It's Not Called 'Dependence' Day

Is the Fourth of July a right-wing holiday?

When asked by a conservative, the question is self-serving; by a liberal, self-knowing. As it happens, two Harvard University professors not only ask the question but answer in the affirmative.

Their new study claims that “there is a political congruence between the patriotism promoted on the Fourth of July and the values associated with the Republican party.” The professors worry that the more intensely patriotic celebrations may “socialize children into Republicans.”

The professors aren’t the first Americans made uncomfortable by America’s birthday.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” the signers of the Declaration of Independence affirmed, “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.”

Fifty years later, on July 4, 1826, Welsh industrialist Robert Owen issued a “Declaration of Mental Independence” at the New Harmony commune that he started in Indiana. “I now declare to you and to the world, that man up to this hour has been in all parts of the earth a slave to a trinity of the most monstrous evils that could be combined to inflict mental and physical evil upon the whole race,” Owen declared. “I refer to private property, absurd and irrational systems of religion and marriage founded upon individual property, combined with some of these irrational systems of religion.”

So enthused by Owen’s address were the inhabitants of New Harmony that they declared a new era: Year 1 M.I. (mental independence). So enraged by the grievances articulated by Jefferson were the inhabitants of the thirteen colonies that they founded a new nation. America celebrates its birthday today. The commune the Owenites started never made it to Year 2 M.I.

Why did the United States make history while New Harmony became a mere footnote to history?

The results of each experiment are fairly easy to interpret. Capitalism works for men who do. Socialism works for men who don’t.

Early America prospered because it incentivized work and ingenuity. New Harmony floundered by socializing profits and losses. In the 19th-century Indiana wilderness, they played music, drank beer, wrote constitutions for distant lands, and performed puppet shows. But they forgot to plant crops one harvest season, left factories unmanned, and even resorted to breaking down a cabin for firewood. As one dejected resident lamented, “the men generally do not work as well as they would for themselves.”

The more America’s policies resemble New Harmony’s, the more America’s outcomes will resemble New Harmony’s.

Jefferson’s declaration based just government on the consent of the governed to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Owen’s declaration envisioned a social system that directed people how to live their lives, exercise their liberty, and pursue happiness—whose is anybody’s guess. If it were called “Dependence Day,” perhaps Robert Owen’s heritors would celebrate more heartily today.

It’s not just that all those American flags make some leftists squeamish about the Fourth. It’s that a holiday so associated with freedom conflicts with an outlook so preoccupied with coordinating the lives of others. So, committed leftists are faced with either downplaying or hijacking the holiday.

Owen’s Declaration of Mental Independence was an early attempt in the long tradition to co-opt or erase American traditions. Washington’s Birthday yields to the blah Presidents’ Day, Columbus Day provides an excuse to bash Western Civilization, and Christmas morphs into “winter holidays.”

Basing the calendar on Robert Owen’s commune rather than Christ’s birth never caught on. But so much else from New Harmony—Doesn’t Owen’s attack on marriage, religion, and private property seem more 2011 than 1826?—eventually did.

The Fourth of July represents America’s heritage of freedom. The more we are separated from that heritage, the easier it is to replace it with principles altogether foreign to the celebrants of the original Independence Day. Certainly the authors of the Harvard study understand this.

Fifty years after July 4, 1776, few Americans were willing to embrace the principles of the Declaration of Mental Independence. Two hundred and thirty-five years after the Declaration of Independence, Americans unmoored from their heritage seem ready to embrace any random scheme that comes along.