Happy Anniversary America !! This year, 2011, celebrates 218 years since the British signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783, formally abandoning any claims to the United States.
Dennis Prager, a conservative talk show host, gave this advice: “The greatest threat facing America is not Obama or his socialist programs. The greatest threat, and I’ve felt this my entire life, is that we have not passed on what it means to be an American to this generation. In fact, we haven’t passed on this message since the end of World War II.”
Mr. Prager is right. We have taken so much for granted and allowed so much liberty to slip through our hands simply because we have forgotten what it means to be an American. People all over the world would kill for the freedoms that we take for granted every minute of every day. They would say “Such audacity Americans have .. to have so much and to care so little to preserve it.”
What am I talking about? Take this simple example. The US Constitution gave Congress the power to regulate commerce among the several states. The reason was to prevent individual states from discriminating against the goods originating from another state and therefore maintain a free flow of goods throughout all the states. A simple grant of power to a “limited” federal government has now led to 41,000 federal regulations alone on a simple hamburger. These regulations stem from at least 200 laws. (as noted in a 1980 US News & World Report). Just as the hamburger has become to be regulated so heavily, so are each of us living here in the United States being regulated heavily (unless you are an immigrant, and especially if you are an illegal, and even more especially, if you are a criminal illegal immigrant). And this is by a government that was supposed to be so small that it was never to employ more federal workers than any single state and was supposed to protect those rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” promised in the Declaration of Independence.
We’ve come a long way since our founding, but unfortunately, it has been a path downward instead of upward…. a slippery slope downward to the level of nations that we fought so hard not to become like. Our inalienable rights now have “conditions” and limits. Social pressure is responsible for most of that. Aside from abolishing the great evil of slavery and recognizing that all men indeed are equal, we have moved backwards and not forwards with respect to freedom and liberty vis-a-vis our government. Individuals are overburdened and over-regulated, and they have become cynical and despondent. And that only makes my point and Mr. Prager’s point stronger – that we have forgotten what it means to be an American.
My question is this: Why aren’t our schools teaching our children what makes America so unique and special? What makes America special isn’t because we have open borders or because we are so diverse or because of the Wall of Separation between Church and State. It is because of our liberties – how they are grounded and how they are protected. What makes America so special is not anything our current leaders have done. On the contrary, it has everything to do with the simplest of documents – our Constitution and Declaration of Independence, our Founding history, and our founding principles. I believe it is the duty of our schools to teach this to our children and to do so correctly and not from a revisionist perspective. As Mr. Prager wrote in his article, “A Speech Every High School Principal Should Give”: “We will have failed if any one of you graduates this school and does not consider him or herself inordinately lucky to be alive and to be an American.”
Every morning, school principals all over this country get on the loudspeakers and ask students to stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I’ve seen teachers sit and ignore the pledge. I’ve seen students ignore it. I’ve seen students joke that if the President doesn’t do it why should they. If students are not able to appreciate why they should stand and repeat the pledge, then the school has immediately failed these students. It has failed to instill the appreciation that every citizen should have for this country and for everything each individual has just for being blessed to stand where they are standing. Every word of the Pledge honors our history and should be appreciated.
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” There is so much meaning in this short sentence.
“pledge allegiance” – to promise not to betray
the flag – the symbol of our country. It symbolizes our strength and unity. It represents our story. It represents everything we stand for, including our freedom and liberties. It represents those extraordinary acts of courage and sacrifice that have been needed over the years to sustain individual liberties. It represents every man and woman who died for our country and represents every instance where our country and our servicemen have come to the aid of people who were oppressed. Over a million Americans have died in many wars so that she can wave. It is the freedom here that we enjoy – and often take for granted – that has inspired so many brave Americans over the years to fight for our nation’s preservation and to protect our way of life. 25,000 died in the Revolutionary War, 20,000 died in the War of 1812 against Britain, 623,026 died in the Civil War, 116, 708 died in WWI, 407, 316 died in WWII, 36, 914 died in the Korean War, 58, 169 died in the Vietnam War, and 5,900 have died to date in our War on Terror. That is almost 1.3 million total. Mothers have lost sons and daughters, men and women have lost their spouses and soul mates, children have lost parents, families have lost brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles, and communities have lost friends, neighbors, and classmates.
United States of America – Up until the ratification of the Constitution, and perhaps even longer than that, the individual states considered themselves as separate sovereign nations. They united for preservation. They united in order to ” secure the blessings of Liberty” for generations to come.
Republic – The first sound Republic in all history was the one created by the first genuine Constitution, which was adopted by the people (Commonwealth) of Massachusetts in 1780. It was the template for which our US Constitution was based and therefore, the US is the first genuine and soundly-based republic in the world. Our nation is a republic and the first one established upon a Constitution protecting individual liberty. A “republic” on the other hand is where the general population elects representatives who then are constrained in their representation by the Constitution and other laws. A republic is a nation ruled by law. There is a degree of insulation between the people (who might try to rule in a frenzied mob style) and government rule. A republican form of government has a very different purpose and an entirely different form, or system, of government than a pure democracy. Its purpose is to control rule-making. More specifically, its purpose is to control or restrain the majority. It is designed to protect the minority from oppression by the majority. It is designed to protect the individual’s (EVERY individual’s) God-given, unalienable rights and the liberties of people in general. Our particular republican form of government has a separation of power because our Founders understood the inherent weakness and depravity of man. They knew that people are basically weak, sinful and corruptible, and will pit one men against another other, making it difficult to pass laws and make changes that are fair to everyone.
One Nation – to remind us that we survived a Civil War, which tested the notion of whether any nation, so conceived in liberty, can endure.
“Under God” – to remind us of our religious heritage – the dependence of our people and our Government upon a supernatural being. In fact, The words “under God” were added in 1954 to clearly separate us from what were considered godless communist countries.
“Indivisible” – meaning that we will never again be broken up into individual states.
“with liberty and justice for all” – Two of the greatest principles that America stands for.
“The establishment of our institutions,” wrote President Monroe, “forms the most important epoch that history hath recorded. They extend unexampled felicity to the whole body of our fellow-citizens, and are the admiration of other nations. To preserve and hand them down in their utmost purity to the remotest ages will require the existence and practice of virtues and talents equal to those which were displayed in acquiring them. It is ardently hoped and confidently believed that these will not be wanting.” In other words, if we wish to preserve and hand down the institutions that protect our liberty, we must be educated and loyal.
In this era of world-wide social and political change, it serves us well to know the fundamentals of our Constitution which, in times of war and unrest, as well as in peace, has provided the American people with a more enduring and responsive government and a greater degree of prosperity than any other people have ever had.
Our school system teaches our students many important things – math, science, English, literature, languages, for example. It also spends a lot of time teaching things that serve no other purpose other than to highlight individuality rather than commonality. Such courses are the ones that focus on race and ethnicity. The public school focuses too much on diversity rather than on the qualities that unite us as Americans. Every year, for example, students learn the same exact things for Black History Month. In fact, for two consecutive years, my daughter was assigned the very same Black History figure to write a report on. My eldest daughter will graduate from high school after never studying our early history, our Founding Fathers, our Constitution, and Constitutional principles. Such courses and such an overall public school curriculum undermines our nation’s motto – “E Pluribus Unum,” which means “from many, one.” Our founding history is something that unites. It teaches us about the country that we all share equally. It teaches about American values.
The story of America is one of liberty. It is a beautiful story. it is one which represents the culmination of man’s search for protected freedom – for the “invaluable blessings of liberty” and the “inalienable rights of mankind.” This search of course ended with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which were written by great men with brilliant minds who were determined to secure those blessings of liberty “for generations to come and millions yet unborn.” [Anti-Federalist Papers, Brutus I]. So much of our future is tied to our understanding and respect of our past.
While the age-old search for liberty may have culminated with the birth of the United States, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution weren’t the first of their kind. Enshrined in these documents are the themes from some of the greatest charters for liberty – the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights of 1689. The Magna Carta was a product of the Medieval Era, which was a very exciting time in English History. Feudal laws, and then the Magna Carta itself, formed much of the basis of English law, called the English Common Law. By the seventeenth century, England began to expand. It was the first great age of the British empire and was characterized by commercial and colonial expansion in the West and the East, including the New World. There was also a great struggle for power at home between the Crown and Parliament. It was in against this backdrop that such important documents as the Petition of Right of 1628, the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, and the English Bill of Rights were enacted by Parliament. As the Common Law continued to evolve during this century, enriched by judicial decisions and constitutional enactments, the fundamental principles which they embodied were added to the Common Law heritage that “Englishmen” embraced in the colonies.
Just 560 years or so before Thomas Jefferson sat down to draft the Declaration of Independence, a group of barons assembled at a place called Runnymede, England (close to the place where Windsor Castle would later be built), to confront their despotic ruler, King John. These barons were owners or “lords” of northern estates in England. King John had lost a lot of money the previous year in a war against King Philip to reclaim French lands he had inherited. He then attempted to rebuild his coffers by demanding that all barons who had not supported or joined his war with Philip to pay a fee (called “scutage” – which is a fee paid in lieu of military service). The barons demanded that King John respect the Coronation Oath given by King Henry I in 1100 which promised to limit the king’s ability to obtain funds by taxation. But King John refused to honor this Oath and continued to demand scutage. The barons soon became rebellious and demanded that the king acknowledge a stipulation of their rights. The rights were listed in written form and initially referred to as the “Articles of the Barons.” King John and the barons worked together to make some changes and final provisions, and on June 19, 1215, he signed the document and affixed his Seal. This document then became known as the Magna Carta, or “Great Charter.” (King John later renounced the charter, claiming that he was under duress when he signed it, but his son later reinstituted it). The Magna Carta introduced the Rule of Law. It became a “guideline” (although it was considered the “Supreme Law” of the land at the time) for how the King was to regard his subjects. The primary purpose of the Magna Carta was to force King John to recognize the supremacy of ancient liberties, to limit his ability to raise funds, and to reassert the principle of “due process.” Of great significance to future generations was a minor wording change with respect to whom the great document was intended to protect. The term “any baron” was changed to “any freeman.” Over time, and especially as the feudal era ended, it justified the application of the Charter’s provisions to a greater part of the population. While freemen were a minority in 13th-century England, the term would eventually include all English persons, just as “We the People” would come to apply to all Americans.
Winston Churchill stated in 1956: “Here is a law which is above the King and which even he must not break. This reaffirmation of a supreme law and its expression in a general charter is the great work of Magna Carta; and this alone justifies the respect in which men have held it.”
The author, Rudyard Kipling wrote:
“At Runnymeade, at Runnymeade Your rights were won at Runnymeade ! No freeman shall be fined or bound, Or dispossessed of freehold ground, Except by lawful judgment found, And passed upon him by his peers. Forget not, after all these years, The Charter signed at Runnymeade.
To understand the Magna Carta, one must realize that England, at the time, was a feudal society. In a feudal society, the king’s barons held their lands `in fee’ (feudum) from the king. In return, the baron would declare an oath of loyalty and obedience, and would be obliged to provide him with a certain number of knights whenever they were needed for military service. Since the land was held “on condition” to the king, the king could also impose additional rights, demands, or exactions (such as what would be required if there were no male heirs to fight, extra taxes, selling daughters in marriage, assuming guardianship of the land and confiscation of profits, and even demanding forfeiture). The Magna Carta, therefore, through its 63 clauses, listed the barons’ rights, demanded limitations on the king’s abuse of power with respect to the feudum, and demanded rights of redress. And though many of these clauses later became obsolete, were amended or deleted, the Charter nonetheless became the basis for English Common Law which went on to become the basis for American law. Some of the most important provisions were those of the right of habeas corpus (the due process right to challenge one’s detention or imprisonment) and the pronouncement that the Charter was to be the supreme law of the land… one that could not be one that could not be altered by the king or any other ruler (could not be altered by executive mandate or legislative acts). These provisions were later incorporated into the US Constitution in the Fifth Amendment (Due Process clause) and in Article VI (the Supremacy Clause).
Why was the Magna Carta so significant in 1215? That answer takes us to the Battle of Hastings in 1066 where King William (William the Conqueror) of Normandy (northern France) defeated Anglo-Saxon King Harold II for the throne of England. The result was that the invading Normans and their descendants replaced the Anglo-Saxons as the ruling class of England and stripped them of their rights and privileges. Prior to the Norman Conquest, the Anglo-Saxons enjoyed certain freedoms. Kings weren’t oppressive authoritarian figures. In fact, they often shared power with certain government officials called “Earls.” But that all changed in 1066 when King Edward (Edward the Confessor) died without children – without an heir. The throne passed to an English Earl named Harold II, whose only claim was that he was friends with Edward and his wife. When William II, Duke of Normandy, found out, he laid claim as the rightful heir to the throne. He was, in fact, Edward’s cousin. When Harold II refused to give up his claim to the throne, William took it by force. Under the new ruler, government would become very different in England. The people lost their voice. The “king” was to be the principle authority figure and serve as the collective executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the government. It was the Magna Carta which reasserted certain fundamental rights of the people and began to define the role of government with respect to the people.
The Petition of Right was passed by the English Parliament in May of 1628 and recognized by King Charles I the following month. It was enacted just prior to the English Civil War. The document is extremely important because it sets out specific liberties of the individual that the king is prohibited from infringing. The Petition’s most notable provisions are those that state that taxes can be levied only by Parliament, that martial law may not be imposed in time of peace, and that prisoners must be able to challenge the legitimacy of their detentions through the writ of habeas corpus. Note that the ban on quartering of troops was a very sore issue with the colonists and was later addressed in the US Constitution with the Third Amendment. The Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, passed by Parliament under the reign of Charles II, was a response to great public outcry against abusive and unlawful detention of persons. The Act provided that persons unlawfully detained cannot be ordered to be prosecuted before a court of law and reinforced the important individual right addressed by the Magna Carta. Again, the right to be free from unlawful detention or imprisonment is found in the Fifth Amendment to our US Constitution.
The English Bill of Rights was the next evolutionary document. Signed into law by King William III in 1689, it marked the next fundamental milestone in the progression of English society from a nation of subjects under the complete authority of a monarch to a nation of free citizens with inalienable rights. Angered by a long series of abuses of liberty by King James II during his reign from 1685 to 1689, members of the English nobility (known as the “Immortal Seven”) sent a formal request or “invitation” to Holland’s William of Orange and his wife Mary, daughter of James II, to invade England and free them of their tyrant. English nobility promised to support the invasion and did so, making it virtually a bloodless incursion. William landed at in southwest England on November 5, 1688 with a large Dutch army and as he stepped ashore, he proclaimed: “the liberties of England and the Protestant religion I will maintain.” Some of the abuses that King James II was guilty of include: suspending acts of Parliament, then disbanding Parliament (throwing the Great Seal into the River Thames), ignoring the Magna Carta and otherwise collecting taxes not authorized, interfering with popular elections, attempting to impose Catholicism on a staunchly Protestant nation (by persecuting Protestant officials and replacing them with Anglican ones), and repeatedly placing himself above duly enacted laws.
Shortly after William of Orange invaded England and ousted James, in January of 1689, Parliament became functional again and a Convention was then assembled in London to determine the succession of the English Crown. It was at this Convention that members of Parliament drafted a Declaration of Rights and offered the throne of England jointly to William and Mary, who thereafter ruled jointly as King William III and Queen Mary. This Declaration was adapted to create a Bill of Rights – the English Bill of Rights – and was signed into law. From that moment forward, it altered the balance of power between the sovereign and his subjects.
The Magna Carta and English Bill of Rights compelled limitations on government and therefore were monumental in reasserting the rights of the people with respect to their government. With each assault on the rights and dignities of citizens, and especially landowners, the English asserted their rights. And each time tyrant kings attempted to disregard the Magna Carta and prompted the English to re-assert their rights, they won greater and greater protection of their liberties. Fast forward to the American colonies. They too would have a tyrant king trample on their rights and dignities and they too would have to re-assert them. King George III would trample on their English rights just as King James II had done only 100 years earlier.
As we all know, the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, a granite boulder at Plymouth Harbor (now about the size of a cat) in 1620. They left England so they could worship freely and establish a church of their choosing. This period of time is particularly noteworthy because although the Magna Carta began to lose its significance in the centuries following 1215, it was resurrected by Lord Coke in the early 17th century. As Coke proclaimed: “Even kings must comply to common law.” Lord Coke’s view of the law was particularly relevant to the American experience for it was during this period that the charters for the colonies were written. Each included the guarantee that those sailing for the New World and their heirs would have “all the rights and immunities of free and natural subjects.” Understanding theses documents, we begin to see the makings of America.
The colonists, even though they left Britain to settle on new shores, they did so based on Charters granted by their mother country. They considered themselves proud British subjects. The British mocked them and called them “Americans” which was a derogatory term, but nonetheless, the colonists, and even our Founding Fathers, considered themselves proud British subjects. They came to America’s shores with the same protections of liberty that those in England enjoyed. In fact, when our founding Englishmen came to the “New World” to establish colonies, they brought with them charters guaranteeing that they and their heirs would “have and enjoy all liberties and immunities of free and natural subjects.” As our forefathers developed legal codes for the colonies, many incorporated liberties guaranteed by Magna Carta and the 1689 English Bill of Rights directly into their own statutes.
At some point, Great Britain stopped seeing the colonists the same way the colonists saw themselves, and that began shortly after the French-Indian War. Britain had just waged that costly war against the French on behalf of the colonists (and to protect its own interests as well) and in order to offset the war debt, it passed a series of burdensome statutes on the colonies: The Sugar Act (1764), the Currency Act (1764), The Stamp Act (1765), the Quartering Act (1765), the Declaratory Act (1766), the Townshend Revenue Acts (1767), the Tea Act (1773), the Coercive Acts (aka, the Intolerable Acts (1774), and more Quartering Acts (1774).
In 1764, Parliament passed the Sugar Act which increased the duties on imported sugar, textiles, coffee, wines, and indigo (blue dye). The Currency Act prohibited the colonists from issuing any legal tender paper money. (This act was potentially disastrous because it almost destabilized the economies of both the more industrialized North and the agricultural South). A year later, Parliament passed the Quartering Act, which required colonists to house British troops and supply them with food, and the Stamp Act, which imposed the first direct tax on the American colonies. The Stamp Act marked the first time in the 150-year history of the colonies that Americans were required to pay tax not to their own local legislatures in America, but directly to England. Under the Stamp Act, all printed materials, including; newspapers, pamphlets, bills, legal documents, licenses, insurance policies, legal writs, almanacs, and even playing cards would have to carry a stamp showing that required taxes had been paid. Most legal transactions in the colonies ceased because nearly all of the colonists refused to use the stamps on such material. They also objected to the Act’s provision that those who disobeyed could be tried in admiralty courts without a jury of their peers. Lord Coke’s influence on Americans showed clearly when the Massachusetts Assembly reacted by declaring the Stamp Act “against the Magna Carta and the natural rights of Englishmen, and therefore, according to Lord Coke, null and void.” [The National Archives]. In fact, the seal adopted by Massachusetts on the eve of the Revolution summed up the sentiment of its people; it showed a militiaman with sword in one hand and Magna Carta in the other. The colonists would have their rights and they would fight for them.
The British were serious about the Stamp Act. The British appointed colonial businessmen to collect the taxes on behalf of England, but most refused to do the job out of fear of a growing opposition. In New York City, violence broke out as a mob burned the royal governor in effigy. All over the colonies, angry mobs shouted: “Liberty, Property, and NO STAMPS !”
In October 1965, the Stamp Act Congress convened in New York City, with representatives from nine of the colonies – NY, NJ, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Delaware, Maryland, and South Carolina. The Congress prepared a resolution to be sent to King George III and the English Parliament. Specifically, the conclusions of this Congress were embodied in four separate papers (or letters) which were sent out accordingly: (1) A Declaration of Rights and Grievances; (2) a Petition to King George; (3) a Memorial and Petition to the House of Lords; and (4) a Petition to the House of Commons. The first document was the most important. It proclaimed that in return for their allegiance to the Crown, the colonists were granted “the undoubted rights of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them but with their own consent” and asked for the repeal of the Stamp Act and the Acts of 1764. The Declaration emphasized that this right of representation is affirmed as “an ancient and inalienable right that cannot be infringed.” Only colonial legislatures can tax colonial residents. [Avery and Abbatt, A History of the United States and its People: From Their Earliest Records to the Present Time (Vol. 5), pp. 63-64]. To defend their objections, they turned to a defense argument that Lord Coke used in 1609-1610 – ‘Superiority of the common law over acts of Parliament.’ In this argument, Coke claimed that “when an act of parliament is against common right or reason, or repugnant, or impossible to be performed, the common law will control it and adjudge such an act void.” Because the Stamp Act offended the concept of consensual taxation, the colonists believed it to be invalid.
In March 1766, Ben Franklin and others appeared before Parliament to argue the American case. There was much debate and Franklin warned of a likely revolution in the colonies if the Stamp Act was enforced by the British military, which had already sought authorization to begin quartering and enforcing the Act. (The colonies refused to give the authorization). Parliament then rescinded the bill.
But while the colonists enjoyed a temporary victory, the damage was done. The political climate was changing. The relationship with Britain had become too strained. As John Adams would later write to Thomas Jefferson, “The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of 15 years before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.” [National Archives]
On the same day that the Stamp Act was repealed, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act stating that it had total power to legislate any laws governing the colonies in all cases whatsoever. In August, violence broke out in NY between British soldiers and armed colonists as a result of the refusal of New York colonists to comply with the Quartering Act. In retaliation, King George suspended the NY legislature.
In 1767, Parliament passed the Townshend Revenue Acts, which imposed a new series of taxes on the colonists – on imports of such products as paper, tea, glass, lead and paints. Several months later, Samuel Adams began to circulate a letter calling for colonists to oppose taxation without representation and to begin to unite. One by one, the states began to endorse this letter. They began to urge their citizens to arm themselves. The more Parliament tried to raise revenue and suppress the growing unrest, the more the colonists demanded the charter rights they had brought with them a century and a half earlier.
On March 5, 1770, after a mob harassed British soldiers in Boston, the soldiers opened fire on them. This was known as the Boston Massacre and caused strong tensions with Britain. Later that year, King George agreed to repeal the Townshend Acts on all items except for tea and he would not renew the Quartering Act.
In May 10, 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act, which placed a heavy import tax on tea and allowed the India Tea Company to have a monopoly to supply the colonies. Several months later, three ships loaded with tea arrived in Boston Harbor. A large group of colonists in Boston got together and decided they would demand that the Royal Governor of Massachusetts send the ship back to England but when he got wind of this, he ordered the ships to stay tight and not to leave until the tea taxes were paid. On December 16, colonists disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians, boarded the ships, and dumped all 342 containers of tea into the harbor. That was the infamous Boston Tea Party.
In retaliation for the destruction of the tea, an irate Parliament passed the first of a series of Coercive Acts (called “Intolerable Acts” by the colonists). The Boston Port Bill shut down all commercial shipping in Boston Harbor until Massachusetts paid the taxes owed on the tea dumped in the harbor and also reimbursed the East India Company for the loss of the tea. In May 1774, General Thomas Gage, commander of all British military forces in the colonies, arrived in Boston, became the new Royal Governor, ended colonial self-rule, and put Massachusetts under military rule. Britain sent more and more troops to subjugate the colonies and a new Quartering Act was enacted by Parliament. At this same time, colonists began to demand an inter-colonial Congress to unite the colonies so they could effectively put pressure on Britain to repeal the Coercive Acts.
From September 5 -24, 1774, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. There were 56 delegates, representing every colony except Georgia. Attendants included Patrick Henry, George Washington, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock. The Continental Congress immediately declared its opposition to the Coercive Acts, declaring that they would NOT be obeyed. Furthermore, it asserted the rights of all colonists to “Life, Liberty, and Property.” It authorized the formation of local militia, announced a boycott of English imports, placed an embargo on exports to Britain, and discontinued the slave trade.
On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry delivered a speech at the Virginia Convention against British rule, stating:
“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past…. Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These (the acts imposed by King George and the British Parliament) are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort…. we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne! In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free– if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending–if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained–we must fight! When shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
The following month, General Gage (aka, Governor of Massachusetts) was ordered by Britain to enforce the Coercive Acts and to suppress all “open rebellion” among the colonists using any force necessary. On April 18, General Gage ordered 700 British soldiers to Concord to destroy the colonists’ weapons depot. That night, Paul Revere and William Dawes rode from Boston to warn colonists. Revere reached Lexington about midnight and warned Sam Adams and John Hancock who were hiding out there. “One if by land and two if by sea.” By dawn the following day, about 70 armed Massachusetts militiamen stood face-to-face to the advancing British guard on Lexington Green. An unauthorized shot was fired – “the shot heard around the world” – and thus began the American Revolution.
“The Revolution was effected before the War commenced, said John Adams. “The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people….. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”
On May 10, 1775, the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia, and John Hancock was elected as its president. On June 15, the Congress unanimously voted to appoint George Washington as General and Commander-in-Chief of the new Continental Army.
We were now in a war for our independence, for the rights of man and the right to govern as we saw fit. The series of oppressive acts of Parliament and the refusal of King George to stick up for the rights of the colonists had taken their toll. The once proud British subjects now saw themselves as proud Americans. In order to encourage the fight for separation from Britain, the authors of our founding documents began making the case for independence. On January 9, 1776, Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” was published in Philadelphia. The 50 page pamphlet was highly critical of King George III and attacked the concept of allegiance to a Monarchy. Common Sense became an instant best-seller in America. Paine wrote:
“Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher. Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil in its worst state an intolerable one… In order to gain a clear and just idea of the design and end of government, let us suppose a small number of persons settled in some sequestered part of the earth, unconnected with the rest, they will then represent the first peopling of any country, or of the world. In this state of natural liberty, society will be their first thought. A thousand motives will excite them thereto, the strength of one man is so unequal to his wants, and his mind so unfitted for perpetual solitude, that he is soon obliged to seek assistance and relief of another, who in his turn requires the same. Four or five united would be able to raise a tolerable dwelling in the midst of a wilderness, but one man might labor out the common period of life without accomplishing any thing; when he had felled his timber he could not remove it, nor erect it after it was removed; hunger in the mean time would urge him from his work, and every different want call him a different way. Disease, nay even misfortune would be death, for though neither might be mortal, yet either would disable him from living, and reduce him to a state in which he might rather be said to perish than to die. Thus necessity, like a gravitating power, would soon form our newly arrived emigrants into society, the reciprocal blessings of which, would supersede, and render the obligations of law and government unnecessary while they remained perfectly just to each other; but as nothing but heaven is impregnable to vice, it will unavoidably happen, that in proportion as they surmount the first difficulties of emigration, which bound them together in a common cause, they will begin to relax in their duty and attachment to each other; and this remissness, will point out the necessity, of establishing some form of government to supply the defect of moral virtue…. Here then is the origin and rise of government; namely, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world; here too is the design and end of government, viz., freedom and security. And however our eyes may be dazzled with snow, or our ears deceived by sound; however prejudice may warp our wills, or interest darken our understanding, the simple voice of nature and of reason will say, it is right. I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature, which no art can overturn, viz., that the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered.. (With this, Paine criticizes allegiance to the Crown and points out faults with the English Constitution, which is uncodified; that is, it isn’t embodied in one document but rather encompasses several documents written over many years) Britain is the parent country, say some. Then the more shame upon her conduct. Even brutes do not devour their young; nor savages make war upon their families; wherefore the assertion, if true, turns to her reproach; but it happens not to be true, or only partly so, and the phrase parent or mother country hath been jesuitically adopted by the king and his parasites, with a low papistical design of gaining an unfair bias on the credulous weakness of our minds. Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers off civil and religious liberty from every Part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home pursues their descendants still.” [Paine then urges for a “Continental Charter” or “Charter of the United States”] “I observe that a charter is to be understood as a bond of solemn obligation, which the whole enters into, to support the right of every separate part, whether of religion, personal freedom, or property, A firm bargain and a right reckoning make long friends. A government of our own is our natural right: And when a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced, that it is in finitely wiser and safer, to form a constitution of our own in a cool deliberate manner…. We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest, purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the event of a few months…… America shall make a stand, not for herself alone, but for the world.” [Common Sense. (John Locke’s influence on Thomas Paine is very clear in Common Sense, especially with regards to the Natural rights to personal freedom and property and to the criticisms of the Monarchy)]
Also in 1776, William Pitt addressed the House of Commons in England and tried to explain the reason for the colonists’ “seditious spirit.” He stated that in his opinion, Great Britain had no right to lay a tax on the colonies without their consent. “The Americans,” he said, “are the subjects of this kingdom and equally entitled with yourselves to all the natural rights of mankind and the peculiar privileges of Englishmen – just as they are equally bound by its laws… The Americans are the sons not the bastards of England.” [Avery and Abbatt, A History of the United States and its People: From Their Earliest Records to the Present Time (Vol. 5), pg. 70 ]
On March 12, 1776, North Carolina became the first state to make a formal recommendation that the states declare their independence from Great Britain. In ratifying the Halifax Resolves, the fourth provincial congress of North Carolina authorized her delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence (should a formal resolution be introduced, that is. The Halifax Resolves themselves fell short of actually authorizing NC delegates to introduce such as resolution of independence).
Just as a massive British war fleet arrived in New York Harbor, consisting of 30 battleships with 1200 cannon, 30,000 soldiers, 10,000 sailors, and 300 supply ships, Richard Henry Lee, a Virginia delegate to the Second Continental Congress, presented a formal resolution to the body on June 7 calling for a declaration of independence from Britain. His resolution was simply written: “(1) Resolved, 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; (2) That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances; and (3) That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.”
After introducing his resolution, Lee followed up with one of the most stirring and eloquent speeches ever delivered, either by himself or any other gentleman on the floor of Congress when he stated: “Why then, sir, why do we longer delay? Why still deliberate? Let this happy day give birth to an American Republic. Let her arise, not to devastate and to conquer, but to reestablish the reign of peace and of law. The eyes of Europe are fixed upon us: she demands of us a living example of freedom, that may exhibit a contrast in the felicity of the citizen to the ever increasing tyranny which desolates her polluted shores. She invites us to prepare an asylum, where the unhappy may find solace, and the persecuted repose….”. [Scribe, “Richard Henry Lee…”]
On June 11, 1776, in response to the Lee Resolution, Congress appointed three concurrent committees: one to draft a Declaration of Independence, a second to draw up a plan to help form foreign alliances, and a third to propose a plan of confederation. Lee was appointed to the committee to draft a Declaration of Independence but he was called home to Virginia because his wife had fallen ill. His place was taken by his young protégé, Thomas Jefferson.
It is said that the task of drafting the Declaration should have fallen to Benjamin Franklin as the elder, more experienced statesman, but he was in poor health and he didn’t feel quite up to the task. The task should then have fallen to John Adams, a brilliant and passionate writer, but he urged Thomas Jefferson to write it in his place. Jefferson refused to accept until Adams begrudgingly pleaded with him: “You are 10 times the writer I am.” Plus, Jefferson had just written “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” two years earlier (1774), which embraced his personal theory about self-governance and the rights of people who established colonies in new lands. It was written in hand-written form and was intended by Jefferson to be used as a set of instructions for the Virginia delegates to the first Continental Congress. Notice how he referred to America as “British America.” In his Summary View, he described the usurpations of power and deviations from law committed by King George III and Parliament. Jefferson was not present when the Virginia House read and addressed his notes, but his friends had his instructions published in pamphlet form, which eventually was circulated in London, as well as in Philadelphia and New York. It was this work that helped to establish Jefferson, who otherwise was a poor speaker and orator, as a skillful, if radical, political writer.
In preparing to write the Declaration of Independence, our Charter of Individual Freedom, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin searched for a historical precedent for asserting the people’s rightful liberties as against King George III and the British Parliament. They found it in the Magna Carta. Most of the Magna Carta’s clauses were lists of long-standing, grievances against the King, and in addressing such grievances, the Charter became the basis for English Common Law and a guideline for how the King should regard his subjects. The violations of English Common Law in the American Colonies by King George provided Jefferson with ample argument in writing his declaration of independence from the monarchy. Additionally, when Jefferson sought to explain the reason for separating from England because of a long series of intolerable abuses by a tyrant king, he looked to the English Bill of Rights of 1689 for inspiration.
And so Jefferson, along with suggestions from Adams, and eloquence from Franklin, went on to write our most brilliant Declaration of Independence:
“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 affect 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. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. 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 He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
- He has…… (continued list of grievances against King George III)
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.
…….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.”
After acknowledging that freedom and liberty are based on “self-evident truths, that governments are instituted among men and derive their powers from them, and that people have the right to abolish their government when it becomes destructive of its ends, Jefferson then went on in the Declaration of Independence to offer support for the colonies’ claim of separation. The Declaration set out a list of grievances against King George in order to justify to Great Britain and before the rest of the world why the colonies were breaking their ties with the mother country. Such grievances included:
- He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
- For taking away our charters, for 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.
- For imposing taxes on us without our consent:
- He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people
- He has made judges dependent on his will alone for the tenure of their offices
- For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of trial by jury.
Jefferson wrote: “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.” For two years, Jefferson had wanted to label King George as a tyrant. In his Summary View of the Rights of British America, he reminded Virginia’s delegates to the first Continental Congress how the colonists had repeatedly sought redress from the King. “We were asking for rights, not favours !” He instructed delegates that “our ancestors, before their emigration to America, were the free inhabitants of the British dominions in Europe, and possessed a right which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice, has placed them, on a quest for new habitations, and once there, establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as to them shall seem most likely to promote.” Jefferson believed that “British Americans” were sovereigns (from John Locke). Whereby the colonists were once “subjects of the king,” once King George denied them the rights of Englishmen, they became independent sovereigns who became “citizens of their respective states.” (some sovereignty transferring from the individual to the collective body). Note that for the very first time in recorded history, individuals were being recognized as being the holders of sovereign power and not rulers or governments.
56 men signed the Declaration of Independence. The first, largest, and most famous signature is that of John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress. As he stated after signing his signature: “There, I guess King George will be able to read that.” The youngest signer was Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, at age 26. Benjamin Franklin, at age 70, was the oldest. Two future presidents signed the document: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Seven signers of the Declaration would go on to meet in Philadelphia in 1787 to help draft the Constitution – Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson, Robert Morris, and George Clymer (all of Pennsylvania), Roger Sherman (of Connecticut), and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts.
The finished document was presented to the Second Continental Congress on June 28th. Thomas Jefferson, being a poor speaker, did not present the Declaration. It was read to the Congress. In general, it impressed the Assembly, but there were some reservations. The more eloquent Adams vigorously defended the work, which was finally adopted on July 2nd. That evening Adams wrote his wife Abigail a letter expressing his thoughts on the new declaration, stating: “The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”
[Here is an interesting bit of historical trivia: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day – July 4, 1826. Jefferson, at his home in Virginia, passed away just a few hours before Adams did, at his home in Massachusetts. Both of these great architects of the document that so profoundly helped to give birth to this our new Nation died 50 years to the day from the birth of the country they founded.]
[Also note that Richard Henry Lee was elected to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, but he refused to attend. He had been aware of Madison’s plans to draft a new Constitution (rather than fix the Articles of Confederation, as was the reason given for the Convention) but he was unconvinced that a new Constitution was needed to structure a more effective government. In Lee’s words: “To say that a bad government must be established for fear of anarchy is really saying that we should kill ourselves for fear of dying. ” After the new Constitution was drafted, Lee fought against its ratification. He believed the new Constitution called for a strong central government at the expense of strong individual States. He feared it would weaken states’ rights and powers. He also distrusted the document because it lacked a Bill of Rights. He felt that the combination of these factors – the creation of a strong central government which would have the power to do what it likes against individuals, without any form of guaranteed Rights (Bill of Rights) for its citizens and without strong States to protect them – would eventually put them back in the hands of a tyrant. In fact, Lee published a series of articles entitled “Letters from the Federal Farmer,” which were part of the Anti-Federalist Papers. The Anti-Federalist Papers were a series of letters, essays, and articles which criticized the proposed Constitution drafted in Philadelphia in 1787. They elaborated in detail on its perceived faults and inadequacies. They “Letters from the Federal Farmer” were published in New York in the ‘Poughkeepsie Country Journal’ from November 1787 through January 1788. The first five of these articles were also republished as a pamphlet in New York and circulated widely. In addition to this pamphlet, in 1788 Lee published an additional thirteen “Letters from the Federal Farmer” which went into even more detail. It was in response to the Anti-Federalist Papers that James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and lawyer John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers were written, and it is with the dialogue between the two that we are able today to understand how our Founders explained the Constitution and its purpose].
The Declaration of Independence is our nation’s most cherished symbol of liberty and Jefferson’s most enduring legacy. Drafted in simple terms, yet with magnificent eloquence, Jefferson expressed the convictions in the minds and hearts of the American people. The political philosophy of the Declaration was not new; as explained earlier, its ideals of individual liberty had already been embraced by England’s treasured documents. Its ideals of individual liberty were also embraced on a more fundamental level, as articulated by the ancient Roman lawyer and statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.) and then by English philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704). This was the concept of Natural Law and the acknowledgement that all men are endowed with certain fundamental rights from our Creator, which are essential to our humanity and morality, and to our ordered and purposeful existence. When Jefferson wrote that freedom and liberty are based on “self-evident truths,” he was precisely referring to Natural Law.
What is Natural Law? Well, one day Cicero went walking and was trying to imagine what an ideal Rome would be like. It would have to be ruled by virtuous men, he reasoned. How would it be governed? As the foremost lawyer of his day, he was concerned with law. He wondered where laws came from. He came to conclude that law, that which distinguishes good from bad and which discourages and punishes the latter, did not originate from man’s mind alone. That is, law was not a matter of written statutes but was a matter deeply and fundamentally ingrained in the human spirit. Cicero reasoned as follows:
1). There is an order to the universe: Creator – Universe – People – Governments. There is a Creator who created the universe then created people. People, in turn, form into communities, and in order to keep their communities ordered, they establish local governments. Finally, local governments give rise to central governments.
2). Humans, like the Earth and the universe itself, were created by a higher power (a Creator; a God)
3). This higher power which created the universe also endowed humans with a bit of its own divinity (that is, He gave us the powers of speech, intelligent thought, reason, and wisdom).
4). As a result of this “spark of divinity,” humans are and should be (forever) linked to their Creator and should honor this relationship.
5). Because humans share reason with this higher power, and because this higher power is presumed to be benevolent, it follows that humans, when employing reason correctly, will also be benevolent.
6). Reason and benevolence (termed “right reason”) is therefore the foundation of law. When this is applied in a society, it is JUSTICE.
7). Natural Law is timeless; It is valid for all nations for all times.
8). It operates best when men are virtuous and honorable. It fails when men are greedy and depraved.
In other words, Natural Law, the bedrock principle of our founding documents, states that our rights come from God and not from any government. John Locke took the concept of Natural Law one step further and applied it to government. According to Locke, people (not rulers or governments) are sovereign. Individuals have sovereign rights which no government can take away. As such, government is morally obliged to serve people, namely by protecting life, liberty, and property, and to do so with limited powers and applying the principle of checks and balances so as to be sure to government remained honest and focused or beholden to its goals. This is the bedrock principle of Locke’s view of government. He explained that natural law tradition could be observed with the ancient Jews and that rulers, when properly constrained, would legitimately serve justly because there are moral laws that apply to everyone.
As Locke wrote in the two volumes of his Treatise on Government (1689 and 1690), private property is absolutely essential for liberty. He referred not only to real property but also to intellectual property. “Every man has a property in his own person. This no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his,” he wrote. Locke believed people legitimately turn common property into private property by mixing their labor with it, their intellect, their personality, their ambition, their business skills (and other intangible human qualities) and improving it. In other words, he believed that property is a series of transformations. Man has a property right in himself and his skills which is then transformed into money or bartering power, which is then eventually transformed into private property (real and chattel).
Luckily, Jefferson, and our other Founders, were extremely well-read and well-versed in the philosophies explaining government and individual liberty.
Thomas Jefferson completed his draft of the Declaration of Independence in just one day. Only seventeen days later, on June 28, Jefferson’s document was presented to the Congress, with a few changes made by Adams and Franklin. On July 2, twelve of thirteen colonial delegations voted to support of Lee’s resolution for independence – with NY abstaining. On July 4, the Congress formally endorsed Jefferson’s Declaration and copies were then sent to all of the colonies.
The actual signing of the Declaration of Independence occurred on August 2, when 56 members of Congress placed their names on the historic document. They signed this Declaration even though we were still at War with Britain and unlikely to win. They signed this document even though they knew that if the war for independence was not won, they could be tried for treason by England and executed.
56 delegates signed the document which would lay the foundation for our new nation. “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.” The Declaration of Independence is the first national document in history acknowledging that fundamental rights are endowed upon man from a Creator. America’s independence was not only of worldwide significance because a new nation was founded on the shores of the Atlantic, in the New World, but because a new nation, the very first of its kind, was founded ‘under God.’
Many make light of this phrase and its significance, and certainly atheist groups may try to ignore or minimize it. It is not a statement of theology, but a statement of the ordering of rights and liberty. This one sentence in the Declaration of Independence is the very cornerstone of our Constitution, our system of government, and our national foundation. Try reading the Declaration of Independence without the references to God and see if it has any real meaning. “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life liberty and the pursuit of happiness….” Where do our rights come from? How are all men endowed with rights? What is that process? Without the acknowledgement that they come from a higher being, a Creator, then the natural interpretation would be that they come from government. And if the government gives rights, then it can take them away.
Abraham Lincoln was eternally impressed with the Declaration. He said: “Let us revere the Declaration of Independence…… Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it the practices and policy which harmonize with it.” As Harry Jaffa wrote in his book, New Birth of Freedom: “Lincoln did not appeal to the Declaration of Independence merely because it was our first and foremost founding document. It was, he said, the immortal emblem of man’s humanity and the father of all moral principle because it incorporated a rational, non-arbitrary moral and political standard. The equality of man and man was a necessary inference from the inequality of man and beast — and of man and God. No one possessed of a civilized conscience can fail to feel this sympathy.”
In the summer of 1858, Lincoln addressed a crowd and spoke about the Declaration of Independence. He said, in part:
“…The Declaration was formed by the representatives of American liberty from thirteen States of the confederacy — twelve of which were slaveholding communities. We need not discuss the way or the reason of their becoming slaveholding communities. It is sufficient for our purpose that all of them greatly deplored the evil and that they placed a provision in the Constitution which they supposed would gradually remove the disease by cutting off its source. This was the abolition of the slave trade. So general was conviction — the public determination — to abolish the African slave trade, that the provision which I have referred to as being placed in the Constitution, declared that it should not be abolished prior to the year 1808. A constitutional provision was necessary to prevent the people, through Congress, from putting a stop to the traffic immediately at the close of the war. Now, if slavery had been a good thing, would the Fathers of the Republic have taken a step calculated to diminish its beneficent influences among themselves, and snatch the boon wholly from their posterity? These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: ‘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.’ This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. [Applause.] Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows. They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity. The erected a beacon to guide their children and their children’s children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages. Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they established these great self-evident truths, that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began — so that truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land; so that no man would hereafter dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the temple of liberty was being built.” [The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 544-546].
Who were these 56 men who signed the Declaration? Twenty-four were lawyers and jurists. Eleven were merchants, and nine were farmers and large plantation owners. They weren’t rabble-rousers. They were soft-spoken men of means and education. They had security, but they valued liberty more. They signed the Declaration of Independence knowing full well that the penalty would be death if they were captured. Standing tall and unwavering, they pledged: “For the support of the declaration, with firm reliance on the protection of the divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
Not many people know that the sentence for treason in those days was brutal beyond imagination. They would hang the traitor to the point of death, then revive him in order to kill him again. They would then disembowel the traitor and then draw and quarter him.
Five signers were captured by the British as traitors and tortured (although none were killed outright by the British). 9 died of wounds suffered in the War, and 12 lost all their property. Many had their family members captured, kidnapped, and/or killed. Francis Lewis, for example, had his home and properties destroyed. The enemy jailed his wife, and she died within a few months. John Hart was driven from his wife’s bedside as she was dying. Their 13 children fled for their lives. His fields and his gristmill were laid to waste. For more than a year he lived in forests and caves, returning to find his wife dead and his children vanished. A few weeks later he died from exhaustion and a broken heart.
On October 19, 1781, Lord Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington at Yorktown to end the war of our Independence. The following year the Treaty of Paris was signed to officially end the war. The United States was born.
The next step was to figure out a way to hold us together as a union (“a more perfect union”), keep us strong, and yet honor those reasons that the settlers came to America’s shores in the first place. And so, on May 25, 1787, 55 delegates from all of the states (except Connecticut), met in Philadelphia to draft a Constitution that would accomplish these goals.
The Constitutional Convention (also known as the Philadelphia Convention) took place from May 25 to September 17, 1787, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Its purpose was to address problems in governing the United States of America under the Articles of Confederation following independence from Great Britain. The Convention was originally intended to amend the Articles of Confederation to make it more effective in dealing with issues common to all the states and acting on their behalf. Apparently, the intention of certain delegates, namely James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, was not to amend the Articles but rather to create a new government altogether. The delegates persuaded a very sick and debilitated George Washington to act as the President of the convention and to preside over it after several attempts to organize such a meeting had failed to spark sufficient interest.
The states sent some of their finest minds to the Convention, including James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, and George Mason. These are the men we credit for giving us our new nation, as so perfectly conceived and designed. A few of our most important Founders, and our most brilliant political minds, were not present at the Convention. Thomas Jefferson, one of our most prolific and well-read Founders, was in France during the Convention, acting as Minister to that country. John Adams was also abroad on official duty for the newly-independent nation, as Minister to Great Britain. Patrick Henry was also absent; he refused to go because he “smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy.” He was likely referring to Alexander Hamilton, who strongly admired the British monarchy. (Hamilton would later side strongly with the Federalists and in fact, become the predominant writer of the Federalist Papers). Also absent were Richard Henry Lee, Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine, and John Hancock.
Delegates included those who fit into three general types: those who admired the monarchy and wanted our new system of government to be designed after the British system (monarchists), those who wanted power centralized in a strong central government, with a “consolidation” of the states and their power (nationalists), and those who wanted a federal government, one of limited powers, where the union is respected as a confederacy of sovereign states such that the states would remain sovereign and strong (federalists). Alexander Hamilton was the most vocal proponent of the monarchist view, and likely the only one at the Convention and James Madison was the most vocal proponent of the nationalist view. That would explain why Madison’s original plan was to create a central government with greater and stronger powers than the government established under the Articles of Confederation. In fact, he arrived at the Convention with a plan that he was simply hoping to “sell” to the other delegates. Luckily that wasn’t the case. And luckily for freedom-loving individuals, it was the Federalists who won the day at the Convention and it was Federalist principles upon which the Constitution was based. Our Founders didn’t want to trade one form of tyranny for another – that is, in the form of big government. In the Federalist Papers No. 39, James Madison acknowledged the Federalist position when he wrote: ” in relation to the extent of its powers…. the proposed government cannot be deemed a NATIONAL one; since its jurisdiction extends to certain enumerated objects only, and leaves to the several States a residuary and inviolable sovereignty over all other objects.”
Almost immediately, it was understood that our nation would need to be a republic rather than a true democracy. It would be a nation of laws and not a nation of men. It would be ruled by supreme law and not the mob. In 1780, seven years before the Constitution was drafted, Massachusetts put in its Constitution two very important principles that would be later embraced in the US Constitution – the concept of separation of powers and the rule of law. As it stated in the constitution governing the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: “In the government of this commonwealth the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them; the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them; the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them — to the end that it may be a government of laws and not of men.”
As a very old and very tired Benjamin Franklin was leaving the building where, after four months of hard work, the Constitution had been completed and signed, a lady asked him what kind of government the convention had created. The very wise Franklin replied; “A Republic, ma’am if you can keep it.”
When the delegates left Philadelphia on September 17, not all members were happy with the final document. Three high profile delegates refused to sign it: George Mason (Virginia), Edmund Randolph (Virginia), and George Mason (Virginia), and Elbridge Gerry (Massachusetts). They were opposed to the draft on several grounds. They wanted slavery to be abolished in the newly-independent nation, they believed the federal government had too much power, they believed the government would exert too much power over the states and burden their sovereignty, and most of all they believed that the Constitution allowed for too much abuse by the federal government.. that it would easily grow to “become destructive of the ends” for which it was designed to serve.
The Convention might have wrapped up on September 17, 1787, but the battle for ratification was just beginning.
The delegates left the Convention in 1787 and returned home, knowing the real task was still ahead of them – selling their document to the individual states for ratification. It would take another 4 years for the Constitution to be adopted. The individual states now would have to review the Constitution and decide whether to ratify and adopt it, thereby agreeing to be bound by its provisions. When the Convention finished its work, it did not include a Bill of Rights in the final version of the Constitution. Several members, notably George Mason, were very disappointed by this decision and refused to sign the document over the issue. They believed that the new Constitution provided insufficiently bridled federal power. Those who argued that the Constitution did not need such a Bill of Rights (ie, the Federalists) rationalized that it wasn’t necessary. After all, the Constitution did not give the new federal government the ability to restrict inherent rights, so no list of those rights was necessary. Others worried that if the rights were listed, they would invariably forget some and the list would ever be incomplete. And still others argued that the states each had their own constitutions (some even with a Bill of Rights), and that rights were best protected at a state level. [Note that Alexander Hamilton addressed these reasons in the Federalist Papers No. 84].
Within 10 days after the Constitutional Convention wrapped up and the delegates returned home, a letter was printed in the New York Journal urging the people of that state to reject the new compact. The author of the letter used the pseudonym “Cato”, although many believed that it was their own Governor – Governor George Clinton.
According to Article VII of the Constitution, conventions in nine states had to ratify the document in order for it to become effective and binding. Some states were highly in favor of the new Constitution and ratified it quickly. Those states were Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey; they ratified within three months. Georgia and Connecticut ratified one month later (January 1788). But then the ratification began to heat up. The remaining states weren’t as captivated with the Constitution as the earlier ones. Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia, key states both in terms of population and stature (they also sent some of the most important and influential delegates to the Convention) thought the Constitution concentrated too much power in a federal government and would likely not ratify. Debates in Massachusetts were heated, and only after assurances were given that their fears were misguided and that a Bill of Rights would be added, the state ratified. Given such assurances, other states followed – Maryland, South Carolina, and New Hampshire. This brought the total to the magical number of nine and the Constitution, on June 21, 1788, went into effect. The nine states were officially united and bound by the charter.
New York and Virginia still remained and it was highly doubtful that they would ratify and that the new Constitution would survive without the approval of these states. The battle now went into high gear. Early in the ratification process, proponents of the Constitution took the name “Federalists.” Their goal was to correct the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation and that necessarily meant supporting a federal government with centralized functions. (But of limited, clearly-defined functions). Ironically, however, those who would oppose the Constitution because they wanted a more purely federal system (greater States’ rights, as Amendments 1-10 would later provide), were forced to take the name “Anti-Federalists.” They wanted it to be known that they ‘opposed’ the Federalists.
It was clear at the time that a negative vote by either of two key states — New York or Virginia — could destroy the whole plan for the new Constitution because of their size and power. Both New York and Virginia delegates were sharply divided in their opinions of the Constitution and New York’s Governor, George Clinton, had already made it known that he opposed its ratification. The Anti-Federalists held considerable political power at the time and leaders such as Clinton and Virginia’s George Mason, sat firmly in that camp.
In response to the speeches and letters of the Anti-Federalists, and in response to the tenuous situation posed by New York and Virginia, the Federalists wrote their own letters. Alexander Hamilton of New York, James Madison of Virginia, and John Jay (also of NY) wrote a series of letters under the shared pseudonym “Publius” in which they explained and defended the Constitution. Their purpose was to persuade the New York convention to ratify the proposed Constitution but even more, they wanted to specifically answer the charges of the Anti-Federalists who were concerned that the new Constitution would take too much power from the states and the people and concentrate them in a central government. Their letters were published “to the people of New York” but were later collected into a volume called the Federalist Papers. With respect to the authors of the Federalist Papers, whatever their differences, the message was unilateral and clear: survival as a respected nation required the transfer of important, though limited and clearly enumerated, powers to the central government. This would be done without destroying the identity or autonomy of the separate states.
[Note that the Federalist Papers are viewed as the ultimate authority on the intent and interpretation of the Constitution. They were absolutely instrumental in selling the Constitution to the states. To this day (although not to members of our government or to the Justices of the Supreme Court), the Federalist Papers remain as a classic commentary on American constitutional law and the principles of government. This series has come to form the backbone of our national interpretation of the Constitution].
Of all the issues that the Anti-Federalists gave for rejecting the new Constitution, the lack of a Bill of Rights was the most compelling for many people and many states. In fact, George Mason and the others returned to their home States to lobby against the ratification of the Constitution until a Bill of Rights was added. Although the Constitution was eventually ratified, a clear message had been delivered: there was strong sentiment demanding the inclusion of a Bill of Rights. In a letter dated December 20, 1787 to Madison, Thomas Jefferson called the omission of a Bill of Rights a major mistake. He wrote: ”A Bill of Rights is what the people are entitled to against every government, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.” Jefferson and Madison both argued that a declaration of rights would help establish the government, and especially the judiciary, as “guardians” of individual rights.
As the progression for state ratification of the Constitution continued, reports from June 2-25, 1788 show clearly that in the state of Virginia, Patrick Henry, George Mason, and Edmund Randolph led the fight for the Bill of Rights. Up until this point, James Madison continued to oppose such a bill. Henry’s passionate speeches of June 5 and June 7 resulted in Virginia’s motion that a Bill of Rights be added to the Constitution (after all, Virginia’s Constitution had one); and on June 25, the Virginia Convention selected George Mason to chair a committee to prepare a proposed Bill of Rights, with Patrick Henry and John Randolph as members. The proposed Bill of Rights, written mainly by George Mason, by the Virginia Ratifying Convention would form the basis of what would become the US Bill of Rights.
New York and Virginia, and in fact, all thirteen states eventually ratified the Constitution. Virginia ratified in June 1788 and New York ratified the following month. The Constitution went into effect on March 3, 1789 and George Washington was elected our first President on April 30. The states ratified it in reliance on the promise to respect state sovereignty — the keep power closest to the people. As Hamilton acknowledged in the Federalist Papers No. 31: “The State governments, by their original constitutions, are invested with complete sovereignty….. As in republics, strength is always on the side of the people, and as there are weighty reasons to induce a belief that the State governments will commonly possess most influence over them… (We must) confine our attention wholly to the nature and extent of the powers as they are delineated in the Constitution. Everything beyond this must be left to the prudence and firmness of the people; who, as they will hold the scales in their own hands, it is to be hoped, will always take care to preserve the constitutional equilibrium between the general and the State governments.”
The first Congress under the Constitution had a lot to accomplish. It had many new powers not available to the original Congress under the Articles of Confederation, and every state had interests it wanted to protect. James Madison, seen by many as the Father of the Constitution, had won a seat in the House of Representatives, running partly on a platform that included, of all things, addition of a Bill of Rights. It was Jefferson and Mason who succeeded in finally convincing him of the necessity. The truth of the matter was that Madison understood the grim political reality that without one, it was unlikely the new Constitution would receive widespread public acceptance. Once he won a seat in the House, he formally withdrew his opposition and began work on the amendments (Bill of Rights) that the states were demanding.
On June 8, 1789, Madison presented his draft of the amendments to the Constitution in order to get the discussion moving in Congress. Madison drafted the amendments drawing on the ideas put forth in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which were written by George Mason. From June to September, both houses of Congress debated these amendments, along with additional ones presented by the individual states. Rights were enumerated, removed, modified, and tweaked. Eventually, both houses agreed on twelve articles of amendment and sent them to the states. Two years later, on December 15, 1791, ten of these original twelve were ratified by the states and they became a part of the Constitution as the Bill of Rights. (By custom, the amendments were added to the end of the original document, rather than inserted in the text, as Madison had envisioned.)
As Joe Wolverton II wrote in The New American magazine: “It can be said that from the ashes of the Articles of Confederation a phoenix arose in the form of a mighty eagle, emblem of the new American Republic. The Convention of 1787 took the weaknesses of the Articles and transformed them into the strengths of a new Constitution.”
Just as the English Bill of Rights did before it, just about every right listed in the Bill of Rights was a response to something the British government had done to the colonists (British subjects). For example, the first amendment was in response to oppression based on religion. The third amendment was in response to the Quartering Act. And the Due Process clause of the fifth amendment was in response to repeated instances of confiscation without compensation. Our Founders recognized the fact that to list all the fundamental rights held by individuals would be an exercise in futility, they included the Ninth Amendment, lest the Constitution be construed to acknowledge only a handful of rights that government can’t regulate and deny – “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
There were 55 individuals directly involved in framing the Constitution at the Constitutional Convention, and an additional ninety in the first federal Congress that framed the First Amendment and Bill of Rights. Allowing for the overlap of nineteen individuals who were both at the Constitutional Convention and a part of the first Congress, there were 126 individual participants in the framing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
The Constitutional Convention of 1787 produced the most enduring written Constitution ever created by human hands. As Ben Franklin noted in a speech on that final day urging all delegates to sign the document and to do so immediately, the Constitution may have its faults, but it is possible that no better document could have been created. It is a documented created for We the People, so we can be assured of our rights with respect to our government… just as the English accomplished with their Magna Carta and their English Bill of Rights. The Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights sought to protect against tyranny in England and our U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights serve the same purpose – to safeguard the individual freedoms of all Americans against arbitrary, self-serving government. On March 30, 1789, the Constitution, at last, became the “the supreme Law of the Land” – just as Magna Carta had been deemed superior to other statutes. In 1215, when King John confirmed Magna Carta with his seal, he acknowledged the concept that is now firmly-embedded in the fabric of all free nations – that no man, not even the King – is above the law. And the US Constitution stands above all other documents in the scope of the individual rights that are respected and protected. John Adams summed it up this way: “We are a government of laws, and not of men.”
Unlike the Magna Carta and English Bill of Rights which lists and establishes the rights of the individual with respect to government, the Constitution actually requires that the PRIMARY RESPONSIBILITY OF GOVERNMENT is the protection of individual rights. Our Founders took what the British had achieved and secured the rights of the individual even more judiciously. The designed the Constitution specifically to put into practice the fundamental principle of the Declaration of Independence: that the people form their governments and grant to them only “just powers” – limited powers – in order to secure their God-given, unalienable rights. And just like the English had done before them, our Founders established the Constitution as our nation’s charter of individual freedom with an express provision making it the supreme law of the land.
The Constitution is the foundation of our nation. It guarantees our liberty. It does not give us liberty. Our liberty comes from our humanity and our bond with our Creator. Rather, it guarantees and protects our liberty. (This is an important distinction). With the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence, it constitutes the charter of our freedom. For people who cherish their liberty and its roots, it is imperative to understand how the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution fit together. First, the Declaration proclaims to the world that in the United States we acknowledge that there is a God – a “Creator” – who supersedes any government and whose intention it is that all men are to live free and to reap the benefits of such freedom. If all men are bestowed with innate liberties, then all men must be on equal footing and therefore are equal. The Declaration then states: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..” This statement outlines the very purpose of our Constitution — “To secure our rights.” (To secure the rights that God has bestowed upon us). And finally comes our obligation to protect this very special arrangement — “governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The federal government is a creation of We the People. It gets its “just” powers from us. The dictionary defines “just” as “morally right and fair.” If we aren’t “just,” then our government will not be “just.” Our Republic is simple yet magnificent in design. As human beings, we have been gifted a magnificent brain and reasoning powers (gifts that have still not “evolved” in other species) and the freedoms to develop those gifts to the fullest. Our lives are to be defined by how well we develop our gifts and how ambitious we are in furthering those pursuits. Our government is charged with protecting our freedoms so that we can enjoy Life and pursue Happiness (which includes property and intellectual property, or career). To make sure that our government does just that, our Founders tied the government intimately with those who have the greatest interest in liberty – “We the People.” We are the keepers of the government. We are the watchdogs of our own liberties. We send the people who run government, we determine its character, we determine its policies, we determine whether it runs as it should, we determine whether it adheres to our Constitution, and we determine whether it follows that one true formula that can assure that our liberties will be protected and our country will stand the test of time. As Patrick Henry told us: “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people; It is an instrument for the people to restrain the government – lest it comes to dominate our lives and interests.” Ayn Rand, novelist and philosopher, also understood the relationship. She wrote: “The US Constitution is a limitation on the government, not on private individuals… It does not prescribe the conduct of private individuals, only the conduct of the government… It is not a charter for government power, but a charter of the citizen’s protection against the government.”
Our nation was founded on several principles of government (see the section on “Our Founding Principles”) and three basic fundamental freedoms – “Life, Liberty, and Property (ie, “the Pursuit of Happiness”). These are the three which form the foundation for all our protected freedoms and liberties. As Justice Sutherland (Supreme Court, 1921-38) explained: “The three great rights are bound together as to be essentially one right. To give a man his life, but deny him his liberty, is to take from him all that makes his life worth living. To give him his liberty, but take from him the property which is the fruit and badge of his liberty, is to still leave him a slave.” Our Founding Patriots did not seek independence because of stifling taxation or any excessive restriction of liberty. Indeed, the tax burden on American colonists was not even close to the tax burden on subjects in England, and it was far less than our burden today. In 1776, taxes in the colonies were the lowest in the civilized world. Rather, as the British subjects they considered themselves to be, they believed they had a right to representation in the British Parliament. The English Bill of Rights 1689 had forbidden the imposition of taxes without the consent of Parliament and since the colonists had no representation in Parliament, the taxes that the King had continued to impose on the colonists violated their guaranteed rights as Englishmen. Hence, “No Taxation Without Representation” and the Boston Tea Party became the battle cry for independence. Our early colonists quickly and instinctly understood when their rights as Englishmen were violated. And they refused to tolerate the abuse. How many Americans would recognize abuses by our own federal government?
A people who don’t know their history and their foundations will not know when the Constitution ceases to restrain government and begins to restrain citizens. Thomas Jefferson said, ”Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” When they are not well-informed, then they cannot expect to keep their freedoms, for they will not know when the government is slowly taking them away. So, in fact, a people who are not educated properly in their nation’s history and heritage, pose a great threat to individual liberty as we know it here in the United States.
Perhaps Jefferson knew that we would fail to educate and fail to hold those American values given to us dear to our heart and mind and the government would s the gifts and responsibilities that make us uniquely “Americans.” Perhaps that is why right up front, in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, he gave us this advice: “Whenever the government becomes destructive of the ends for which the Declaration of Independence was created and ratified, the people have the right to alter it or abolish it and to form a new government to properly and fairly secure their safety and pursuit of happiness.”
“If there be a principle that ought not to be questioned within the United States, it is that every man has a right to abolish an old government and establish a new one. This principle is not only recorded in every public archive, written in every American heart, and sealed with the blood of American martyrs, but is the only lawful tenure by which the United States hold their existence as a nation.” James Madison, referred to as the “Father of the Constitution” and author of 28 of the 85 Federalist Papers, wrote this.
Let us not forget that the Constitution was written for those in whose name it was cast: We the People. It is an agreement or contract – NOT between We the People and government (the government didn’t sign the Constitution), but rather an agreement amongst the states on behalf of the people – setting out how much power would be transferred to the government. And it is also LAW. The legal framework set up in the Constitution, for the protection of individual rights, is the SUPREME LAW of the land (Article V). It is a short document – and remarkably straightforward. Our Founders intended it to be studied in American schools and to be read in the home. They envisioned a nation of people who knew their Constitution, their charter of freedom, and knew how their government worked and how it rested on the service of good, moral, educated, and ethical people. They expected people to understand all this and step up and serve their country… not as career politicians, but as a civic duty. They never intended that we would need judges and justices to interpret it for us. It wasn’t required that we have law degrees to understand it. The Constitution was never supposed to come under the exclusive dominion of the Supreme Court who would ignore its simple common sense meaning and would fail to see the forest from the trees. It was meant for you and I to understand.
The most important thing to remember about the Constitution is what Patrick Henry told us: “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people; It is an instrument for the people to restrain the government – lest it comes to dominate our lives and interests.”
Our proud English history is a story of a human struggle, beginning over a 1000 years ago, to limit government and demand that certain rights are so fundamental to the existence of individuals that government must respect them. Our schools, and even learned citizens, do a great disservice to their students and fellow Americans by not teaching this.
As we see the direct impact of the Magna Carta and English Bill of Rights in our founding documents, and as we appreciate the overwhelming passion our early colonists felt for the fundamental liberties that Englishmen enjoyed but which they felt were being denied, leading to our independence, we clearly understand that American history IS England’s history. The story of America is a continuation of man’s establishment of sovereign rights with respect to government and with respect to a tyrant. It is a continuation of man’s determination to limit government and therefore to limit the intrusion on individual liberty. Perhaps Supreme Court Justice David Davis said it best, in Ex Parte Milligan [71 U.S. 2 (1866)]: “The founders of our government were familiar with the history of that struggle; and secured in a written constitution every right which the people had wrested from power during a contest of ages…..Time has proven the discernment of our ancestors; for even these provisions , expressed in such plain English words, that it would seem the ingenuity of man could not evade them, are now, after the lapse of more than seventy years, sought to be avoided. Those great and good men foresaw that troublous times would arise, when rulers and people would become restive under restraint, and seek by sharp and decisive measures to accomplish ends deemed just and proper; and that the principles of constitutional liberty would be in peril unless established by irrepealable law. The history of the world had taught them that what was done in the past might be attempted in the future. The Constitution of the United States is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and in peace, and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men, at all times , and under all circumstances.”
Our children should be taught about how long and hard people fought for the freedom they enjoy today. Our children should be taught the historical context and events that led to the creation of our limited government with its checks and balances. They should learn how our founding documents define what the government can and cannot do, and why this is so. They should understand why they are blessed to live in a republic so soundly-designed and why the Rule of Law is so important. And they should appreciate why our Constitution so aggressively provides for the protection of life, liberty, and property, protects against unjust punishment and government confiscation, and encourages the rights of conscience and expression.
As George Washington instructed: “A primary object should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing than communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country.” Likewise, Thomas Jefferson advised: “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degrees.” Taking the floor at Virginia’s ratifying convention, Governor Edmund Randolph reasoned that “if the government is to be binding on the People,” wouldn’t the People feel compelled to remain educated and diligent regarding the Constitution. Andrew Klavan, of PJTV’s “The Culture,” told us: “Many people we trust with our government turn out to be just the sort of power-hungry, corrupt, low-lives from whom the Founding wig-wearers were trying to protect us. The freedom we enjoy today is the exception in history, not the rule. Grow complacent in its strength, ignorant of its foundation, or careless of the rules of its sustainment, and it will be lost to what James Madison called ‘the gradual silent encroachment of those in power.’ ”
The Constitutional Convention was an extraordinary undertaking. It was an attempt by our Founding Fathers to determine “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” (Alexander Hamilton, in the Federalist Papers No. 1).
Likewise, this country is referred to as the great American “experiment.” Why an experiment? Because we still don’t know what kind of nation our unique “constitutional formula” will produce. Our nation continues to evolve. Yet sadly, it does so with a different breed of America citizen. It does so with a population who doesn’t embrace and cherish liberty like our forefathers did. In short, we still don’t know whether a nation so conceived in liberty will long endure.
When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in that small, hot, stuffy room at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia (now known as “Independence Hall”), there was a chair that George Washington as the president of the Convention sat in which had a carving of the sun and its rays centered at its top. Later, Benjamin Franklin would remark that during the Convention, he often wondered if the carving signified a sunrise or sunset for the new country. According to James Madison, Franklin finally figured it out. He told Madison: “Now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.”
Would he say the same if he could see this country today?
As we celebrate this Independence Day, let us do so in remembrance of the sacrifices and anticipations of a free nation. And while we were able to separate our allegiance to England, a nation that abused the rights of the early colonists, let us also remember the rich history we share with her. Let us remember again what it truly means to be an “American.”
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed onto them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.” — Ronald Reagan
References: “Your Hamburger: 41000 Regulations” U.S. News & World Report, Feb. 11, 1980, pg. 64.
Anti-Federalist Papers, Brutus I, from TeachingAmericanHistory.org. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=849
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Jim Powell, “John Locke: Natural Rights to Life, Liberty, and Property,” The Freeman, Volume 46, Issue 8, August 1996. Referenced at: http://thefreemanonline.org/featured/john-locke-natural-rights-to-life-liberty-and-property
Stanley Kober, “The Spirit of Humility,” The Cato Institute, Volume 17, Issue 2, 1995. Referenced at: http://www.cato.org/pubs/journal/cj17n2-8.html
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