Upon being nominated by Democrats to be their Presidential candidate in the upcoming general election, for a second time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the occasion to explain his understanding of Independence Day. “Political tyranny was wiped out at Philadelphia on July 4, 1776,” he proclaimed, citing the famous date of the Declaration of Independence.
But was that true? Had political tyranny been wiped out, maybe forever, in 1776? Did political tyranny remain wiped out in 1936, as FDR delivered his speech (not long before he started rounding up Americans and sending them to concentration camps)? Is it even possible to wipe out political tyranny?
THE PERMANENT PROBLEM OF GOVERNMENT
The American Founders did not think so. Or at least they never said so.
Barely more than a decade after the Declaration of Independence, Americans gathered again in Philadelphia in 1787—same building, same room, same time of year—to discuss either amending the Articles of Confederation or scrapping it and drafting a second national constitution (they chose the latter).
The number one concern for everyone at the Constitutional Convention was trying to figure out how to mitigate the problem of political tyranny. Clearly they thought tyranny by means of government power was still possible. And still a problem. Eleven years after 1776.
If one reads the warnings the Founders offered in the pages of The Federalist Papers and other literature, they thought government tyranny is always possible, always a threat, for two main reasons:
FIRST, government is the monopoly of all monopolies because it is the monopoly on legalized force. Only those in government are authorized by law to take property, freedom, and life from others. If any private citizen tries to do the same, he does so in violation of law, not backed by it.
SECOND, human beings are tempted to use government’s monopoly on legalized force for their own advantage at the expense of others. And human nature never changes. That’s why government among human beings is a permanent problem that can never be solved once and for all.
Philosophically, we can know that government is always a great potential danger simply by studying human nature. As a matter of historical fact, we know that government actually has been the greatest danger among human beings, hands down. Nothing else even comes close.
REFRAMING THE WAY AMERICANS VIEW GOVERNMENT
Unlike the Founders, however, FDR, wouldn’t admit that government is a permanent, dangerous problem. He couldn’t.
After being elected President in 1932, FDR’s entire First Administration was spent expanding the powers of government far beyond the limits of the Constitution in the name of providing what he called an “economic bill of rights.”
These economic rights, or what some today refer to as “entitlements,” included the rights to taxpayer-subsidized health care, housing, and education (sound familiar?), as well as the rights to a job, a legalized minimum wage, “fair prices,” and even recreation and vacation time.
When he spoke at the 1936 Democratic National Convention, campaigning for what ended up being the second of four terms as President, FDR needed to calm American concerns about the dangers of growing government power and the possibility of government tyranny, while offering praise for the Founders, which was expected by patriotic Americans of the 1930s.
At the very same time, FDR had to address the glaring fact that his New Deal government programs had failed miserably. None had achieved their goals, and most made bad problems worse as unemployment rates rose under New Deal government regulations and subsidies.
The rhetoric FDR crafted for his 1936 re-nomination acceptance speech harkened the glory of Independence Day, only from a liberal-progressive New Deal point of view. After reassuring Americans that political tyranny is impossible because it was “wiped out” on July 4, 1776, he went on to argue that the new threat of which Americans should be terrified comes in the form of “economic tyranny.”
THE NEW TYRANNY: ECONOMIC, NOT POLITICAL
Americans need no longer fear a king or any other government officer, FDR explained. Political tyranny is a thing of the past. Economic tyranny is the present.
Americans, FDR warned, should fear the rise of “economic royalists” who’ve “carved new dynasties” within the United States. The new, tyrannical “economic royalists” don’t wear crowns or sit on thrones, according to FDR. Rather, they run businesses. And the purpose of business owners is to make sure that Americans are “impressed into their royal service.” The purpose of business owners is to swindle, cheat, steal, rip off, and ultimately control those within reach.
Never mind that not one business owner (without the crony assistance of government power) has the legal authority to take any property away from anyone, or to limit anyone’s freedom in any way. Never mind that all a business owner can do, on her own, is offer her products or services to those who might be interested in purchasing them. Never mind that no business can put anyone in jail or send anyone to a concentration camp.
Set all of that aside. Business, according to FDR, is the form in which tyranny now carries out its ugly injustice. Business is the source of economic inequality. When some people, especially those in businesses, are more productive and create more wealth than others, that is economic tyranny. “Against economic tyranny,” he boasted, “the American citizen can appeal only to the organized power of Government.”
Unlike 1776, where the threat was political tyranny, independence and freedom in the modern world of economic tyranny require granting unlimited powers to those in government, both elected officials and unelected bureaucrats, so that we can be safe from nefarious businesses and enjoy the subsidized products and services to which we are entitled. This was FDR’s view in the 1930s, and it continues to be the view of many Americans today.
Curiously, while rejecting their principles, FDR embraced the Revolutionaries of ’76 as models of sorts for modern liberal-progressive Americans. We should “give to 1936 as the Founders gave to 1776,” he suggested, by which he meant: The Founders gave Americans in 1776 more rights than they had before, so FDR and New Dealers, too, should give to Americans in 1936 more rights than they had before. The New Deal corollary today would be: Government should give to Americans more rights in 2017 than they’ve had before.
In this way, FDR attempted to alleviate American concerns over the expansion of their own government while drawing upon the reputations of the American Founders and the nostalgia for 1776. And he was successful. Very successful.
RESULTS DON’T MATTER WHEN YOU’RE INTENTIONS ARE GOOD
The success of his rhetoric put him in a perfect position to acknowledge, fully, the utter failures of New Deal programs and policies. Sure, the growing ranks of bureaucrats and regulators had not achieved the results they promised. “Governments can err,” FDR explained, and “Presidents make mistakes,” referring to himself.
Still, “divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales: Better the faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than a government frozen in the ice of indifference.” When it comes to government programs, in other words, results don’t matter, only intentions. If you’re in government, be charitable with other people’s money and do something. Don’t be frozen in icy indifference. And don’t sweat what actually happens because of your policies.
That’s what matters. That’s the Spirit of 1776 updated for the modern world, according to FDR.
So considering asking yourself what Independence Day means this July 4th, as you guzzle your beers, eat your burgers, and pop your firecrackers: Was FDR correct?
Is Independence Day worth celebrating because it reminds us of why government bureaucrats should have more power and more control over our lives and property? Does independence now mean being dependent on others for subsidized health care, housing, and education, among other things? Does patriotism mean widening the claims of some to the property of others in the name of expanding rights?
Or is Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence about something else?
 Never once did FDR admit the difference between individual natural rights—such as one’s own free speech, or the freedom to assemble with friends, or the freedom to own the private property that one has produced or purchased—versus socialized, subsidized entitlements that require government confiscating the wealth of some and transferring it to others. He consistently treated the alleged “right” to subsidized health care, for example, as the same kind of right as one’s own opinions. Cute rhetorical trick, eh?