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Does the fiery spirit of 1776 still burn?

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 4, 2001

Today we celebrate our right to overthrow the government.

There is no pussyfooting around this fact. It is the central meaning of Independence Day. Today's firecrackers are reminders of the bloody war we were willing to fight against the British to win freedom. Bang.

We can try to rename today's holiday the more innocuous "Fourth of July." We can outlaw firecrackers on the grounds of nuisance and fire hazard and you'll-put-somebody's-eye-out.

But so far nobody has been able to rewrite the Declaration of Independence itself, and the words of that document are crystal clear. Today is a spiritual, passionate, angry, violent holiday for a modern society that is squeamish about every one of those adjectives.

If you get a chance today, you should read the actual words of the Declaration. Read the whole thing. It's even better out loud. Imagine you are really fed up while you're reading it. When you get to the list of abuses by King George III, you will get angrier and angrier. I still do.

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.

Endowed by their Creator! Were the Framers deftly sidestepping the word "God," or in their day did they simply assume that one word was synonymous with the other? Either way is fine -- the point is that we have inherent rights that can never be taken away.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

There's the Big Idea. Government gets its authority from the consent of the people. It is one of the most important political things anybody ever said, except maybe for the next sentence ...

That whenever 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...

And that is the gist of it. The people give the government its power. If the government becomes tyrannical, the people have the right to cast it off.

This does not mean that the Framers intended us to start a revolution every time we got ticked off. It does not bestow any moral authority on kooks and extremists. In fact, Jefferson and his editors stressed just the opposite: government should not be changed for "light and transient causes."

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.

Legally speaking, do you know how much weight the Declaration of Independence carries today? None. Zippo. The Constitution is the sole basis of our government. Yet the Constitution would not have been possible without the Declaration -- it is the "new Guard."

An opinion survey this week said 66 percent of us do not believe Americans would be as willing to call for a revolution today as they were 225 years ago.

But are we really so puny? We have glorified the Revolution over the past two and a quarter centuries. The truth is it was a controversial and divisive time. A lot of colonists wanted the King to win. They were willing to live under tyranny for a little extra security.

Do you think they magically grew a better crop of human beings in the 1700s? Or did Americans of that era rise to the occasion, just as they did in a Civil War, in a terrible Depression, in two 20th-century wars against global evil?

In our modern life we are fat and happy and safe and selfish. The question for today is whether in that comfort and selfishness, an essential American idea has been extinguished, or is just sleeping.

- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at

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