Entries in Declaration of Independence (2)


A Revolutionary Idea 

It being Fourth of July, my thoughts turn to the Declaration of Independence. I reread it every year around this time. It is good to renew my acquaintance with it, and sometimes I extract something new. The following is not new to any scholar of the document, nor will it be a surprise to anyone with even a passing knowledge of it. Still, I think it deserves to be pointed out.

Here is the passage that has my attention:

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

This was hot stuff in its time. The 18th century was the tail end of an era that accepted the divine right of kings. Monarchy wasn’t right because of any utilitarian considerations, although there were apologists who argued for it. Monarchy was the opinion of God, manifest in the person of the king or queen. A monarch who fell was out of favor with the corner office, and the usurper who donned the crown had better connections in high places, as well as some pedigree. Thus it had been for all of human history. The “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” bit was wishful thinking in 1776.

In this section of the Declaration these students of the enlightenment were proposing that no particular form of government was inevitable. No particular set of laws or set of rulers was inevitable or inherently correct. It was a utilitarian, empirical, results-oriented view of government. This statement proposed that traditions and institutions, even long standing national governments, were not sacred.

It makes me think of Israel, actually. One of those demands that Israel and its allies make of political opponents is to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. It is a ridiculous demand. People have a right to exist, as individuals and as groups. Israelis have a right to exist. Israel as a form of government has no more right to exist than France, Liberia, Uzbekistan, Japan, or the United States.

Governments earn the privilege of existence. Or they fail to earn it. It depends upon how well they serve the interests of people they govern. That is the remarkable, world changing proposition of our founding document. It is our responsibility to hold our government to account and make it earn that privilege.

I wish you a happy 4th of July. 


The course of human events 

It being the fourth of July, I am musing on our founding document, The Declaration of Independence. One of the many things about it that interests me is the change in its significance between the time of its drafting and the end of the 18th century.

It was a legal sledgehammer when it was first ratified. It was a declaration in three different ways.

First, it was a declaration of basic human rights and that a government derived its legitimacy from honoring and actively serving those rights. It also based that legitimacy on the consent of the governed. These were novel concepts for a political document at that time.

Second, it was a declaration of the many violations of these principles by the existing government.

(Some of the points made were perfectly valid and some were hyperbole. In particular, there is a reference to the so-called “Boston Massacre”: “For protecting them [Note: British troops], by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States” The event in question involved seven British soldiers facing down a rock throwing mob estimated in the hundreds. John Adams himself successfully defended the soldiers in front of a jury.)

Third, it completed the syllogism and declared that the acts laid out in the middle of the document violated the principles of the first section, thus delegitimizing British rule and necessitating the separation. It was brief, logical, and earth shattering.

It became legally irrelevant almost immediately. The Continental Congress drafted articles of confederation, defining the relationship of the colonies to one another and to the world, as well as a method of governance. The United States fought the revolution and defined itself by force of arms as well as force of rhetoric. The Declaration of Independence, having served its purpose, became an historical document, an inspiration rather than a legal force. The drafting of the Constitution put the Declaration behind glass, so to speak. The success of the Declaration put it into the archives.

It is also interesting to look at the nature of the complaints listed in the Declaration. Much is made of the subject of taxation as a source of revolutionary discontent, but that was only one of twenty-six points. Ten of the complaints concern the ability of the colonists to have functioning legislatures and to pass necessary laws. Four concern judicial matters, including judicial independence and trial by jury. Four complain about the imposition of military presence and dominance.

It is intriguing to note, in light of recent battles over immigration policy, that the Founding Fathers were upset at the British government for “obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither”. They wanted to make it easier for people to immigrate.

On a somber note, these two points:

“For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences”

Guantanamo, indefinite detention, drone strikes, and rendition come to mind.

The final complaint refers to “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” Our extensive and careless use of aerial bombing over the past few decades makes the Iroquois look like amateurs in the slaughter of innocents. When unintended consequences become common and predictable they become part of our intent, and therefore part of our moral responsibility. The redefinition of “militant” as “any man unlucky enough to be near an exploding drone-fired missile” is a transparent coat of whitewash over the “undistinguished destruction” our founders deplored.

So, there is unfinished business on this Fourth of July. Or, as one of the signers of the Declaration, Benjamin Rush put it, “The American war is over; but this far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the drama is closed.”