All over the globe, there is a great deal of weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth with regard to the actions of the governing entities of numerous countries. We in the United States are certainly not immune from this. Many of these heated, and in some cases bloody, debates go deeply to the heart of the fundamental purpose of government and the roles of the people governed. Thus, it is perhaps fortunate that we in the United States are afforded a moment to pause and consider the actions that started it all as far as self-government in this country is concerned. It is indeed fortuitous that the Fourth of July is a holiday. This pause to reflect on the nation’s political origins is just what is needed at just this moment.
Perhaps we are limited in our thinking when we overemphasize the role of the Declaration of Independence as merely the trigger that lead to the Revolutionary War and ultimately to our independence from Great Britain. It was certainly important for this, but beyond that, the Declaration of Independence, brief document though it was, set forth the goals for the proper role of government that became the reasons for such bold action. Thus, the basis for what ultimately has become the world’s longest serving Constitution was originally embodied in the Declaration of Independence.
Borrowing heavily from British philosophers of individual freedom such as John Locke, Thomas Jefferson wrote that people had God-given rights that could not be taken away by government. Locke had often argued that all legitimate political authority exists to preserve these rights, and that such authority should be based solely on the consent of those who are governed. When those who govern overstep their authority, then the governed have the right to remove these rulers. Jefferson, following this line of thinking, went on to list a “bill of particulars” against the King of England, hence making the case that the king had indeed abrogated his authority. In summary, Jefferson stated that people have a right to revolt if they determine that their government is denying them their legitimate rights. He concluded that the colonies were “Free and Independent States” with no political connection to Great Britain. By August of 1776, 54 revolutionaries had followed the bold lead of John Hancock and signed their name to the Declaration of Independence. Had the fledgling country lost the war, the British penalty for treason would have been horrendous.
The United States did indeed win the war, but the Declaration of Independence, far from having completed serving its purpose, became the document whereby we addressed the question as to why we went to all of the trouble in the first place. In the rationale for why we went to war was contained the seed of a new kind of self-government. This was a constant question that exists to this day pertaining to what the appropriate relationship of people to government should be. In 1787, as we finally developed what appeared to be a workable plan for government called the Constitution, the debate began that, though it was 222 years ago, sounds eerily familiar today. The Federalists lined up on one side and the Anti-Federalists lined up on the other. The Anti-Federalists were the “states’ righters” of 1787. Their chief spokesman or “pamphleteer” went by the handle — dare I say username — “Brutus.” James Madison, Alexander Hamilton,and John Jay were the chief spokesmen for the Federalists in their numerous issues of the Federalist Papers. If we could somehow see a film of these lively debates, we would no doubt see Brutus warning of the dire consequences of allowing there to be a strong central government with any powers whatever to supersede the authority of the individual sovereign states. By the same token, the Federalists would be seen as being apologists for a strong effective central government, which would share certain powers with the states. Brutus also expressed misgivings with regard to what he saw as a Supreme Court without sufficient checks on its authority. All of these arguments then as now centered on the relationship of the people top their government.
The heated debates of yesteryear are only slightly different than their modern version.
We pause to honor those who in great peril wrote the Declaration of Independence, those who have defended with their blood and their lives, those who daily exercise its meaning in debate regarding “the good of the people,” and all of us who utter a word of thanks for the right to continue the debate.
Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Dr. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.