Don’t Tread on Me and Other Reflections on Independence Day

Quote of the Day:

She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shown and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal. Conscious of this, she never wounds ’till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.

–An American Guesser, now commonly agreed to have been Benjamin Franklin, on why the rattlesnake would be a fitting symbol for the new American nation (link to entire letter)

The Boston Tea Party was a seminal event in the timeline leading up to the American Revolution. It is commonly and accurately described as a protest on the British government’s insistence on its right to tax colonists in spite of their lack of parliamentary representation. However, the popular understanding of this history, as is so often the case, is oversimplified. As much as the protest was over taxation without representation, it was over an unfair monopoly of trade–an 18th century bailout of sorts–granted to a dominant corporation (the East India Company) by the British Crown. To save the East India Company from bankruptcy, Parliament made illegal all other importations of tea, and because smugglers could not be completely stopped they took the further step of setting the price so low as to undercut all other tea merchants. The great irony of the Boston Tea Party is that the protesters and their colonial supporters were purposely working against their own financial interests by supporting higher prices of an imported product. They were willing to pay more for tea because they were taking the long view–that a principled stand against taxation without representation was important and that stifling of competition by overly powerful business interests and by government on their behalf was against the greater good. You will not be surprised that TB finds the second, lesser known half of this story to be as important as the first, and a timely reminder for modern day teabaggers.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson writes of the God given unalienable rights of all men of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The assertion was a radical one for its time, all but taken for granted by Americans of our generation. But what stood out to me this weekend as I heard these words repeated was that Jefferson’s actual words, endorsed by 55 other political leaders of the day, were these:

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.

I highlighted “among” because the word is a crucial one I have always previously overlooked. In reading prose from the Revolutionary period it is easy to pass over phrases and words that seem to be merely the flowery embellishments common to the time that really add nothing of substance to a document’s meaning. But I don’t believe the word “among” was inserted simply to make the Declaration more poetic. What “among” connotes is that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are only a few of the unalienable rights given to all men by God. And that the list cannot be included in this short document because it is simply too long and continually evolving in our understanding and that to attempt to list them all is unwise due to the great chance of overlooking one or more. If we are satisfied that the only innate rights of man are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we are therefore drastically underestimating Jefferson’s apparent intent and understanding of the scope of independence he declared in 1776.

“Don’t tread on me.” It is the great marketing legacy of the Revolutionary era in America. Adopted by varied individuals and groups including trial lawyers, civil libertarians and far right wing advocacy groups, the slogan is a favorite of many Americans, and like any good slogan it is general enough to accommodate the meaning applied to it by anyone. Here’s how I look at it. “Don’t tread” is a statement of warning and an implied threat of immediate consequence. “On me” narrows the warning considerably. Do whatever the hell you want England, terrorist, Iran, liberal, conservative, Californian, Mississippian, Catholic, Muslim, pagan, Rebel, Bulldog, etc. Just as long as it doesn’t hurt me. I think my understanding of the slogan is the right one. It is one reason I think certain political disagreements are perfectly reasonable from both sides, particularly ones that will involve the paying of higher taxes. However on social issues, such as gay marriage or marijuana usage, it is contrary to this simplified philosophy to be in opposition to expanding the freedoms of (in these instances) homosexuals and pot smokers. And on those issues related to higher taxation probabilities, I think to make the slogan apply best one must recall the Boston Tea Party’s less remembered cause and calculate the payments to big corporations along with the potential tax expense in deciding what side of the issue one favors. And I think the scope of our inalienable rights should be discussed and considered contemporaneously, with perhaps a few more specifically added to the famous three asserted by Jefferson.

About travellinbaen

I'm a 40 year old lawyer living in Ridgeland, Mississippi. I'm several years and a couple hundred miles removed from most of my old running buddies so I started the blog to provide an outlet for many of the observations and ideas that used to be the subjects of our late night/happy hour/halftime conversations and arguments.
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4 Responses to Don’t Tread on Me and Other Reflections on Independence Day

  1. Hear! Hear! I have nothing erudite or even witty to say. So, good post. Insightful. Your emphasis on the word “among” adds credence to my theory about health care, so you are, therefore, correct.

  2. Jessie Lou says:

    We talked about “Don’t Tread On Me” at the family 4th of July party – it has always been the personal favorite of my mom. That was always her favorite flag too if I am not mistaken.

  3. Harmony says:

    Again I sit here lost for words. Great post TB, my mind is off in a million directions wanting to hint towards all of them. But unable to find a way in doing so without the exhaustion of my long-windedness. So I will just say..great point about the word “among”. You are SO right how words such as this can be overlooked changing the meaning and magnitude behind the orginial intentions. Good for you, for pointing out what is so easily overlooked.

  4. Jessie Lou says:

    Proving once again that the proof is in the details – just one word can change the whole tone of a statement.

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