Postmodern Condition. Lyotard suggests that the underpinnings of knowledge, most especially what is legitimate knowledge, have changed considerably since 1776. Among other strategies, the writers of the Declaration of Independence depended upon an appeal to a humanistic philosophical foundation that suggested universal values that superseded cultural and political boundaries. Lyotard calls such appeals metanarratives, suggesting that these are the stories that other stories are based upon within a culture. Knowledge in the latter half of the 20th century has become much more complex and such appeals to metanarratives are no longer regarded as legitimate simply if they are consistent with the metanarratives or illegitimate simply if they are not. Lyotard writes,

Quote, we no longer have recourse to the grand narratives - we can resort neither to the dialectic of Spirit nor even to the emancipation of humanity as a validation for postmodern scientific discourse, close quote.

Is all lost then? Are we so cynical that we can find no common ground upon which to build a legitimate place for our grievances? Anger, violence, and hostility are spectacles and ring as hollow as the metanarratives Lyotard pronounced dead in 1979. But Lyotard doesn't leave us collectively hanging off the cliff with no solid ground upon which to build legitimacy. He suggests an alternative to the metanarrative, which he calls paralogy. Paralogy is a localized discussion in which all players are invited to the table and encouraged to speak. It is a creative process that is meant to find meaning and agreement through inclusion. The legitimacy of the outcome is founded on the process itself rather than any pre-existing universal feature of the content.


According to Lyotard, the enemy of paralogy is terrorism, and unlike George W., Lyotard defines what he means by the term:

Quote, by terror, I mean the efficiency gained by eliminating, or threatening to eliminate, a player from the language game one plays with him. He is silenced or consents, not because he has been refuted, but because his ability to participate has been threatened, close quote.

So let's return to the question at hand: Why did the grievances in 1776 lead to social change whereas the hostilities of the present do not?

A plausible answer might be that grievances in 1776 were used within the text of the Declaration of Independence to argue for the necessity of allowing players to be heard in public language games in order to create social and political change, while violence and spectacles of violence in contemporary society are used by the texts of cultural productions to argue the necessity of eliminating or threatening to eliminate players from public language games in order to preserve the status quo. Many well-meaning people would have us seek non-violent answers to our problems, but they often confuse violence with any expression of anger. Grievances expressed, however, can lead to change or the desire for change. Thus, eliminating anger might be one more way to eliminate players from the game. What counts is the use of anger in the game. The answer then is neither to respect all forms of anger not to eliminate any forms of anger, but to use anger wisely, to use grievances to encourage openness and inclusion. There are some contemporary examples of such wise uses of rage:

[play Alison Acker, Raging Grannies interview]

Part Four: A Call for a New Constitutional Convention


Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge, Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.


Not all revolutions must be bloody. Despite the reign of George III, it is the British government's parliamentary system that has the longest (although some would say "slowest") history of adaptation through listening to the anger of its people. The British government makes mistakes, with the imperialist policies of the 19th Century making their 18th-Century treatment of their un-Canadian colonies in North America look kittenish. But they sometimes listen to their "subjects," and they sometimes adjust accordingly.

Canada has been adaptive as well, willing to reconvene and take a reflexive look at government as a matter of course, asking hard questions about improvement. Northrop Frye once asked the question: Quote, What is distinctively Canadian?, close quote. Frye critiqued both American and Canadian cultures by answering his own question: Quote, historically, a Canadian is an American who rejects the revolution, close quote. Canada was perhaps treated the most lovingly of all the subservient states in the British Empire, and no one likes the preferred child of a matriarch who makes a point of playing favourites. But like its overbearing but not uniformly inflexible mother, Canada has made a point of changing its political machinations for the better once in a while. Yes, it hasn't always worked out as rapidly as it could have, and yes, it is messy, but it takes the social pressure off and tolerates some space in discourse for the anger of the people.


When the 2nd Continental Congress was convened, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband during the spring of 1776:

Quote, In the new code of laws which I suppose will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation, close quote.

John Adams wrote his wife back, rejecting her request, suggesting that it was not time yet for such a movement and that other issues were more important. He told her that the so-called "dependent tribes" - a classification in which he included women, children, Indians, and black slaves - would be represented by the men at the convention. Eleven years later, not only was it still not time for inclusion when the U.S. Constitution was written, but white men who did not own property were also excluded from the process. This means that representatives from less than 10 percent of the population fashioned the founding documents of the United States.

Slowly, some of this exclusionary disposition has abated. It was 1863 when the last African slaves were freed. It was 1920 when women got the vote. Native populations still suffer from Caucasian inconsistency in matters of disenfranchisement and the resultant oppression both on and off the reservations.

Only a few peoples have been given reparations for these past inequities, and African Americans are not among those peoples. In many ways, under the American system, women, children, Indians and blacks remain "dependent tribes." This does not even address concerns about American imperialism abroad or the treatment of "immigrants," aside from the ones who have the luxury of unmarking themselves as such.


The first lesson that Americans seemed to have learned from the Declaration of Independence is that an appearance of unity is more important than anything else, with the subtext that the status quo must be maintained through forcing marginalized peoples into the centre. This remains true even when the marginalized peoples constitute a majority of the population, as is the case with women. The united front needed to fight the war has spilled over into the culture and now on holidays such as the Fourth of July, one hears Americans saying things like "my country, right or wrong" and "America, love it or leave it," and "if you don't like it here, go back where you came from," with the amusing irony that such a request from the original inhabitants is wholly ignored. Such unity is always an illusion. Even the Declaration has only an appearance of unity. Two members of Congress refused to sign it.

Another lesson that Americans seemed to have learned from the Declaration of Independence is the belief that each individual is always more important than the group. Americans have become obsessed with declaring what they have a right to, with the term "right" being used to preclude discourse rather than encourage it. To use Lyotard's terminology, "rights talk" has become "terrorist talk" in the paralogy of public discourse.

On the surface it seems to be a paradox: Americans want to appear united while maintaining independence from each other. But when one examines the story more closely, one sees that the pressure is for Americans to be independent of each other in exactly the same way. They want to appear American and that means asserting their rights above all else. Unity is not achieved through discussion or debate leading to consensus but from ensuring that each person does exactly as the next person, individually and yet in unity.

Much is made in Canada about the lack of unity in culture and politics, sometimes accompanied by a wistful sigh and a comment about envying American solidarity in times of crisis. Canadians seem lost at times, not really sure who they are in the bigger scheme of things, not really knowing how much to embrace the Commonwealth, the crown, and their British or French histories, not knowing if their neighbours to the south is their good friend or the hungry master hoping to exploit the natural resources and to impose cultural values. Canadians remain perplexed about their dual identities: French/English, East/West, Native/Newcomer, Citizen/Immigrant. But through all of this, the Canadian consciousness stays self-reflexive. A question always on the tip of the tongue among Canadians is "Have we heard from everyone yet?"

Canadians complain about their wishy-washiness, their messiness. "Why can't we be more definite?" "What is our national character?" "Should we be a united Canada?" As Americans living in Canada, we have come to appreciate this messiness because we see how discourse is encouraged through the desire to hear from all stakeholders. This is a lesson we can only hope American culture can absorb someday.


Consensus is something that is discovered; unity is something that is imposed. The real lesson of the Declaration of Independence is that for a government to remain a de jure government, rather than a purely coercive entity, it must listen to its people, all of its people. That listening should take place in an open atmosphere allowing voices to be heard. The founding fathers shut some voices up in order to create the unity supposedly needed for war, but not all of them intended for those voices to be silenced indefinitely in the new democracy. Is there a way for this America, at this time in history, in this culture to open up the floor for discussion and debate again? Yes, there is a conceptually simple way and one that Americans could learn from observing other democracies in the world and from the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Sociologists Gideon Sjoberg and Ted Vaughn point out that human beings have the ability to, quote, take the roles of others and to recognize another's humanity and commonality with oneself, close quote. Such recognition is important in honouring the rights of other human beings. The UN's Declaration represents such an effort and demonstrates that people of different cultural backgrounds can agree, as a practical matter, on some basic human rights. Such a cross-cultural process has not yet occurred in the United States.


Written between January 1947 and December 1948 by a committee of eight people, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt, the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights represents an incredible feat of consensuality.

[Insert speech at University of Manitoba in 1949 by Eleanor Roosevelt regardinig the role of United Nations in world peace]

The text went through 1400 separate votes by the 58 member states that were part of the United Nations at the time. The document has been used to create over sixty human rights treaties and has been incorporated into the laws of almost every member state.

While the results of these efforts continue to be under scrutiny and it is quite obvious that more people give lip service to the Universal Declaration than actually enforce it or respect it, the effort is a continuous one and represents a process of negotiation across national and cultural boundaries.


A similar process is provided for in U.S. law through the assembly of a new constitutional convention. Sociologists Joe R. Feagin and Hernan Vera call for such an assembly in their book White Racism as the best means to address racism in the United States, for example.

Jefferson and the 2nd Continental Congress relied upon their grievances to push Americans towards political and social change. However, their exclusionary policies of defining some players as "dependent tribes" left the American experiment falling far short of its stated aims of ensuring life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people. Subsequent cultural practices have modified these dependencies, but have not let go of the desire to eliminate players in the name of coerced unity. Many groups have grievances that need to be and could be addressed by a new constitutional convention. The work of the United Nations suggests that people from vastly different points of view can find common solutions, legitimized by the process of inclusion, when given a chance to do so.


As Americans celebrate today the 226-year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, perhaps it would be a good to time to let go of the "unity at any cost and my country above all others" as the dominant rhetoric and to embrace the true spirit of 1776, consensuality of all the people, by calling for a new continental congress in which all Americans can be represented. It is time to come to the table and talk together.

copyright by Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson 2002


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