Entries in Divine right of Kings (1)


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.