Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Declaration of Independence still bears reading
On Your Right
Two hundred forty-three years ago today, delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies meeting in Philadelphia to form a united front on the war already underway against Great Britain voted to accept a motion offered by Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states…”
The Second Continental Congress spent the next two days debating and revising the language of a statement drafted by Thomas Jefferson to flesh out the idea before officially adopting the Declaration of Independence on July 4. Nearly a month would go by, however, before the document was formally signed. New York’s delegates didn’t officially give their support until July 9 because their home assembly hadn’t yet authorized them to vote in favor of independence.Some things change slowly, one supposes.
Our Declaration of Independence didn’t happen in a vacuum. Much of its language reflected that of the political philosophers of the Enlightenment, particularly Englishmen Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. The colonial leaders who debated and signed the document were familiar with these and other figures of the ongoing intellectual revolution in Western thought; in his 2007 book “The Great Upheaval,” historian Jay Winik describes the lively transatlantic traffic in ideas that made America a node in the “Republic of Letters” central to the development of political thought as we know it today.
Hobbes, writing in the shadow of the English civil war, thought government an absolute necessity in the face of natural life, which he described as “… poor, nasty, brutish and short.” In response, a community had the right to enter into a “social contract” with a ruler to establish order and provide protection. Hobbes was agnostic on the type of government the ruler should establish, but he saw no limit on the ruler’s power in the name of public safety.
Locke saw a far more limited role for the state. Writing on the eve of England’s “Glorious Revolution,” he envisioned government as a social contract for the enumerated purposes of protecting individual citizens’ “life, liberty and property.” He also developed the radical theory that, should a government fail to perform as promised, the people had an inherent right to cancel its contract. The American Declaration of Independence was the embodiment of these theories of government, and as such, was the truly revolutionary aspect of the American revolution: a people canceling the contract of a government that no longer protected their interests — the tacit understanding between ruler and ruled.
The bulk of the Declaration of Independence was, unsurprisingly, a bill of indictments against the government of King George III. Canceling a contract requires proof of cause, and the colonists provided this full well. From the depredations of unaccountable royal governors and admiralty courts to the myriad of taxes, regulations, fees, fines and harassments petty and gross to misfeasance and plain bad government, the latter part of Jefferson’s document was a list of wrongs submitted “to a candid world.” It’s an interesting read.
It’s clear Jefferson had help writing it. A nice comparison of the various drafts of the Declaration with the final document provided by “ushistory.org” shows evolution in Colonists’ concerns. The first draft of the declaration contained nothing on the impressment of American sailors by the British navy, nor about the Royal habit of calling governing assemblies to order in remote locations. Both the final draft and the signed copies, however, have detailed complaints about these practices.
The process also flowed the other way: Jefferson’s first draft and the “reported draft,” or the language the delegates used for debate, had very long articles on the slave trade. It was described in the first as “cruel war against human nature itself,” as “piratical warfare,” an “assemblage of horrors” and “execrable commerce.” The reported draft retains these criticisms. The signed copy eliminates the entire three paragraphs, Jefferson later recalled that the edit was made at the insistence of South Carolina and Georgia; James Madison also hints at this. As with the later “three-fifths clause” in the Constitution, this void pointed to an expediency in the name of unity, and a disagreement that would come to a violent head 84 years later.
Foreshadowing aside, the declaration still bears reading; today, tomorrow or Thursday might be good days to do it. It tells much about the ideas on which this nation was formed, being the intellectual architectural drawing of the republic.
Free health care isn’t in it.
Morgan Liddick’s column “On Your Right” publishes Tuesdays in the Summit Daily News. Liddick spent 27 years working for the U.S. Foreign Service, primarily living abroad. He also spent 12 years teaching U.S. history and Western civilization at community colleges in Colorado and Texas. He currently lives in Virginia. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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