- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2000

''We must all hang together, or else we shall hang separately," said Benjamin Franklin upon signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776. This document proclaimed the unalienable rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, was signed in Philadelphia, first by Continental Congress President John Hancock and subsequently by the 55 other Congress members.

The commemoration of that blessed event that gave birth to the American nation is celebrated each year through joyous parades and colorful firework displays in sites ranging from the most populous urban centers to the humblest hamlets of the United States. But rarely are the celebrants aware of the price paid by the Founding Fathers for daring to exercise their freedom of opinion and to act upon it.

Much of Franklin's warning indeed came true. More than half of the Declaration's 56 signatories paid dearly for their convictions. Five were captured by the British and charged as traitors; they were tortured before they died. Nine others fought and died from wounds or hardships of the war. Two lost their sons in the Revolutionary Army, another had two sons captured. Twelve escaped with mere property losses, having had their homes and properties ransacked, burned and destroyed.

The War of Independence was a bitter and cruel conflict, one that took the lives of 115,000 Americans and nearly resulted in the defeat of the forces of liberty. Yet despite this, it was a war for liberation from Colonial exploitation a just cause and it was honorably waged. For ignoring the bitterness, both captured American and British troops were treated as lawful belligerents. No Americans were tried or punished for treason and no surrendered British soldiers were abused or otherwise retaliated against. It was that mutual respect and the common adherence to the laws of war that permitted a timely reconciliation between the warring camps. Only one century after the 1812-resumption of the British-U.S. conflict, both countries found themselves fast allies during World War I against the German kaiser, the Austro-Hungarians and the Ottoman Empire. This unique fraternal relationship between the former British Empire and its former American Colonies has continued strongly to this day.

One may draw similar conclusions from the Civil War, known in the South as the War Between the States. That most costly of all of American wars (taking the lives of more than 618,000 Americans) was likewise treated by both camps in a humane fashion. Despite the war's controversial cause the right of disgruntled populations to secede from the Union to which they owed allegiance the Rules of Conduct for the Union Army, promulgated by Columbia College's Professor Francis Lieber upon instruction from President Lincoln, authorized Union commanders to treat the soldiers of the South not as traitors but as "honorable belligerents." Similar treatment was accorded to Northern captives by the Southern Confederacy.

Moreover, not only was a comprehensive amnesty extended to all Confederate warriors upon the conclusion of the conflict, but even Jefferson Davis, the indicted Confederate president, was relieved of all punishment and responsibility shortly after the conclusion of the hostilities. Adding a dramatic flourish to the ongoing spirit of reconciliation was the restoration of Robert E. Lee, who relinquished his Union commission to become the chief Confederate commander, to full citizenship by an act of the United States Congress in 1975, more than a century after the Civil War's close.

The uncanny willingness and ability of America to tolerate and to forgive, not merely strong dissenting and hostile speech but also civil disobedience and illegal acts including violence by those believing in the righteousness of their causes, has been demonstrated in numerous other instances throughout the nation's history. Comprehensive amnesties, in the interest of reconciliation, were extended to America's conscientious objectors and war resisters after the conclusions of World War I, World War II, and the more recent Korean and Vietnam Wars. Even some of those who resorted to violent and often indiscriminate means in the pursuit of more controversial and often ill-begotten political causes, including slave rebel leader Nat Turner, and abolitionist John Brown and U.S. Air Force reformer Billy Mitchell, have in time been accorded a special and honorable place in this nation's annals.

Most of the imprisoned Puerto Rican nationalists, belonging to the groups led by Oscar Collazo and Lolita Lebron, which carried out the 1950 assassination attempt against President Truman and the 1954 armed attack against members of the U.S. House of Representatives, were recently granted conditional pardons by President William Clinton.

What are the lessons Americans, and other strivers for liberty, self-determination and equality throughout the world, should learn from this nation's historical accounts? One inescapable conclusion is the evident and continuing error of those in authority who claim that under self-congratulatory democratic systems of government all domestic political conflicts can be resolved through legal and peaceful means. Britain considered itself a democracy at the time of the American War of Independence, as has the United States from its very Founding. But the then British democracy did not peacefully turn the keys of self-government to the American Colonies. Neither did the then American democracy abolish slavery, give the ballot to women, and extend full citizenship to Native Americans without resistance and conflict.

As we observe and involve ourselves in the ongoing political turmoil in nearly half of all the countries around the globe, we must recall, therefore, our own experiences and our own struggles both peaceful and militant in the pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness. We must vigorously share with as many of our global neighbors as possible including those in Ireland, Israel, Palestine, the former Yugoslavia, Congo, Rwanda, Cambodia and Sierra Leone our lessons from those social and political conflicts that tore at the fabric of our own national unity and which were overcome by a common respect for humanity, a respect which remains at the heart of any democratic society.

Reconciling, forgiving and forgetting are not only human qualities but often also wise, future-oriented, and productive policies. No nation, community or group can afford to overlook the self-evident principle that they all must refrain from imposing wanton cruelty and abuse upon those they are destined to live with, or next to, in a not-too-distant future.

Nicholas N. Kittrie, a professor at the American University Law School and a former counsel to the U.S. Senate, is the author of the recently published "Rebels With a Cause: The Minds and Morality of Political Offenders" (Westview Press, 2000).

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