Betrayal of the Declaration of Independence

What was it that made the American Revolution truly Revolutionary?

In June 1776 Congress appointed a committee consisting of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman to draft a declaration of independence. Using the ideas set down by John Locke in his Second Treatise Concerning Civil Government, the Virginia Declaration of Rights written by George Mason, and other sources, they created a document that not only declared the reasons for America's decision to separate from Great Britain, but set down principles that would serve all mankind in the future.

So far reaching was that immortal document that even Ho Chi Minh quoted it in his declaration of independence for Vietnam: “This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.”

Jefferson’s Declaration was truly and literally a document for the ages.

For years the Fourth of July has been a joyful celebration for Americans. All over the country people gather to commemorate the occasion of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence. Those celebrations are accompanied by parades, band concerts, picnics, and fireworks. It is doubtful, however, that on that declarationoccasion many Americans reflect actively on the true meaning of the Great Declaration. After all, when the National Symphony plays on the Mall before the fireworks, the crowning piece is the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky, which ends with cannon from Fort Meyer being fired to accompany the final strains of the music.

That has always struck me as strange, for the Overture has nothing to do directly with America, although some might think it celebrates the War of 1812. Even that would be mistaken. The overture commemorates the Russian successful defeat of Napoleon's march to Moscow. Indirectly, however, there is a connection between the Overture and America: The War of 1812 occurred because of the fighting going on in Napoleon’s Europe.

Even if people are not conscious of the reasons behind the words of Thomas Jefferson, we live with their impact every day. The Declaration is more than just a statement of America's separation from Great Britain. Its opening paragraph is, in the words of historian C. Bradley Thompson of Clemson University, “The most important sentence in the most important document in American history.” The reason is that the Declaration is a precise statement of our national political philosophy. More than that, it is also the basis upon which our entire concept of civilization rests. It states that there are self-evident truths on which all civil societies are constructed: that all men are created equal and that they are endowed with the inherent right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that governments are instituted to protect those rights where they exist and secure them where they are missing. (As the full meaning of that principle evolved, women were eventually added.)

In his book America's Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It, Thompson writes, “There has probably never been another time in our history when the life of the American mind was so alive, so penetrating, and so innovative as it was during the Revolutionary.” He begins his book with a discussion of human nature and argues “that individuals are the primary unit of moral value,” and that they are aware that they are free to choose courses of action that will have consequences. Whether the action is favorable or unfavorable to others is a matter of conscience, which depends on our moral values.

The philosophical thinking behind Jefferson’s words comes from the writings of Sir Isaac Newton, John Locke, David Hume, and others. The Declaration and the United States Constitution taken together comprise the most perfect embodiment of the ideas of the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, that has yet been conceived. Enlightenment philosophers argued that just as the scientific thought of Francis Bacon began to unlock the nature of the physical world, applying the power of reason to the manner in which societies are governed would lead to the most desirable structure for human habitation.

Locke's Second Treatise outlined the ideas that Jefferson later incorporated into the Declaration. He starts by examining the ideas from Thomas Hobbes, who argued that life in nature where man has absolute freedom is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In order to make life livable, Hobbes argued for strong autocratic governments. Locke disagreed; he said that human beings are entitled to freedom and are endowed with the right to life liberty and property. Property, he said, is what leads to man’s happiness, and man has the natural right to do whatever is necessary to preserve his property, as long as he does not infringe upon the rights of others.

Locke argued that to ensure that those rights are preserved for all, governments, with the consent of the governed, enact laws to protect those rights. For that government to operate successfully, citizens organized under that government must be willing to give up a portion of their freedom. Because humans are imperfect creatures, the government must provide protection for those rights in the form of penalties for those who fail to follow the law. Freedom is therefore never absolute; a common formulation of that concept implies that “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” Any action, therefore, that threatens the life, liberty or property of another person must be curtailed.

Thus, the self-evident truths that Jefferson lists in the Declaration are the qualities that make civilization possible and life livable. They are the virtues with which all human beings are endowed at birth, and which they should aspire to uphold throughout their lives. They are basic, absolute concepts that the people, the “primary units of moral value,” are called on to adhere to: virtue, decency, honesty, integrity, empathy, generosity, benevolence, respect for others, and a sense of justice.

In recent times evolutionary biologists have also addressed the concept of our inherent virtues. The phrase reciprocal altruism defines what they consider to be a fundamental aspect of human nature. If I make a sacrifice that will be of benefit to you, I have a reasonable expectation that in the future, you will be willing to make a like sacrifice to benefit me. Another way of expressing this idea is to argue that human beings have an a priori sense of right and wrong. In other words, we are hardwired from birth to behave according to what is generally called the golden rule, a concept put forth by Confucius centuries before the New Testament was written.

It should be pointed out, however, that the innate sense of right and wrong is deficient if not lacking in some human beings, just as some people are born with deformed limbs or are prone to various diseases. The norm is that we all have an innate sense of right and wrong, and in the context of government, we need to insist upon those positive qualities among the people we elect, and it goes beyond elections. The rights in the First Amendment of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances are guaranteed. They are the means by which we keep our government virtuous.

What is the connection between the Declaration of Independence and Constitution?

Some historians claim that the Declaration is a fundamental part of our Constitution, a belief in which I concur. If we combine the philosophy of the Declaration with that of the Constitution, the opening words of the preamble, We the People, take on a special meaning. We the People have the absolute responsibility to ensure that our government lives up to the standards for a political society outlined by Jefferson and his fellow writers in 1776.

The Declaration provides the moral foundation for the government that would eventually be created under the Constitution. It defines the source of the virtue within a state, which lies ultimately with the people. Prior to the revolution, the responsibility for maintaining virtue in a state lay in the hands of emperors, kings, dukes, tsars, autocrats, and dictators. In 1776 that changed, and when the Constitution was completed in 1787, it was incorporated into our founding document. We the People are ultimately responsible for the quality of our government. After all, the Declaration stated that governments derive their just powers “from the consent of the governed.” It is the phrase We the People that made our revolution truly revolutionary.

When we talk about the Constitution, we are inclined to pass over the preamble as merely an introduction. It is far more than that:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

It opens by stating that the document is to form a more perfect union. The government of the United States prior to the adoption of the Constitution was formed under Articles of Confederation, proposed in 1777 and finally ratified in 1781. Article XIII of that agreement states that the union shall be perpetual, and any alterations must be agreed on by Congress and be confirmed by every state. In 1869 the Supreme Court used the word “perpetual” to decide that secession from the Union was in violation of the Constitution, since the preamble states the purpose of the document is to create a “more perfect union.” The preamble then goes on to say that it shall promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to the people in perpetuity.

The People’s Rights and the People’s Responsibilities

Our government officials are elected by the people, and they carry out their offices with the consent of the people. Regardless of party, they have a responsibility to act in full accordance with the laws of our nation, and of their states and local governments. They must always act in the best interest of their constitutionconstituents. For the president, that means all the people. For senators, congressmen, governors, and local officials, is their duty to act in the best interests of those who elected them as well as those who may have voted against them, or failed to vote at all. Where they are free to follow the policies of the party that elected them, they must not neglect the welfare of others, nor should they follow policies that favor one party at the expense of the rights of others.

How, then, can the people, ensure that they elect men and women who understand those responsibilities? In other words, what is their duty in exchange for the rights with their government protects for them?

The first duty of the people is to be informed. It starts with education, which means that parents should urge the schools their children attend to see to it that they are well educated in history and civic responsibility. Colleges are free to lay out their own required programs of study, and it is to be hoped that they also accept responsibility to prepare students to be good citizens.

For young people in school and college, it means simply applying oneself to the work at hand and paying attention to the lessons being studied. For all citizens, children and adults alike, that means following the course of public events and selecting sources that one knows to be reliable. It means listening to programs and reading papers and magazines that do not share your views in their editorial policies. That means when you hear of a new policy, or discover a source of new information, that you check that source and look for contravening opinions.

I would urge all Americans to go back from time to time and reread the Declaration of Independence and spend time going over the Constitution, perhaps one article at a time. Widely published pocket constitutions are east to find, and they should belong on everybody’s desk, or on a shelf in everyone’s bedroom.
Where have We the People gone astray?

In this time of crisis, the weak spots in the American fabric have become exposed. There is no question that the current COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the innate good in many Americans who daily show compassion, generosity and concern for their fellow citizens. The recent outrage over the behavior of a small number of police officers has also stirred emotions. As the events unfold, we can see evidence of greed, contempt for the law, both in spirit and in fact, and a lack of empathy and in some cases, downright contempt with regard to the welfare of our fellow citizens. Some persons are using protest marches to loot food stores, and unscrupulous merchants are using the pandemic to extort exorbitant prices on everything from ordinary consumer goods, to things like protective masks. Evidence of considerable fraud arising from our current crisis has been evident.

Thus, although the pandemic has exacerbated the conditions described above, it has been evolving for at least two decades. As Angela Andrews wrote in the magazine of the National Conference of State Legislators, “There’s an epidemic of incivility in America. It’s everywhere. Just read the comments on almost any blog, news story or social media post. Watch the commuter traffic on any weekday morning. Better yet, try discussing the presidential election with a coworker or an in-law.”’

How, then, is the Declaration being betrayed?

First, the most absolute right bestowed on us by our Creator is the right to life. If governments are secured to protect that right, what does that imply about our health system, a system that has been strained to the limit by the current disease. In addition, the pursuit of happiness also implies that people must be in good health; it is hard to be happy when you are too ill to attend to your own needs or the needs of your family. It follows logically then that the government should see to it that all the people have access to healthcare. That does not mean what is referred to as socialized medicine. Rather it infers that a comprehensive set of laws should be passed to see to it that all men and women and especially children have access to decent healthcare, a goal that can be achieved by a combination of public and private health insurance.

The right to liberty has been discussed before the Supreme Court and in numerous essays about the meaning of freedom. As stated above, it means that “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins,” or words to that effect. We do not have absolute freedom to do anything we want, and as the Declaration implies, governments are formed to guarantee that laws are passed to prevent people from treading upon other people’s rights.

The right to defend one’s life is absolute. But the means to defend that right must not threaten the life of one’s fellow citizens.

The right to liberty also means that citizens should not be denied their liberty by being incarcerated for lengthy periods for wrongdoings that are unlikely to impede the life, liberty or safety of others. When people are tried and sentenced to imprisonment, the punishment should be suitable to the crime and neither cruel nor unusual as demanded by the Eighth Amendment. The current percentage of Black and Hispanic people imprisoned is 58%; there percentage in the population at large is 32%. What does that say about freedom?

The pursuit of happiness comes from Locke’s phrase, “life liberty and property.” Jefferson, a landowner who believed in the virtues of the independent farmer, therefore equated happiness with ownership of property. The happiness referred to here is not something like the pleasure at seeing an old friend, but rather being able to enjoy the things that one by natural right owns. That includes one’s person—and it is related to the right to life—one’s personal possessions, home, land, livestock, anything else that one has acquired by legitimate means. In modern times, that includes more sophisticated things like automobiles, computers, and shares of stock in a corporation.

But here’s where that definition can become murky, for it is become apparent that in this age of hyper-capitalism, the acquisition of wealth has become dominated by forces that were not present in Jefferson’s time.

For a century after the signing of the Constitution, the United States government owned vast tracts of land which it could sell to people, which would then theoretically at least assure their happiness. The mechanisms and details for the sale of that public land became a hot political potato during the early decades of the Republic. Could it be sold cheaply so that people would have ready access to ownership? Or should it be sold more dearly, thereby accruing more funds to the government to cover its expenses and save people from burdensome taxes.

How does it the pursuit of property, or happiness, manifest itself?

Powerful men and women who own and operate corporations often do so in a way that obviously threatens the property of others. Competition is said to be a healthy thing, and survival of the fittest—an offshoot of Darwin’s theories—became at one juncture in our history a social issue rather than a biological one. If I see a corporation making a product that it sells for a profit, and I devise a better product that will put them out of business once I market it, no one will be likely to find me guilty of anything. Yet we went through an entire period in our history when that was exactly how men like the so-called robber barons became millionaires. Eventually government stepped in to protect egregious violations of what we might call fair play.

bill of rightsIn this regard we might ask whether Jefferson’s beliefs made him a liberal, or a conservative? A friend or enemy of government? Jefferson favored freedom above almost all else, which made him a liberal. In Jefferson’s time when he talked spoke of the pursuit of happiness, the greatest bar to his ability to acquire and keep property was government. It was the British government that had impinged on American liberties and freedoms to pursue their goals. Yet the phrase “That government governs best which governs least” attributed to Jefferson has been a conservative mantra for some time.
What happened? What happened was that in the age of those robber barons, and man’s ability to find happiness in the sense we are talking about was no longer government. In fact, it was the absence of government that for several decades deprived many men and women of their legitimate pursuits. Starting around 1900, the progressive movement employed government to control those giant corporations, thereby opening the avenues to happiness to others. In other words, instead of being a bar to happiness, government became a protector of it.

When did that stop? One place to begin would be the financial crisis of 2008-2009, which came about by gross abuses of power on the part of huge investment banks that began to market products for huge profits that because of the way they were structured were actually or far less than the price for which they were being sold. Eventually all of those overpriced instruments became known as “toxic assets,” and when they began to fail, the financial structure of the entire country was jeopardized.

Government had to step in to prevent an economic disaster, but those who were guilty of practices that while not technically illegal were certainly unethical, were never called to account. Some of the very rich at the top of those corporations lost a great deal of money when things crashed. But at the other end of the economic spectrum, poorer people lost their jobs their homes, their life savings, and more. That was clearly a moral failure, and we the people were powerless to do anything about.

Another phenomenon has cropped up in this age of high technology that has distorted the very concept of the pursuit of happiness in property. It is called surveillance capitalism. (For a detailed account, see Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.) Zuboff defines surveillance capitalism “as the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. These data are then computed and packaged as prediction products and sold into behavioral futures markets — business customers with a commercial interest in knowing what we will do now, soon, and later.”

What that means is this: Traditional capitalism that goes back to the colonial era and beyond is the idea that people took raw materials that exist in nature, including their own innate creativity and what has been called the work ethic to produce products that can be bought or sold for profit. It might the timber found on land, metal products made from natural ores, of products of the intellect such as poetry and music. What exists now, as Zuboff says, is the sale of the “private human experience,” and it is done often without our knowledge or consent.

These things all suggest that we are still working toward perfecting our practice of the principles laid down in the great declaration. To add to these ideas, let us consider the words of some of our distinguished predecessors about what the Fourth of July means.

On July 4, 1800, Daniel Webster, then age 18, delivered a speech in which he said the following: “It becomes us, on whom the defense of our country will ere long devolve, this day, most seriously to reflect on the duties incumbent upon us. Our ancestors bravely snatched expiring liberty from the grasp of Great Britain. … Shall we, their descendants, now basically disgrace our lineage, and pusillanimously disclaim the legacy bequeathed to us? Shall we pronounce the sad valediction to freedom, and immolate liberty on the altars our fathers have raised to her?”

On July 4, 1863, Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “It is easy to understand the bitterness which is often showed toward reformers. They are never general favorites. They are apt to interfere with vested rights and time-honored interests. They often wear an unlovely, and forbidding, aspect.”

On July 4, 1876, Susan B Anthony spoke the following: “our faith is firm and unwavering in the broad principles of human rights proclaimed in 1776, not only is abstract truths, but as the cornerstones of the Republic.”

On July 4, 1876, Charles Francis Adams said, “Let us labor continually to keep the advance in civilization as it becomes us to do after the struggles of the past, so that the rights to life and liberty and the Pursuit of happiness, which we have honorably secured, Maeve be firmly entailed upon the ever enlarging generations of mankind.

On today, July 4, 2020, and editorial in the Los Angeles Times was titled, “It’s time we live up to the true meaning of our Declaration.”

The meaning of all this is that we need to acknowledge the mistakes we have made in the past, mistakes against Blacks, Native Americans, and people from other nations who have been deprived of life, liberty and the Pursuit of happiness and have sought those things within our borders.
We have made great progress in the last 244 years, but we still have a long way to go.

Twenty-First Century America Home | Updated July 4, 2020