By L&T Columnist Gary Damron
A small group of college students finished a summer session of American History. Afterward they expressed appreciation to the instructor for assigning them to read and analyze the Declaration of Independence. I would like to take this opportunity to share some context of the document.
Sometimes we don’t realize what a radical concept was presented by our Founding Fathers. No country in the world had as much freedom as Americans were proposing, though they themselves seemed to be claiming liberty based on the foundation of their English rights.
Thomas Hobbes wrote in the mid-1600s that political stability was dependent on a “sovereign” to whom the people would collectively cede their rights in return for protection. Hobbes and others looked at the newly discovered lands as places of anarchy and chaos because they lacked a sovereign leader. Ironically it would be in this land that people would truly have the opportunity to form government by consent based on the rights of individuals.
By the 1700s, Europe had found some stability through either constitutional or absolute monarchy. In England the idea of government by social contract had been floating around for the past hundred years. But because they were committed to monarchy and aristocracy – and only about twenty percent of the male population had any say in government – there’d been no practical way to implement it.
Americans’ advocacy of overturning the dominant way of organizing societies was based on documents such as the Magna Carta (1215) and the English Bill of Rights (1689) which limited the king’s power and protected citizens’ privileges from the arbitrary use of that power. But the Declaration of Independence when it was released was a revolutionary document – nothing like it existed at the time.
During the French and Indian War colonists had welcomed English troops, thinking they were there to provide for their security. The King and Parliament no doubt felt that they knew what was best for the Empire as a whole and particularly for the “barbarians” in the New World. After the war England extended control, and within thirteen years the relationship became unworkable and independence was declared: “When…it becomes necessary … Laws of Nature … entitle them … impel them to the separation.”
Reading to the end of the document, we catch the magnitude of what the signers were doing – they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Thomas Jefferson wrote the original draft, which was edited by John Adams and Ben Franklin who had more diplomatic experience. Once it reached the Continental Congress more than 400 words, such as personal references to the king, were removed to tone it down - but the final document would be far from politically correct.
The brave men who affixed their names understood they were putting themselves on a list to be detained and treated as traitors. Many of them were not heard of again; they did not gain from the venture, and at the least their willingness to risk and sacrifice all were clearly stated.
The middle of the Declaration is a list of grievances. The king, they wrote, had violated the concept of representation, the bottom-up rule according to the will of the people, and the idea of limited government that possessed only the powers consented to by the people. King George “has erected a multitude of New Offices [read bureaucracy], and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their substance.”
The men who signed their names declared that security and stability were not sufficient reason to give up freedom. We must be careful today that we don’t make that trade. Promises of economic well being, or threats of national endangerment, should never lead to relinquishment of personal freedoms.