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Liddick: The Declaration’s timeless message

by Morgan Liddick

Well, that was fun. Celebrating the nation’s independence usually is: barbecues, beer, fireworks, time off (for some, I know. I’ve worked in retail …) and the whole panoply of sentiment, real and Hollywood. Canned speeches. Parades. Flag-waving and hoopla from the usual suspects. Carping and caveats from the other usual suspects. The full monte, so to speak.

Forget the fact that our independence from Great Britain was actually declared on July second and that it took two days for the announcement to finally get to the printer across the street. Or that signatures were added not on the day of, but over several months afterward. Or that John Hancock’s quip may or may not have been apocryphal. The Declaration of Independence, written primarily by Thomas Jefferson and edited by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, is still one of the seminal documents in the history of political thought. It bears reading today for its succinct outline of the beliefs that guided the men who founded our country; Jefferson himself said he intended the document to be “an expression of the American mind.”

The second paragraph contains the heart of the argument – all those phrases we love to throw around: “self-evident” truths and “unalienable rights” and government powers resting on “the Consent of the Governed.” Its reasoning, and the conclusion that independence is justified, is pure John Locke, especially his “Two Treatises of Government,” written as a justification of the politics behind Great Britain’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688.

Locke’s breakthrough ideas concerning the relationship between the individual and government refined those of his predecessor Thomas Hobbes, who essentially argued that security outweighed other considerations, so any government that offered it was legitimate and deserved the allegiance of its citizens until a more powerful sovereign appeared. Government was a contract, but the protection of life was the highest – if not the only – good.

Locke had a different view. Although he, too, thought there was a “social contract” between citizens and their government, he saw a broader goal: the protection of a number of “natural rights,” including those Jefferson elaborated: “… Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Except Jefferson’s original language didn’t use the phrase “pursuit of happiness.” It employed the far more direct Lockean construction: “Life, Liberty and Property.”

Locke’s definition of “property” is only partly ours today. He considers one’s self the minimum component; what we would loosely define as “freedom,” he refers to as “owning one’s self,” the very foundation of all property. This places both the individual and the “property” resulting from his endeavors outside the sphere of government: The state does not determine who owns what, or how much, or for what purpose. Instead, according to Locke, both “person” and “property” are only to be surrendered by consent and in exchange for other goods and benefits. This is a subtle argument, but one must understand it to gain an appreciation for what the founders of this country were saying in that hot Philadelphia room 235 years ago.

Both Locke’s “Second Treatise” and our Declaration of Independence are worth reading – or re-reading, if one likes reminders of what this country is really about. As one reads the third part of the Declaration – in which Jefferson lists, using his best prosecutorial manner, the “Abuses and Usurpations” of George III – some of the complaints may seem quaint. Quartering troops in private homes, for example. Or deportation for trial.

Others might feel queasily contemporary: ignoring the acts of legislatures, mentioned four times. Acting to void such laws as he finds inconvenient, mentioned thrice. Imposing arbitrary administrations and rules, twice. And the hardy perennial, taxation without consent.

Above all, in the Declaration there is the Jeffersonian “sense of the subject”: that in America, the people are paramount and the government is an instrument not for their perfection, but for protection of their rights. That attention must be paid to the wishes of the governed. That “Life, Liberty and – if one desires Jefferson’s formula – the Pursuit of Happiness” are indwelling rights no government can take away. And that, in the end, the people retain the right to alter a government which has become “Destructive of These Ends,” no matter how well-meaning it professes to be.

Some may regard these documents and their expressions as sentiments of a bygone age, inappropriate to our far more sophisticated times. Doubtless, George III had a similar reaction to the intemperate impertinences of colonial bumpkins. How’d that turn out again?

We all know, so let’s enjoy the 235th year of the Independence of the United States; may there be many more to come.

Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. E-mail him at mcliddick@hotmail.com. Also, comment on this column at http://www.summitdaily.com.

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.

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 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. 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. 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. 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.

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 meantime 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 harass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the consent of our legislature.

He has affected to render the military independent of and superior to 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 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 offenses:

For abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring 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 in 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, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and 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 endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is 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 attention 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.

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 the 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.

New Hampshire: Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton

Massachusetts: John Hancock, Samual Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry

Rhode Island: Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery

Connecticut: Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott

New York: William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris

New Jersey: Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark

Pennsylvania: Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross

Delaware: Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean

Maryland: Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton

Virginia: George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton

North Carolina: William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn

South Carolina: Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton

Georgia: Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton

Source: The Pennsylvania Packet, July 8, 1776


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