COLORADO SPRINGS, Jul 3, 2012 — Most of us know words and phrases from the Declaration of Independence. Many think that it was written by a committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. We get that idea from a widely printed 1900 painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. In reality, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman were also on the committee. The committee decided that Jefferson would produce the draft.
But where did Jefferson get the ideas and words that make up the Declaration? While a lot has been written about the process of writing the Declaration of Independence, little is taught these days about the ideas. In 1825 Jefferson wrote,
“Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”
What was the American mind in 1776? Where did the ideas come from? There has been a lot of revisionism applied to the Declaration in recent decades, but the historical record is clear. Perhaps the best book on the subject is The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, written by Bernard Bailyn in 1967 and garnering both Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes. Examining over 400 documents from the Colonial period in a previous project, Bailyn distills their arguments in The Ideological Origins. While today we think of the Revolutionary period as beginning with the Stamp Act in 1765 — and the National Archives online pages confidently asserts it — in reality it began long before.
As revealed by their writings, the colonists had four reasons for rebellion.
First, they feared the loss of freedom of religion. Many had left England because of persecution by the Church of England, the official church with the king as its head. They were given colonial charters which guaranteed freedom of religion, but events in England in the mid-18th century convinced them that the Church wanted to extend its authority to the colonies. They opposed this even though many were Anglican. This is the real meaning of “no establishment of religion” in the First Amendment: no official state-sponsored religion. It’s bad for religious freedom. The so-called “wall of separation” has no basis in either Colonial thinking or the Constitution; it is an invention of the 20th century.
Second, the colonists came increasingly under the control of too many officers of the crown, through which the king was replacing the authority of the colonial legislatures. These legislatures were viewed as the legitimate representatives of the people, just as Parliament was the embodiment of the people in Great Britain. There are numerous complaints about this in the Declaration—one third of all the long train of abuses involve arbitrary laws, and the abuse of power with respect to the rights of the legislatures. These rights were also granted to the Colonies in their charters. The colonists also relied on the traditional rights of Englishmen, as given especially in the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights of 1688. Increasingly, however, the colonists began to favor the natural rights argument of John Locke: that individual rights come from the Creator, not government. They predate government and therefore government cannot legitimately take them away. You read this in the Declaration in its most famous line:
“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…”
The third complaint was the subversion of the judiciary by the Crown. Five of the 27 abuses involve judicial powers, from denial of trial by jury to making the judges dependent on the Crown for their tenure and their salaries. It was to combat these abuses that the Constitution established an independent judiciary.
The fourth complaint, and perhaps the last straw, was the stationing of armed troops in the colonies, beginning in 1768 in Boston. Four of the complaints refer to the king’s stationing of troops and using foreign mercenaries in the colonies. The colonies had a strong aversion to standing armies. In times of crisis and war they called up the militia. They were highly incensed by the king’s use of troops to enforce his illegal laws. That’s why we have the Third Amendment and why until World War I we had a very small standing army.
None of these general categories is “taxation without representation.” The taxes certainly played a role, but they are part of the larger issue of whether the king, or even the Parliament, had the authority to make and enforce the laws they did—including the taxing authority. Given that attitude, how very ironic and dangerous it is that Chief Justice Roberts ruled Thursday that Congress has an unlimited power to tax.
The hated Stamp Act of 1765 was repealed in 1766, but it did spawn the Stamp Act Congress—predecessor of the latter Continental Congresses—and the Sons of Liberty and the Committees of Correspondence.
The Declaration of Independence remains to this day the statement of our founding principles. We are the only country in history founded on principles, not an ethnicity or a king or a ruling class. It’s what makes us exceptional.
The long train of abuses remains an indictment of tyrannical power. An executive making arbitrary rules without the consent of the legislature; a corrupt legislature passing unconstitutional laws; a judiciary not independent but political, not judging by the constitution but making new law: These abuses of power are as much a threat to our Republic today as they were to the colonies then.
This Independence Day, think about our founding principles.
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