Thursday, July 3, 2008

Declaration! Governments Instituted Among Men

During this past year, as part of N.'s civics education, we have been studying the founding documents of the United States. We have done this to educate him about the meaning and unique role of our nation, but also to remind ourselves of the blessings that we have inherited by our good fortune that our grandparents arrived, 'homeless, tempest tossed' upon these golden shores. In these days leading up to and including the Glorious Fourth, I am blogging some thoughts distilled from our study of the Declaration of Independence, which was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4th, 1776. This is the second in the series. The first is The Crimes of the King.

A truly revolutionary enlightenment idea that came to fruition with the founding of the United States is a concept of government never before enacted anywhere in the world.
In the Declaration it is expressed so:

"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."

This is truly revolutionary. Prior to the establishment of the United States, nation-states were ruled by kings (and a few queens), and their peoples were subjects. The king ruled by the concept of divine right (though the Enlightenment philosophies had weakened the idea somewhat) and the subjects owed the king fealty and obedience.

Note: It is interesting and logical that these ideas that were being used to separate America politically from the British crown, since the notion of certain rights retained by the subjects were recognized by English common law and codified for the nobility in particular by the Magna Carta. The English were more free and law-governed than the European continent. In fact, the American rebellion started as an assertion of "the rights of Englishmen" and became outright revolution only after a series of progressively more tyrannous policies were enacted, culminating in the closure of the Port of Boston. The ensuing unrest was then to be quelled by the seizure of arms from the militias of Lexington and Concord, Massachussetts, by General "Grandma" Gage. The planned seizure was detected and met armed resistance, and the Revolution was "on."

The words of the Declaration turn this idea upside down. Now the government has a specific and limited purpose: to secure the natural rights of the citizens. These rights are not given to the citizen by the government, they are derived from from the nature of the human being as a human being. And this government that serves this purpose derives its "just powers from the consent of the governed." Anything that the government does that does not serve to protect the natural rights of individuals is therefore unjust and tyrannical. And since governments serve at the consent of the governed, the governed are then free to to "fire" the tyrant and establish a new government. Treason, then, is an act against the rights of the governed, not an act of disobedience. Free citizens are not required to be obedient to a government. Rather, they require themselves to the Rule of Law. This is why civil disobedience is not treasonous for citizens, as it would have been for subjects.

The Declaration thus states:

"That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to 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 statement, together with the statement of the 'crimes of the king,' comprise the justification for the taking up of arms against the King's Redcoats, and the decision of the Thirteen (former) Colonies to declare independence and set up a goverment "in such form effect their safety and happiness."

Ultimately, after the terrible war, the patriots established such a government, and with the adoption of the Constitution in 1787, sought to codify important rights that derive from the rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness." In an effort to protect these rights against a tyrannous government, the anti-federalists insisted on the Bill of Rights, which consist of the first ten amendments to the constitution. Especially important among these are the last two of the ten amendments:

Amendment IX
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Amendment X
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

These, in particular were meant to restrain the federal government and the states from limited rights to those ennumerated within the other eight amendments.

Although the Bill of Rights meant that the constitution was adopted, some of the founders were still skeptical of the power of government, which they correctly foresaw would become jealous of power and begin to vote in unconstitutional laws and permit unconstitutional acts against citizens; a government that began to think of itself as a ruler rather than a servant government charged with the protection of the rights of citizens.

Thus when Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention, he was asked by citizens gathered outside of Independence Hall, "Dr. Franklin, what kind of government shall we have?" To which he responded, "A republic--if you can keep it."

Thomas Jefferson, also a member of the Declaration committee, and the man who penned the first draft of the Declaration of Independence truly believed that to maintain a free republic it would be necessary to hold a revolution every twenty years give or take a few.

So it is that the citizens who declare some version of "throw the bums out!" are in the grand, Jeffersonian tradition. When considering political acts of obsta principiis (resist the first advances) in this election year, it would be good for us to remember that the Demo-Republicans have no "right" to our votes, and that these particular parties have become much too wedded to power, and much too neglectful of their obligations towards the natural rights of citizens to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I am going to honor the Spirit of '76 by making a formal commitment to express my real preferences in the voting booth. As I have previously done in every election that I have voted in, I intend to resist pressure suggesting that unless I vote for either the slow or the fast train to perdition, I am "throwing away my vote." I challenge you to do the same.

Photo Credits:

1) Declaration of Independence as printed in the Pennsylvania Packet, July 1776

2) 'The Rude Bridge that Arched the Flood,' Concord, MA E. Levin, July 2004

3)Concord Memorial, Concord, MA, E. Levin, July 2004.

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