I’ve reviewed the Constitution many times but I’ve never really touched on the Declaration of Independence. While the declaration was just that, a declaration, and has no legal effects on the political system of the U.S. today, it is a profound document, speaking volumes about the men and country who wrote it, so today I want to refresh our memories and discuss the Declaration of Independence.
Understand, Americans did not declare their independence flippantly, nor did they do so quickly or in the heat of the moment. They tried and tried to avoid such a move since many of the American men in power were well-read on history and knew the dangers inherent in declaring independence. So, they petitioned the King time and time again to stand up for the colonies against a tyrannical and overreaching parliament. The American’s complaint was not initially with the King so much as with parliament. They saw the King as their representative and would petition him to stand up for them. Their unhappiness with the King stemmed from the King’s lack of action in their defense. This is one reason why so many Americans remained loyal to the King and rejected the notion of independence.
However, after years of appealing to the King, a portion of the colonists had had enough.
The Declaration of Independence was a long time coming.
With that said, let’s take a look:
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
Here, you can already see the careful thought put into this document. The authors wanted to firmly establish and justify their actions with the document. Jefferson [I’ll use his name when referring to the authors of the declaration since he is usually attributed to the primary authorship.] says: “When it becomes necessary for one country to part ways from another because of the rights given to them by nature and God, it is respectful to explainwhy such a break is necessary.”
Hence, the point of the entire declaration: to declare the causes which impel them to separation.
However, instead of jumping directly into the list of grievances, Jefferson continues to explain and justify the reason for the declaration itself as well as emphasize the gravity of the country’s actions.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–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.
If you’ve ever read John Locke, you’ll recognize his voice here. Jefferson declares that there are some truths about the world that are “self-evident”, namely that everyone is created equal and given, by God-not government-rights. Such rights include life, liberty, and the ability to pursue happiness with that life and liberty.
However, just as Locke and Hobbes admitted centuries earlier, such rights are unattainable without government. Government secures and guarantees those rights by providing law, a law that prevents men from using their liberty for license and infringing on the rights of others. Thus, the government is established intentionally and with the consent of the people.
Jefferson then, again using Lockean principles, argues that it is the right of the people to abolish a government that is not doing its job or is violating the very purpose of its existence: to protect private property.
Locke, unlike Hobbes, argued that civil rebellion was warranted if the “created government” violated one of four unforgivable actions that Locke presented as warranting civil rebellion. One of the four actions was violating private property. If the government violates its citizen’s private property, it is violating its very reason for existence–which is to protect the citizen’s private property from violation.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
Here, the authors of the declaration acknowledge the gravity of their actions. They admit that government should never be changed because of a “transient” or “impermanent” wave of passion, frustration, or emotion. Further, history has proven that it is usually better for a people to suffer through the government they, in a transient moment, perceive as problematic, than to try and change it rapidly.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.
Remember, the first colonists arrived in 1607. The time of this writing is 1776. The colonies had been living under British rule for almost 200 years and had not, until this point, ever declared independence. This doesn’t mean, however, that they had not appealed to the British time and time and again. They had been appealing for years, thus, their declaration was not necessarily “in the heat of the moment”. Further, Americans were unique in that they actually recognized abuses of liberty, rights, and virtues because of their reliance on writings such as Locke, Montesquieu, and Hobbes, as well as the Bible.
The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
The Americans were not satisfied to simply accuse their motherland of abuse of power but felt compelled to prove such abuse.
Here are a few of the specific examples the Americans listed as their proof and justification for the Declaration of Independence.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
If you notice, this list of grievances is prophetic, as it resonates with what the Constitution eventually stipulates. In other words, many of the violations stated here are distinctly protected by the Constitution. A government that acts without the consent of the governed, quarters troops among the citizenry, refuses to provide a trial by jury, establishes a judiciary dependent on the arbitrary will of a dictator, and so on, are all specifically addressed and prevented by the new Constitution.
The second to last paragraph is perhaps the most telling. Jefferson says:
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
Here the authors of the declaration admit that they have even turned to the British citizens for respite and for help and have been ignored by them.
In short, the Americans argue that they have appealed to the King, to parliament, and to the British citizenry in an attempt to avoid having to declare independence and enter into a potential conflict. And yet, no one ever heeded their pleas. Nothing ever changed. Things only got worse and worse.
They ended with this:
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
This nation started with a mutual pledge: pledging our lives, fortune, and sacred honor to each other as American citizens.
A pledge that has long since been forgotten and abandoned.
The Liberty Belle