Rereading the Declaration of Independence
As we approach the 233rd anniversary of the signing of The Declaration of Independence, I thought it would be fun to reread and annotate the historic document with my years of legal, scientific and general life experiences as my guide. I realize that it is this definition of “fun” that makes me such an A-list party guest.
It is important to keep in mind what July 4th represents. Over the years it has become synonymous with patriotism, the birth of the United States and the Constitution. But those came almost twelve years later in 1788. Others confuse July 4th with the birth of democracy, but that too is untrue. Democracy and liberty have been around for literally hundred of generations, regardless of what our Secretary of State may think.
July 4th, 1776 was the day that a group of men banded together and said “enough. A line must be drawn here. This far, no further.“ What was remarkable about this, was that they said it to a King. A King who had a habit of killing people with whom he disagreed. A King who had the most powerful navy in the world docked in their ports and the most powerful army and in the world quartered in their homes. And what would become even more remarkable is that these men stayed together, despite their differences, to defeat that navy and that army and win their countries’ freedom. That would take years. But July 4th was the day they said “enough.”
So as you drink your beer, eat your hot dogs and enjoy your time with family and friends this weekend, reflect with pride and admiration upon the generations of men and women who came before you. The men and women who, in times of uncertainty stood up to those who could destroy them and said, “No. This is too much. This you cannot have.” Wave the flag, watch the fireworks and celebrate your patriotism, but keep in mind that this holiday, more than anything, is about individual liberty, not national pride. It is that difference that makes the Fourth of July, an enduring American tradition.
In CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
Notice how “united” is not capitalized? “States” here refers to the word in the traditional sense, as a synonym for “nation,” as in the “state of Israel.” It’s capitalized because English was a bit like German back then. So it’s really just the “united countries of America.” Kind of weird. (Don’t worry, my insights will pick up as we roll on).
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,
Wonderful opening statement. Start from the universe of everything, “the course of human events,” and state plainly what you’re going on about. You have to realize that, at the time, this was not destined to be an historic document encased in glass for over 300 years. This was an open letter to tyrannical King; sent to the King and the colonies’ allies in France and elsewhere. So first sentence out of the gate, you’ve already put the King on a defensive stance, brilliant. This is the modern equivalent of “When, in the course of a relationship, two people need to go their separate ways…” You get that letter, and you don’t really need to read the rest. I always wanted to do a break-up letter in Jefferson’s writing style. Maybe someday I’ll write one for the blog.
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,
This is one of my favorite parts of the Declaration. The assumption, by Jefferson, that the colonies (each individually, mind you) would be of equal station with eighteenth century England must have been infuriatingly bold at the time. This is the equivalent of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Marshall Islands saying that they will be as powerful as the United States is today.
a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
“I’m not just gonna dump you, I’m gonna tell you why you’re so lousy in bed.”
What follows after this is perhaps the most stunningly eloquent statement of what it means to be human. If our current president had any balls, he would have this broadcast via pirate radio in Farsi and Persian around the clock in Iran until the mullahs chopped their own heads off:
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.
In plain, modern English:
“The following is true because it is: We are all the same. We all are blessed by God with certain rights that no man can take from us. Among these rights are our lives, our freedom and doing whatever it is that makes us happy. Men only submit to government authority in order to secure these rights and live together in peace. But a government can only have what power over us that we choose to give it. Screw with us at your peril.”
The third proviso is a beautiful statement of the social contract theory of government formulated by John Locke, who was influential to Jefferson’s thinking. It is a fascinating idea for people who have never thought about it: that government is an agreement, a contract entered into by men. For those living under the oppressive Iranian regime right now, the concept is beginning to dawn: you have a choice. This is not the only way. As a corollary, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged can be viewed as a book about breach of social contract.
About that last bit, people call me crazy for many reasons, but the one reason that I concede has the most traction is my oft stated belief that the Second Amendment should permit people to own an aircraft carrier. Follow me here: the fourth proviso states a clear right for man to overthrow an unjust government. The Second Amendment was intended to ensure a level playing field between government on the one hand and freemen on the other. In Jefferson’s time, government imposed its will with musket and guillotine. Today, governments have stealth fighters and aircraft carriers. The principles have not changed. If you need to overthrow the United States government today, you will need at least 12 aircraft carriers, 2,000 stealth fighters, 8,000 M-1 tanks and 2,000,000 highly trained, polite, professional friends. A snub nose .38 is not going to cut it.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
“Look, we’re not saying that if he leaves the toilet seat up once, you throw his Mattingly jersey in the dumpster.”
Jefferson is acknowledging that some may think that the colonies are merely whining about minor nuisances. “Oooh, the King chopped off a few heads, poor colonists.” Jefferson agrees that governments should not be overthrown lightly; he’s a smart man and knows that somebody is going to have to be in charge. Put another way, “When smashing monuments, save the pedestals – they always come in handy.” –Stanislaw Lec.
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.
“At first I was afraid. I was petrified. Thinking I could never live without you by my side…”
This is the point where Jefferson takes us from the high, philosophical discussion to the down and dirty points. Up until now, we have been talking in vague generalities about the course of human events, governments and pursuing happiness. Now we’re going to get the details.
–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. 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.
“Oh I tried. All those nights, waiting up for him, know where he’d been.”
What follows is the laundry list of grievances that gave rise to the revolution. Had King George not done a handful of these, the United States may still be part of the Commonwealth today. It’s interesting to see how some of them are making a comeback:
–He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
–He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
Hmm, this sounds familiar. Ever try to get the federal bureaucracy to do something? Or how many times have states’s rights been trampled for federal concerns, especially “conservation.”
–He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
–He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
I know of no place more unusual, uncomfortable or more distant from reality than Washington D.C.
–He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
–He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
–He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
–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.
Now this one is a t-shirt waiting to be printed. If there is a better description of a federal bureaucracy than “a multitude of new offices, with swarms of new officers sent hither to harass our people and eat out their substance,” it has yet to pass my ears.
–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:
This is coming back into fashion as well, as the liberals on the Supreme Court are beginning to argue that it is appropriate for the Court to look to European and other sources of law for guidance. It has never been appropriate to look outside the body of English Common Law for guidance and for good reason: it’s like looking to a veterinarian text book for human medical issue. French, Belgian and German law, for example are rooted in different traditions than English and American law. Asian law and Sharia law are even more removed. If a U.S. judge applies concepts from those legal systems, she would wreak havoc and would make court cases utter unpredictable. If lawyers cannot predict how courts would decide cases, they cannot advise clients in their affairs, clients the do not feel safe, business and life in general grind to a standstill. That is why this is a dumbass idea. It was 230 years ago and it still is today.
–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:
–For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
–For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
–For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
There is an argument to be made that the federal government is beginning to do this as well. As the federal government expands its powers, it usurps your local government’s authority in all matters. Eventually the federal government will control every aspect of life and the state government will be archaic. It’s sole purpose will be to collect taxes and be a side show for local newspapers. The Founding Fathers knew that the closer (in number represented) a political body was to the people it served, the more responsive it would be to them. Back then, you knew your mayor and he knew you. Your Congressman was too diluted. Now they’re diluted and deluded. For that reason, federal power was diluted and most power over people’s lives was left with the state and local government. But now, since the New Deal, the federal government has been steadily consolidating power.
–He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
–He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
–He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
–He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
–He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
“You ain’t all that and a bag a chips.”
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British 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 Jefferson is saying to the British Parliament and the rest of the British empire, “we asked for your help, we tried to tell you, and now it’s too late. You’re either with us or you’re against us.” Cowboy diplomacy.
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.
The purpose of the letter: we are free. We have no further allegiance to Britain. We can wage war, enter treaties, sell our own resources and do everything else that a full-grown country can do. Take that, Georgie.
–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 is an open letter, but the signatories wanted to make clear that there was no going back. They pledged their lives (this was, afterall, high treason), their fortunes (a war don’t fund itself) and their honor. There was not a lot of nuance in the 1700′s. If they had lost the revolution, everyone would have been hanged. Indeed, many of the signatories lost their lives, their fortune or both during or following the war. But all of them kept their honor.
Have a happy Independence Day!