Declaration of Independence: Landmark of liberal blather
For many years I have struggled with the language of America’s founding document. As a conservative, I have found it hard to justify revolution against one of the freest and best-governed countries on earth, and I have found it especially hard to buy the justification in the Declaration.
I am familiar with the colonists’ growing sense of identity and consciousness of nationhood, and with their endless complaints against the King and Parliament. But these grievances were minor (prior to the revolt), and nothing like the complaints of the preceding century when the British government really was a disaster.
The colonists could have simply said “we want to be our own country”. The world would have understood if not sympathized. But instead, the colonists cooked up an entirely new philosophy of government that was supposed to justify their actions. They wanted to be more moral than the British, to be the good guys.
I can understand the desire for moral justification (found in all revolutions, no matter how gruesome). But their arguments were specious, hypocritical and subversive of their true political goals. They invented universal rights that they had no intention of ever granting to most of their inhabitants or to any foreigners. They invoked abstract authorities (God and Nature) who had no ability to express differing views.
The founding fathers broke the first law of civilization (the surrender of the right of private violence) in the supposed pursuit of a higher level of civilization. In fact, the only relevant authority for their assertions was the majesty of English law, which they cast aside in favor of invented and abstract reasoning.
This is precisely the same Cartesian reasoning that led to the French Revolution, communism, fascism and the near destruction of Western civilization. The founders were intellectual dilletantes intoxicated by their own fancy words and imported philosophy. In the end, they established a remarkably well-conceived form of government, but that government is built on the seeds of its own demise: abstract rights.
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IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
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.
The revolutionaries assert that the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” entitle them to revolt against Britain. There are no known laws of nature which speak to human political organization, and God has not taken a clear position on the right of revolution. What little we have is that the Biblical Jesus advised the Jewish people to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”, which is not a revolutionary sentiment.
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.
This iconic passage is another unsupported assertion, seeking abstract authority for a dubious political argument. Few truths are self-evident, and the “truths” asserted are patently false. It was obvious in 1776 that “all men” are not created equal, to which the revolutionaries’ slaves would readily attest. It is a convenient sentiment that the revolutionaries’ slaves entered the world with inalienable rights, but one is hard pressed to say what they were, and certainly not those enumerated.
I am not referring to the hypocrisy of owning slaves while expressing libertarian sentiments; I am using the institution of slavery to disprove the notion that men have inalienable rights. One might argue that their slaves possessed some latent “human” rights, but clearly those rights had been alienated. Liberty and the pursuit of happiness were explicitly and lawfully denied to negro slaves.
It is reasonable to interpret this famous passage as referring not to all men, but rather to all enfranchised British subjects (male, free, adult and landed), with “all” having a geographic character, as opposed to a class or racial meaning. It was an assertion that a British subject living abroad in a British colony does or should enjoy the same rights and an Englishman in England. This may be a reasonable argument, but it contravened British law at the time.
--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
In non-utopian reality, governments are not established for the purpose of securing alleged rights. Governments are established by the powerful for the maintenance and preservation of the existing social order. They derive their power from the monopoly of violence, not from the consent of their subjects. Nothing prevents the powerful from organizing a political system on quasi-democratic lines, but nothing requires them to do so. The thirteen colonies were not notably more democratic after the Revolution than before. (In fact, the British Empire abolished slavery thirty years before the U.S. did.)
--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.
The right of revolution may exist in philosophy, but not in law. The people in general, and British subjects in particular, have no right to abolish their government. No government on earth provides a legal means for its own dissolution. An attempt to overthrow an established government is, by definition, treason. The British Crown was not a temporary measure designed to be superseded at a later date, any more than was the United States (as demonstrated four score and seven years later).
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.
This is sound advice for would-be revolutionaries, advice that was successfully followed elsewhere in the self-governing parts of British Empire to no ill-effect. The reason that governments should not be overthrown for light and transient causes is that revolutions are bloody and destructive. The list of “rights” demanded by the American revolutionaries did not extend to those colonists who disagreed with them. They, their wives and children were driven from their lands and often murdered for daring to remain loyal to the government.
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.
We have, I trust, already dispensed with the notion of imagined “rights” that apply only to those with whom one agrees and with whom one is a social equal. A British subject (unlike a French or Spanish subject) was indeed granted certain rights by the Crown, but such rights were forfeited when the subject made war upon the lawful authorities. Revolutions often provoke martial law (see Lincoln), but such a lawful response does not evince a design to impose “absolute Despotism”. It is exigent and temporary.
--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.
Once again, the Crown should not be libelled as tyrannous for taking lawful actions to maintain civil order and suppress insurrection. Any subject people can make a list of grievances. But for such a list to rise to the level of justification for violent revolution, it should include more than a few trivialities. The colonists’ pre-revolutionary complaints were trivial in relation to their proposed remedy. Few people on earth were freer than British subjects at that time. The signers of the Declaration were not exactly down-trodden.
To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
Examine below the revolutionaries’ catalog of grievances. Some of them are trivial, some are false, and the most egregious are the government’s lawful response to insurrection. In fact, many of the abuses listed below (in bold) were subsequently inflicted by the federal government upon citizens resident in the states that sought to secede from the U.S. in 1861.
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.
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.
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 endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.