Every year on the Fourth of July I sit down and read the Declaration of Independence. It's a habit I got into some years ago, but I take a peculiar pleasure in reading through the founding principles of the American Revolution, archaic language and all. In these days of creeping executive power, supine journalism, and reflexive threat-inflation, it's a valuable reminder that governments exist to serve the people -- and not the other way around.
On this Independence Day, I am wondering what the Founding Fathers would have made of Edward Snowden. The question is obviously a bit absurd, as they could hardly have imagined something like the Internet, or even the telephone, back in 1776. But they would have understood the ability of a government to seize the mail and to investigate and harass those suspected of disloyalty. And they surely would have understood the concept of risking one's future for the sake of one's ideals.
It is of course possible that they would have seen Snowden as some members of Congress do, as a man who betrayed his country by releasing classified information. But isn't it also possible that they would have seen in him a kindred spirit -- someone who took an irrevocable step on a matter of principle? In particular, they might have seen in him a man who recognized the natural tendency of governments to extend their control over citizens, usually in the name of national security.
Let us not forget that the Founding Fathers repeatedly warned about the dangers of standing armies, which they rightly understood to be a perennial threat to liberty. Or that James Madison famously warned that no nation can remain free in a state of perpetual warfare, a sentiment that Barack Obama recently quoted but does not seem to have fully taken to heart. The Founders also gave Americans the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because they understood that defending individual privacy against the grasp of government authority is an essential human right as well as an important safeguard of freedom.
The United States can no longer protect the country's security with a citizen militia, of course, and a permanent defense establishment has become a necessary evil in the competitive world of contemporary international politics. But the Snowden affair reminds us that large and well-funded government bureaucracies have a powerful tendency to expand, to hide their activities behind walls of secrecy, and to depend on a cowed and co-opted populace to look the other way.
Snowden may have broken the law, but so did the Founding Fathers when they issued that famous declaration 237 years ago. They did so in defiance of a powerful empire, just as Snowden did. The world is better off that they chose to defy the laws of their time, and Snowden's idealistic act may leave us better off too. I suspect Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the rest of those revolutionaries might have understood.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.