At dusk on July 4th, I sat in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the Capitol Mall in Washington, DC. Uncle Sam hats, a few hippie drums, and lots of flags inadequately-disguised as shirts punctuated the crowded and patriotic humidity. Spectators chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A!” A beach ball flew over my head.
Before the festivities commenced, I wanted to interview some people about how they viewed the secession of the United States of America from Great Britain and how or if they framed modern secession as different from the Revolutionary War. Here is one of the more compelling interviews:
After discussing America’s secession with a few more attendees to varying degrees of success, I headed back to our group’s seats. I threw out some ‘Murika!’s for good measure, and then sat back to enjoy the fireworks and accompanying nationalistic music. Like the zombies in George Romero’s Land of the Dead, I allowed myself to be bought off of my convictions for a few hundred thousand dollars’ worth of pretty lights.
I couldn’t think of any recent occasion that the government had more wisely spent our tax dollars. That round of fireworks were among the most memorable shows I had ever seen. For a moment, even myself, little ol’ anarchist me, could not hold a grudge against the statists. Amongst libertarian friends and the well-intentioned, I stared past the reflecting pool at Capitol Hill and couldn’t feel anything but that perhaps I’d judged them prematurely. Maybe I had been a little unfair to the state. I’d felt the same way when I visited the monuments.
The week previous I had sweatily meandered over to the Lincoln Memorial. Speaking as someone who routinely answers questions about the War Between the States as, “it’s complicated,” my emotions were conflicted. Walking up the steps of the Greek temple of Lincoln, it is impossible not to be impressed by the symmetry and grandeur of the entire spectacle. Peeking through the columns, a paternal Lincoln sits underneath an inscription:
IN THIS TEMPLE
AS IN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE
FOR WHOM HE SAVED THE UNION
THE MEMORY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN
IS ENSHRINED FOREVER
Prefaced with an acknowledgment of its complexity and a thorough denial that the War Between the States was ultimately about the morality of slavery (over which the use of force is clearly justified à la John Brown), preserving a political union between unwilling parties with war is the equivalent of an abusive husband punching his spouse back into their marriage.
Would there be a Greek temple to King George for preserving the Union if the colonies had failed in the War for American Independence? Probably. The mythology surrounding Lincoln and the American “Civil War” leaves one with the impression that political unions are apparently good in and of themselves.
These sites which can emotionally move even an alert and seasoned anti-statist are dangerous. If someone who understands their manipulative purpose cannot totally resist their influence, one can only imagine what occurs in the minds of hapless tourists when encountering the striking panoply of state propaganda which freckle the District.
Recovering from this experience, I cruised over to the Jefferson Memorial on my bike. As an anarchist, I felt relatively better about being at a monument to Jefferson. Encircling the top interior of the memorial is the statement, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” He obviously wasn’t opposed to every tyranny, but he was eons ahead of the bulk of his contemporaries. At least his efforts do not merit complete dismissal from anarchists as Abraham Lincoln’s actions do.
Underneath the inscription there are then a few panels endorsing the separation of church and state in reference to Jefferson’s Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and one that if properly contextualized is significantly anti-state:
“God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than these people are to be free. Establish the law for educating the common people. This it is the business of the state to effect and on a general plan.”
How Jefferson could make such a beautiful statement and then endorse public schools is understandable, as he was living before the era of public choice theory. However, if the relationship between state and subject is rightly viewed as one of master and slave, wouldn’t we concur with this statement? But ultimately, the following quote is the one that I empathized with most deeply:
“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
It is challenging to determine how much to blame our antecedents for their inconsistency and their failures, as I’m sure we will be called to reckon for ours by our descendants. Nearly the entirety of human history has been rule by alpha male, as seen in both tribal and monarchical settings, differentiated only by the level of economic development. As the courage of proto-libertarians caught up to those alpha males, advancements like the Magna Carta and representative government limited the absolute power of those who sought to dominate others through force. Constitutions and some democratic procedures were established and finally warded off some of the more major predations of the rulers.
The founding of the United States of America by Thomas Jefferson and his peers was possibly the biggest step forward in the history of the world toward liberty. The founders never made it to complete consistency, and now, as I peer back across the dimension of time seeking to understand them and why they left this last battle for us to fight, I can’t help feel a little resentful. I am very thankful for them who brought us from monarchy to republic and the Constitution but their legacy has still left us short of the statelessness, the next step in the evolution of political philosophy.
The narcotic fireworks and exquisite Greek architecture can strengthen the loyalty to the local state for the average person, but lets not leave our descendants in want for a more consistent and reasonable world in the way that we presently react to the country the Founding Fathers of America left for 21st Century Americans.
Let’s leave posterity the gift of statelessness and their own undiluted freedom to create beautiful explosions for and to erect monuments to.