A Journey to Independence Hall in an Age of Empire

The love of power is so alluring that few have ever been able to resist its bewitching influence.' ~New Hampshire Convention, 1781

So this was it: the 'birthplace of our nation' as it is often called, Independence Hall. It was a warm, sunny afternoon when I decided to make a visit to one of the United States' most important historical landmarks. Famous for being the site where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution debated and ratified, Independence Hall is perhaps more notable for what it, on the grander scale, represents: the revolutionary movement against taxation without representation, independence from the eminent imperial power of the time, and most importantly; the struggle for what Lord Acton would call 'the highest political end': liberty.

And, unfortunately, it is Independence Hall's historical status in the American revolution that makes visiting it these days so damn ironic -- and disconcerting. Perhaps it's the continuous references to all those forgotten, archaic concepts -- a limited government that recognized the inherent and inalienable rights of every man and based upon the consent of the governed, and the right to 'alter or abolish' said government if it became destructive to the natural rights of man. Maybe it was the mass of armed park service workers, or the eyesore of a security checkpoint complete with metal detector that screened all who entered, but I couldn't reconcile all the concepts of liberty and freedom on show in the exhibits with the ever increasing police state which seemed to be taking place just outside the confines of the very same place that the Bill of Rights was written. To think just a few years ago, when I visited the very same place with my elementary school class, there was no visible contingency of armed guards, nor were there any security checkpoints. At this rate, it won't be long before the next group of school children will have to submit themselves to loyalty tests, or as they will more likely be known, 'patriotism checks.' Why ' won't that just be doubleplus good!

In the age of the Imperial Presidency, when any politician who is able to manipulate his way into the executive office assumes what amounts to de facto dictatorial powers, including the ability to bomb any foreign country on a whim, one can't help but sense the overwhelming irony in visiting a national landmark dedicated to liberty and the overthrowing of a massive imperialist power. This irony has only increased since the same government that was established in those buildings launched what amounted to a war of aggression against an impoverished nation that posed no demonstrable threat to the U.S., and continues to hack away at what is left of civil liberties and the Bill of Rights on the domestic front. On the tour itself, the guide made a note of the fact that the courthouse contained a large open area for the public to watch the trials, because, as the tour guide pointed out, 'there were no secret trials here.' This small historical statement touched on the fact that secret trials were formerly considered to be an example of tyranny that the colonists felt they were above. However, with the advent of the War on Terrorism, secret trials, in the guise of military tribunals, have made a dramatic comeback from the dustbin of discredited ideas.

It would seem that the 21st century has started on a very bleak note for the future of peace and freedom. Yet, in times like these, it wouldn't hurt to pay a visit to Independence Hall and be reminded of the fact that the radical defenders of freedom, such as Jefferson, Franklin, and Paine, were wholly outnumbered by those who wished to remain a British colonial possession. Defending liberty and peace isn't always popular ' it's enough to get one branded a traitor, or at the very least 'un-American' these days -- but they are concepts that die hard, and in a country founded on those very principles, it's going to take more than a group of powerful neoconservatives to squelch them forever. Let history decide who the real patriots are ' I'm fairly sure it won't be those who pushed the country into an all-out war on both Iraq and civil liberties.

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Charles Davis's picture
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Charles Davis is a journalist based in Washington, DC. More of his work may be found at his website.