In the days leading up to July 4, efforts to delegitimize Edward Snowden by calling him a 'criminal' have intensified, efforts that stand starkly against the backdrop of the treasonous document we will gather to celebrate: the Declaration of Independence.
Yes, the Founding Fathers were criminals, knowingly committing treason against a most powerful nation. More precisely, the Founding Fathers viewed the declaration's demands as legal, 'natural rights' themselves embedded within English precedents. However, they also knew that the document would be viewed by the powerful nation they were opposing as punishable by death.
After all, Benjamin Franklin famously stated, while signing the declaration Thomas Jefferson penned, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Similarly, Edward Snowden, in leaking our government's abuses of power in the form of secret, widespread surveillance, has knowingly violated the laws of a most powerful nation. However, just as the Founding Fathers justified their declaration's principal that "all men are created equal" in English natural law, Snowden's actions are justified by a principle those founders created: the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
It goes without saying that Snowden and the Founding Fathers are difficult to compare, for their actions are wholly different and undertaken under different circumstances. However, it also goes without saying that both acted with the view that a government whose power is unrestrained is both unjust and unacceptable.
Stephen Walt sees a parallel as well:
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.If those among us wish to delegitimize Snowden based on the fact that he has broken existing U.S. law, there's a long list of American figures (such as Daniel Ellsberg) whose political actions need to be delegitimized as well. And that list begins with those who officially began their treasonous break from England on July 4, 1776.
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.