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The American Theory of Government

Via Glenn, Randy Barnette nails it down clean and tight.

What the Declaration of Independence Said and Meant
It officially adopted the American Theory of Government: First Come Rights; Then Comes Government to Secure These Rights.

The Declaration of Independence used to be read aloud at public gatherings every Fourth of July. Today, while all Americans have heard of it, all too few have read more than its second sentence. Yet the Declaration shows the natural rights foundation of the American Revolution, and provides important information about what the founders believed makes a constitution or government legitimate. It also raises the question of how these fundamental rights are reconciled with the idea of “the consent of the governed,” another idea for which the Declaration is famous.

The adoption of the Declaration, and the public affirmation of its principles, led directly to the phased in abolition of slavery in half of the United States by the time the Constitution was drafted—as well as the abolition of slavery in the Northwest Territory.

When reading the Declaration, it is worth keeping in mind two very important facts. The Declaration constituted high treason against the Crown. Every person who signed it would be executed as traitors should they be caught by the British. Second, the Declaration was considered to be a legal document by which the revolutionaries justified their actions and explained why they were not truly traitors. It represented, as it were, a literal indictment of the Crown and Parliament, in the very same way that criminals are now publicly indicted for their alleged crimes by grand juries representing “the People.”

But to justify a revolution, it was not thought to be enough that officials of the government of England, the Parliament, or even the sovereign himself had violated the rights of the people. No government is perfect; all governments violate rights. This was well known. So the Americans had to allege more than mere violations of rights. They had to allege nothing short of a criminal conspiracy to violate their rights systematically. Hence, the famous reference to “a long train of abuses and usurpations” and the list that follows the first two paragraphs. In some cases, these specific complaints account for provisions eventually included in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The Declaration is like the indictment of a criminal that states the basis of his criminality. But the ultimate judge of the rightness of their cause will be God, which is why the revolutionaries spoke of an “appeal to heaven”—an expression commonly found on revolutionary banners and flags. As British political theorist John Locke wrote: “The people have no other remedy in this, as in all other cases where they have no judge on earth, but to appeal to heaven.” The reference to a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” might be viewed as a kind of an international public opinion test. Or perhaps the emphasis is on the word “respect,” recognizing the obligation to provide the rest of the world with an explanation they can evaluate for themselves.

Lots more yet to this one, all of it well worth perusing, and reflecting carefully on.

Update! What more fitting op’ratoon-i-teh for a rousing musical thunderclap from the only American composer of orchestral music that truly matters—the incomparable Aaron Copland, of course—performed with tremendous skill, joy, and élan by the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America.

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