One would not think that after so many years and so much historical investigation and debate that the Declaration of Independence would still be considered controversial. But given modern political polarization, both sides are claiming that document to back up their underlying ideological philosophies. And the feud was recently reignited when a previously undiscovered copy surfaced in Great Britain. Apparently sent as a gift to a member of Parliament who supported the cause for independence, it has been traced to James Wilson. Wilson was a signer of the Declaration as well as the Constitution and is considered the brains behind the Electoral College.
What makes this copy unique (and it has been authenticated) is that unlike previous copies, the signer’s signatures do not appear grouped as states. Instead, they are listed not alphabetically or in any other organized way. This has led many to speculate that it is an insight into the politics of the times. Namely, these historians note that the signers believed the country should be founded on a united people, not 13 separate state governments. The modern political implications become obvious as some have interpreted this as our Founders intended a strong central government and all that goes with it. That would entail subjugation of the individual states to that strong federal government with the eventual capital- Washington DC- being the ultimate political power in the new country. Taken from another viewpoint, in essence our Founders never, according to this analysis, really contemplated such an idea as “state’s rights.” Unfortunately, both sides are wrong.
In effect, liberals- when they suspend their attacks on our Founders for being racist, sexist and bigoted- are arguing that our Founders were advocating what has evolved into modern liberalism. Neither they nor the more conservative state’s rights advocates are correct in their interpretations.
The authority of the Declaration rests one people rather than a compact of states. It states that their representatives pledged their future for the cause of self-government. In 1776, most Americans were defined by a common purpose. Hence, the connection between the idea of a national union and a strong central government is not necessary. Conversely, the idea of a compact of states was advocated by pro-slavery factions bent on perpetuating the practice which played heavily in 1787 during the Constitutional Convention.
Before refuting the assumptions by both sides, a little history is in order. Our Founders were heavily influenced by political philosophers who stressed the idea of natural rights which they boiled down to life, liberty and prosperity (which was originally “property,” but eventually morphed into “happiness”). Further, these were gifts from our Creator, or God-given rights. And finally, people join society guided by reciprocal interests. Therefore, any government formed must be done with the goal of defending these rights.
Until the 1760’s, the British Parliament largely left the colonies alone. Prime Minister Robert Walpole exercised a policy of “salutary neglect” stating: “If no restrictions were placed on the colonies, they would flourish.” Wow! He was basically saying that economic liberty would lead to prosperity way before the Heritage Foundation said so.
However, the Seven Year’s War and its North American offshoot- the French and Indian War- left Britain in debt and maintaining a large military in America. Over the next decade, they passed a series of taxes designed to make the colonies pay for this defense. In effect, they acted like Donald Trump telling NATO to pay more for the defense of Europe.
But a strange thing happened along the way. Economists have determined that the series of taxes passed by Parliament on the colonies were anything BUT onerous. In fact, British citizens in Great Britain had a vastly larger tax burden than any colonist. And our Founders knew this.
Instead, they objected to the taxes since they lacked representation in Parliament (the “taxation without representation” line of argument). They also feared that this increased taxation would lead to greater British interference in their affairs. In other words, it was not economics, but principle that was spurring the colonies to independence.
Further, the Boston Tea Party is illustrative of this principle over practice belief of our Founders. The British responded to colonial complaints by first repealing some taxes. Then they sent troops to America to intimidate the colonists. Then they tried to buy compliance in 1773 through passage of the Tea Act. In reality, that was a form of phony capitalism designed to prop up the struggling British East India Tea Company by undercutting the price of smuggled tea making British tea cheaper for the colonists.
But, what did they do? They dumped a shipload of the tea in Boston harbor. Again, although cheaper, they were declaring principle over practice. If they had accepted the corrupt bargain presented by the British Parliament, they would be accepting the notion of taxation without representation. Hence, they were declaring liberty at literally all costs. They would not abandon their fundamental principles against economic reality. As a result, Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts which prompted the First Continental Congress and set into motion the call for independence. They attempted a peaceful redress of grievances long on the principles of the pursuit of life, liberty and prosperity.
Prior to 1776, colonial legislatures were drafting and passing resolutions calling for independence. Connecticut, New Jersey and New Hampshire were three such colonies that did so stressing union as well as independence. Madison later noted that the Declaration was the basic act of union among the states. But here is where the state’s rights advocates start to get into trouble since the Nation was founded on principles.
According to every document leading up to the Declaration and from letters and such, we know that our Founders believed that a state and federal government should be sovereign “within their spheres.” However, the ultimate authority resided in the people. Hence, the people are ultimately sovereign and it is the people’s interpretation of the Constitution which is ultimate since the people created that government.
In fact, there is ample historical evidence that the notion of state’s rights was put forth early in the debate as a means to preserve and advance slavery. The argument rests on the belief that state governments- being closer to the people- are the ultimate sovereigns and they retain the right to order their internal affairs as they see deem necessary, even if it contradicts the notion of a government founded on natural rights. Our Founders knew that such an idea had the greater potential to unleash an unlimited government than the eventual partly federal, partly state system they devised.
Taken to an extreme, as we eventually saw, if the rights of a state were contravened, a state had the authority and right to secede or withdraw from the union. But, here is where they get it wrong. Under the Declaration, STATES DO NOT HAVE RIGHTS. Only people have rights. States have powers. And under the belief in natural law, the primary purpose of any government formed is to protect and preserve these individual rights. It is not to protect and preserve the state itself. Patrick Henry was perhaps the biggest proponent of this opposite view when he said he “smelt a rat” and stated that a strong central government would usurp the rights of states. In reality, he was saying it would usurp the power of the states. Ironically, in this area and others he largely got it right.
On the flip side, Alexander Hamilton is held up as the poster boy for a strong central government. Although he did advocate for increased federal powers, he nevertheless vehemently argued for limits on those powers. “The Federalist Papers” were designed to explain those limits. The Constitution included enumerated powers and the much debated Necessary and Proper Clause designed to carry out those powers.
According to Hamilton, dividing power between the federal and state governments was designed to form a “double security to the PEOPLE.” Unfortunately, he trusted that the people would “hold the scales of power in their own hands.” Whenever necessary, the people could augment the power of either by “throwing themselves on the scale…”
It is unfortunate because people like Wilson, Jefferson, Madison and even Hamilton would be upset by the unlimited federal government we have today. It is a government that regularly violates the spirit of the Constitution in order to serve and aggrandize it’s client state. Hamilton’s scales of power are nowhere in balance today as the federal government has been swayed and seduced into the false progressive notion that it alone can better protect and care for the people. It has allowed politicians and unelected judges to expand the scope of federal power by creating “rights” out of “penumbras.”
We have a tax code that exceeds 67,000 pages with billions in compliance costs and which intrudes on every facet of American economic life. We have 163,000 pages of federal regulations that intrudes of every facet of everyday American life down to light bulbs. We have $19 trillion in national debt and growing due to an expansive welfare state which encompasses 60% of the federal budget.
In short, our expansive, wasteful and domineering federal government is failing in its primary purpose: securing our natural rights as deftly enumerated in the Declaration of Independence.
Our Constitution is not the cause of this. It, after all, has built-in checks on power and limits on the federal government. Instead, it is a recent history of tolerance for illegitimate federal action and abuse of those powers. Thomas Jefferson was most prescient when he wrote:
…certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights … yet experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.
The course of American history has led us wayward and away from our founding principles. Americans must own up to this fact and our own ignorance in allowing this to happen. The socialist philosophy of a benevolent government taking care of us from cradle to grave and beyond- but, ironically not before the cradle- has a lure and appeal to it. But it comes with a huge price- the cost of liberty. To choose the progressive path would be akin to the colonists in 1773 accepting the corrupt bargain of the Tea Act and foregoing the principles upon which this country was founded. It would be the ultimate act of spitting on the graves of our Founders and a denial of what makes the United States unique among nations- a nation founded on principle, not race, creed, color or ethnicity.