It's a long post. I hope you will endure to the end. It matters.
Before there was a Constitution of The United States of America, there was a more fundamental, foundational document.
This document meant to set out the choice of the people of the thirteen colonies, to announce and explain why they chose to dissolve their affiliation and allegiance with Great Britain. It's authors forged reason out of vapor, and a nation out of the single-minded will of her people to be free. In the course of that document, simple and clear reasoning was set down for all to see, read, and understand.
The document would come to be called The Declaration of Independence of the People of The United States of America. Decades of pain, suffering and sadness came before it. Decades, and perhaps even centuries of sadness, suffering, injustice, and unrequited intentions have flowed from it. Across the span of time, we have seen, as a nation, as a people, and as citizen the realities, and the most profound effects upon the world as a result of it.
It was written, representationally, BY the people who proclaimed it. They were called "Citizen".
It has been, over the course of it's ebb and flow through the histories of the world, a dividing point. Without putting too fine a point on it, I would submit that the history of the world itself can legitimately be divided into two distinct parts: that part before the publication of this document, and that part which has come after it's presentation to the King of England, and the world.
The Declaration of Independence spoke for a people, for an idea, for a nation of souls dedicated to something larger than themselves. In our day, and in this time, it is easy to not have any appreciation at all for the cost of merely thinking of such a document, of such a rebellious act. We today easily lose sight of the price those who came before us have borne, and the incredible largess which has flowed to us from it. From the ink-stained parchment upon which it was written, The Declaration of Independence has borne our nation, our people, our griefs and our victories. It is worthy of our consideration, and our specific attention.
It speaks to all people of the world, many of whom have never, and in all likelihood will never be direct beneficiaries of it. It speaks to each of us, as citizen with simple, but determined fervor with our every breath. When I was a boy, it was a companion in my studies. I carried a copy of it with me in a book given to me by my Grandmother, at her son's (my Father) request. He knew that I loved her in a way which was deeper than the love I had for anyone else in the world, including my parents. He wanted me to love these documents, as well, with that same love. As it turned out, I do. Even today, I'm looking at a book much like that one, except this one has my name on it.
My world was, in my youth, a decidedly simple place. Nestled deep within the loving arms of the Appalachian Mountains, the community in which I was raised had simple values, simple rules, and simple people. I could always imagine them as having been just like those common people, those citizens of those first days. I could relate to them. We did adore those documents. They did not, by or of themselves make us who we were. They did make it possible to believe we could be who we would one day become. Our task was to live up to the promise they, The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution made possible for us. To do so was to be counted as citizen. To do otherwise was to be counted as a bad person. That's how it was there, in that place I call home.
As things would develop, it was my Grandmother who guided me through these documents, not as a teacher (although she surely was that, and much more) but as a mentor, as a Guide. She was truly a most amazing woman, and I most surely did love her so.
It was she who walked me into "When, in the course of human events..." early one summer morning. Be assured I do remember it as if it were only yesterday. It was a bit of a grueling journey, and her instruction was severe. "Who, what, where, when, how...." That was all preamble for her, to me. I was required to gather, understand and master these concepts on my own. It took some time for a young boy, but I was living inside this document more than others without even realizing it at the time. The son of a politician, a State Senator and his wife, a Journalism Professor responsible for originating some of the most beloved words of our nation, our life was not an exception to the documents I learned. Our lives were determined, demanded in fact, to be an example of these words to the highest achievable order.
Carefully, patiently, "Nanny" walked me through this profound document one word, one phrase at a time. She defined terms I could not, and gave many real life examples of what they meant--and what they had better mean to me if I was to be a "good boy". She taught without bias or some axe to grind. She was not trying to make me a mirror image of anyone, including herself. It seemed much more important than that. There seemed to be a near animalistic urgency that I absorb, consider and determine for myself what this term "citizen" was to mean for me, in my life and the living out of it. And then, on what would be nearly my "graduation day" from this summer of my greatest instruction, we got to the last part.
History is prologue. All that comes before gets condensed down into the basic and final understanding. You see, for my Grandmother (as opposed to virtually every other person who would attempt to engage me with what my understanding of this document should be) her eyes would mist when she uttered those first words: "When in the course of human events...."
Those are the words most students of The Declaration of Independence can call upon readily in their memory, along with "certain unalienable rights...." To be sure, these were legendary plateaus in my own learning journey as well. But, as she was so often want to be, my Grandmother did not find the ultimate value in these phrases--at all. For her, and eventually for me, it was the last bit that mattered most. That was true because for her, and for me, they defined citizen in it's purest, most fundamental, foundational and obligatory form. It was the "why" of the document, you see. It wasn't about a laundry list of gripes, or the stomping of rebellious, obstreperous feet against a big mean authority far away. Not even close.
Why would simple, everyday people even go to the bother of creating such a rabidly rebellious document in the first place? Why paint a target on your own back in the face of something like, say, the most powerful military power on the planet at the time?
Citzen, that is why. The hope of the founders failed because of a most unpleasant reality; a necessity that Thomas Jefferson said would be the responsibility of his children and grandchildren to finish. But, as Jefferson said along with so many others, if the rebellion did not succeed, no other consideration was worthy of merit. First, independence. Then, freedom. To what end? What was being asked of these rebellious colonists, BY these rebellious colonists? It must be remembered that there was a very strong, nearly even split between two opposing forces within the discussions. Nearly half of the citizens instructed their Representatives to oppose independence at all costs, no matter what. But, in time, and after some pretty amazing reality forced upon them, one caveat sealed the deal for independence. It was the last one.
"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."
This is what is read. Words have no meaning until they are put into context, interpreted by the reader into terms, conditions or situations which belong uniquely to them. Through a process of identification, definition, interpretation and finally application, the words take on their own specific identification that become part and parcel of the identity of the reader, who now owns the words.
"To prove by the daily living out of our lives, one to another that we give our complete and individual support of all contained within this document to one another, even every one, with an unshakable belief in the power of the Divine to protect us, no matter what, I do pledge to you, my fellow citizen--as you pledge to me--my life, my fortune, and my sacred honor. So say we all."
That's the way, you see, I was required to see it, because that was the way the aging eyes of a white woman, whose eyes saw the savagery of the Civil War, as well as the rebellious reality in Southeastern Kentucky of living in a house that was a stop on the underground railroad, saw them. Her understanding was, I promise you, complete. Mine was, at the time, not. It would however, become so. She knew that, with this lens, my life was set before me to see reality in a very special way. I wasn't special, but I was uniquely given, and gifted, and blessed, and prepared. My obligation was special; not as the obligations and responsibilities of citizen are necessarily special at all. All of us have those. But, I came from a very special stock of folk.
Let's talk together.