--2006: Some Thoughts On The American Declaration Of Independence And Its Irish/European Connections At Century's End,
--2009: Reflections on the Declaration of Independence: From a Crisis of U.K. Constitutionalism in the Americas to a Global Constitutional Crisis in Honduras;
--2013: Democracy Part 28/Ruminations 51: On the Contradiction of Voting, Democracy and Revolution in the U.S. and Egypt; -- Ruminations 52: Surmizing Liberty and Equality in American Political Ideology;
--2015: Ruminations 56: On Symbols in American Political Ideology--From Russian Imperial Anthems to Confederate Battle Flags, Marriage, Legislature, and Statute;
-- 2016: Democracy Part 36: Representative Democracy in an Age Beyond the State--The United States in a Global Political Society;
--2017: Ruminations 73: On American Independence Day 2017—Collective Rights Individually Performed at the Dawn of the Age of Data;
Americans don't think much in ideological terms; Americans think even less in historical terms, except perhaps to the extent necessary to reach back to a term useful in new ways for current debates. Americans invoke ideology instrumentally, especially in defense of their customs and traditions, or sometimes against them, in either case with sometimes profound effects. And sometimes Americans use their ideology strategically to manage or rework historical perception--but only when it is practical, that is when it furthers some political, social, economic or cultural objective with respect to which sufficient political mobilization can be cultivated.(Democracy Part 36: Representative Democracy in an Age Beyond the State).
WHEN in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.
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, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES, that they are absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political Connection between them and the State of Great-Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which INDEPENDENT STATES may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
Since June 24, the Liberty County Vindicator of Liberty County, Texas, has been sharing daily excerpts from the declaration in the run up to July Fourth. The idea was to encourage historical literacy among the Vindicator's readers. The first nine such posts of the project went up without incident. "But part 10," writes Vindicator managing editor Casey Stinnett, "did not appear. Instead, The Vindicator received a notice from Facebook saying that the post 'goes against our standards on hate speech.'" The post in question contained paragraphs 27 through 31 of the Declaration of Independence, the grievance section of the document wherein the put-upon colonists detail all the irreconcilable differences they have with King George III. Stinnett says that he cannot be sure which exact grievance ran afoul of Facebook's policy, but he assumes that it's paragraph 31, which excoriates the King for inciting "domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages." The removal of the post was an automated action, and Stinnett sent a "feedback message" to Facebook with the hopes of reaching a human being who could then exempt the Declaration of Independence from its hate speech restrictions. Fearful that sharing more of the text might trigger the deletion of its Facebook page, The Vindicator has suspended its serialization of the declaration. ("Facebook Algorithm Flags, Removes Declaration of Independence Text as Hate Speech: supra).
For African-Americans, the commemoration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 — and its promises of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness while slavery was still the law of the land — is complicated, according to Charles Blockson, a historian, scholar and author of African-American culture and history. For Blockson, 84, the Fourth of July conjures up thoughts of “progress,” “hypocrisy,” and, “in a sense, hope,” as well as a “miseducation.” (A Conflicted Fourth: Some Black Americans struggle celebrating Fourth of July ).
Nonetheless, this shifting dissonance and its direction, pointing simultaneously to the past (and its now rejected understandings of principle) and to radical innovation in the construction of rule of law government (the principal consequence of which reduced local privileges and autonomy producing rebellion), makes the point. Disembodied principle detaches a polity from its own history; like the concept of beauty, disembodied, it can produce substantial body image problems and ultimately self loathing that is self destructive by a political culture that perpetuates self loathing (Nanita Nayyar, Body Image: The History Of Body Hate And How To Change It," Women Fitness 22 June 2016 ("by a culture which perpetuates female self-loathing. ")). This is not so much about the absence of a social super-ego (as some suggest, e.g., here), but rather the disconnection between lived reality in historical context, and the meaning of principle with contextual characteristics.
Indeed, one might better understand the document as a declaration of grievances from which a decision was taken, rather than the manifestation of principle within the context of a rebellious colonial society America. It was the grievances that mattered; the principles were meant to give reaction a direction--in this case toward independence. Principle and consequence, then, provided the structurally necessary entry and exit point for the main event; they drew the eye to the great context--the long history of engagement, from which principles could be applied and consequences announced.
Te list of grievances, them,selves, provide the surest way to understand the utility and meaning of principle, and the method of assessment from which legitimate consequences could be determined.
The History of the present King of Great-Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid World.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good.He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing Importance, unless suspended in their Operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.He has refused to pass other Laws for the Accommodation of large Districts of People, unless those People would relinquish the Right of Representation in the Legislature, a Right inestimable to them, and formidable to Tyrants only.He has called together Legislative Bodies at Places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the Depository of their public Records, for the sole Purpose of fatiguing them into Compliance with his Measures.He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly Firmness his Invasions on the Rights of the People.He has refused for a long Time, after such Dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the Dangers of Invasion from without, and Convulsions within.He has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither, and raising the Conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the Tenure of their Offices, and the Amount and Payment of their Salaries.He has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harrass our People, and eat out their Substance.He has kept among us, in Times of Peace, Standing Armies, without the consent of our Legislatures.He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.He has combined with others to subject us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our Laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:For quartering large Bodies of Armed Troops among us:For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from Punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:For cutting off our Trade with all Parts of the World:For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:For depriving us, in many Cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury:For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pre-tended Offences:For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an arbitrary Government and enlarging its Boundaries, so as to render it at once an Example and fit Instrument for introducing the same absolute Rule into these Colonies:For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our Governments:For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with Power to legislate for us in all Cases whatsoever.He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.He has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.He is, at this Time, transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy of the Head of a civilized Nation.He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the Executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.He has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.In every stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble Terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated Injury. A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.Nor have we been wanting in Attentions to our British Brethren. We have warned them from Time to Time of Attempts by their Legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the Circumstances of our Emigration and Settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and Magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the Ties of our common Kindred to disavow these Usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our Connections and Correspondence. They too have been deaf to the Voice of Justice and of Consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the Necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of Mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace, Friends.
First, there is a connection between injuries and usurpations (two distinct concepts judged by uts effects on the power relationships of traditional colonial society and its structures), its objective (the establishment of "tyranny"), and the necessity for a history of repetition. One-off injury is not enough, neither are usurpations without intent to establish tyranny. For these the ordinary courts, and the machinations of politics, might have sufficed. It is the accumulation of grievance, together with adequate notice of complaint ("We have warned them from Time to Time of Attempts by their Legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us") that serve as the basis for rebellion.
Second, many of these usurpations and injuries are structural, institutional and political. Royal assent; restricting the traditional discretion of governors in lawmaking through legislative centralization; shrinking the scope of local lawmaking power and unresponsiveness to local (legislative) need; increasing the transaction costs of (and reducing popular) participation (by moving government); dissolving local legislatures that challenge the will of the superior institutions of state; and delaying elections for replacing dissolved legislative bodies reducing popular participation in government in perilous times--each of these grievances touch on the conventional political rights and privileges of those social ranks that had enjoyed them from the beginnings of colonization and settlement. New forms of government, new approaches to representation, and new social orders and rankings that went with them, were profoundly disturbing to colonial peoples grown accustomed to their fueros (traditional rights to self government and the protection of local custom and traditions (e.g., Spanish fuero de Sepúlveda here)). These were protection against innovation as well as preservation of colonial notions of principles of representative government. These were protections of a customary society, substantially content with its social organization according to rank, religion, gender, etc. and the distribution of power as a consequence thereof in the organization of political, social, cultural and economic rights. This is no indictment of the present state of society, but it does serve to frame the context within which the meaning of principle is anchored. And that anchor is in the preservation of local order, its customs and traditions. Not customs and traditions themselves, but local control over their manifestation and institutionalization within the structures of the state, appear to matter, and to trigger rebellion.
Third, several of the usurpations and injuries touch on the administration of the Common Law and the control of the judicial power (some thoughts here). These grievances touch on judicial dependence on the largess of the Crown (an issue not unknown in contemporary America). Yet for all that these grievances speak to judicial independence and legal autonomy, it does not suggest independence of either. The autonomy of law, after all would be a creature of legislative supremacy. That it might be abolished by the executive and another system substituted for it appeared to define arbitrary conduct (of the executive authority, in one instance, and of a superior legislative authority, in another). And the autonomy of judges did not suggest the absence of an executive authority to supervise and discipline judges. It was the source and manner of that discipline that was at the core of the grievance, not the obligation of the executive to discipline, "in accordance with and subject to the limitations of law." Ironically, obstruction of justice was as politically charged a concept in the 1770s as it appears to be in contemporary American society--politics clothed in law. And there is a political and societal element as well--the loss of trial by jury was not merely an issue of the distribution of power between individuals and judges, but also of the authority of custom and tradition against a professionalized corpus of jurists whose loyalty to society might now be suspect given their necessary allegiance to the Crown. This debate, of course, has never died, it has just shifted its targets--but the combatants remain the same--elites against the rest.
Fourth, the grievance against the usurpation of and injury to colonial constitutions continue to ring with overtones of contract, of status, and of rights. The abolition of colonial charters suggested a power of kingship (and later of Parliamentary supremacy) against notions of fundamental rights of locality that were affirmed--not created--through the charters. Yet this grievance speaks to the preservation of rights, traditions and customs as shaped by the locality, without the interference of the people as a whole constituted and represented as the national collective Crown-in-Parliament. That refusal to recognize emerging national instrumentalities of representation and government might have seen its last important political gasp intertwined in the issues that led to the separation of slave holding states in 1860. But this grievance remains a live one in contemporary society--whether the locality is understood in territorial or communal terms. In either case, the center--Crown in Parliament--is viewed both as an instrument (of protection against other localities and foreigners that remain un-absorbed) and as a threat (when it serves as a means of centralizing governmental power in some (always) far off place).
Fifth, migration was as big an issue , and as important a cause of rebellion then, as it might appear in contemporary times. The context is eerily similar in some respects--a far away superior apparatus of state (then the King, now the President) wishes to preserve the population in its current form and make up for reasons of state and perhaps of advancing the interests of those apex institutions. Local populations see things differently, and view the closing of the borders (and the control of naturalization) as a threat to economic and social stability in colonies still threatened by indigenous peoples and foreign colonial powers. But migration here was also tied to land--colonial administrators needed people and also land--and acquiring land required that it be taken from someone--indigenous people, foreign powers, or the Crown. It is not clear that this appetite for migration, settlement, and colonization has changed much--except for its rhetoric within the identity based factionalism of contemporary politics.
Sixth, the grievances speak to a critical usurpation of the legislative (and as we have noted earlier the judicial) core of government by metastasizing the role and size of the executive. The grievances speak to the revulsion at the growth of what in later centuries will become the foundation for the administrative state. And the language sounds contemporary, in some respects. Legislatures may serve the popular whim of those who control it, and judges serve the law as customarily accepted, but exercise of the executive prerogative appears to shift control back from both of these branches to an institution with historical ties to then contemporary fears of tyranny. This rings particularly modern in the grievance about the maintenance of armies without legislative consent. The armies were not the problem, the exercise of popular control through legislatures appeared to be. Interesting as well was what appeared to to the notion that equated a large bureaucracy with a stifling of markets and autonomy. Those have the ring of contemporary discussion. But in that case, the principles of the Declaration, and its underlying facts, appear to point in an odd direction--one that reverses political polarity.
Seventh, in parallel with the grievances about the transformation of the exercise of the judicial power, were those respecting the control of military authority. Here the grievances speak to a loss of civilian control of the military, and of the transfer of civilian control from legislature to executive (the Crown). Here the grievances speak to inversion--in contradistinction to traditional American colonial fueros which demanded an autonomous judiciary and a servile military, the Crown in transforming democratic governance had sought to create a dependent judiciary and an independent military (independent of the popular authority of the legislature). The colonial military, thus detached, appeared to act like an army of foreign occupation--that is the heart of this cluster of grievances; ironically one that continues to have resonance in an age of the militarization of the police under the control of local and administrative apparatus directed by professionalized administrators. In that context, the creation and maintenance of systems of law that effectively insulate military and police from the consequences of their actions--where they deviate from law and custom--remains as important and volatile an issue in contemporary America as it did in the 1770s--just that the target of that fury, again, has changed.
Eighth, the grievances touching on economic rights also resonate today. The colonial elites were concerned about governmental control of trade. They appeared to favor access to markets without hindrance. They got control that served the interests of London instead. Not that they might not have suffered policies of trade contraction that favored local interests--but not national (or imperial) interests. Again, what emerges here are that cocktail of customs, traditions and local control, against nationalization of governmental power and the increasing remoteness of authority. The taxation grievance (no taxation without representation in the popular imaginary)are well known and remain curiously ironic.
Ninth, and perhaps the most potent of the grievances go to the issue of legitimacy in the constitution and operation of government. These last set of grievances appear to suggest that even if arbitrary and far off government might be tolerated, what could not be tolerated was a state in which the government appeared to make war on its own subjects. Here the grievance actually suggests not so much a complaint as the observation of an abdication of authority. By their own hand, the Declaration suggests, the government had become a foreigner, an occupying power, in its own territories. These grievances ought to be the subject of more considered study--especially as they appear to aid in the embedding of meaning for the principles that add meaning to this conduct. Here the grievances suggest an inversion at the heart of the Declaration of Independence: it is not the colonists who are rebelling against the Crown, but rather it is the Crown (in Parliament) that has rebelled against its own (colonial) peoples. The object of Colonial action, then, is to restore a null state, rather than to advance some (progressive) project of governmental and social organization.In the face iof the British project of constructing a modern nation state, the colonists fought valiantly t preserve an older order--one that secured the blessings of social and economic organization--as well as its privileges--as they had been established when each colony was established.
Of course, once independence was achieved, it was not clear that anyone cared much about either principle or grievance--both had served their purposes. And yet both proved durable, precisely because they served as quite malleable tools to later generations seeking to construct prisons of their own tyranny against which liberation was necessary--from slave holding secessionists to contemporary factions that would remake the United States and its culture in their own image. At their base, though, their power is derived from their context. And that context suggests that principle was to be bent to the customs and traditions of the locality against efforts to reform (change) them originating from beyond. The Declaration of Independence appears clear that there was no quibble with the traditional organization of society, its economic, religious, social, gender, and ethnic structures. Quite the reverse; it was in efforts to reduce and move beyond the quirks of the local in the service of different principles of governance that rebellion seemed inevitable. Reading the edges of the Declaration of Independence against its core, then, reveals an American affinity for a geography of principles that endures to this day. It is one in which, while granting inalienable rights to all people in equal measure, make the measure of those rights dependent on those to whom custom and tradition vests that authority. While the scope of that core principle has changed substantially over the centuries, the nature of rights continues to depend on the government instituted among individuals by their consent, and exercising those powers only as so as they might be suffered to do so. The Declaration, then, reminds us of the precariousness of government, and of an authority to sweep it away, irrespective of the majesty of whatever constitutional instrument might be shaped to ensure that this does not occur should the time come when a government is viewed (by those with the power to defend those views against their opponents) as destructive of the ends of furthering the life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (as those might be understood in each historical era) of those to whom it is obliged.