These days, most commentary on the Declaration of Independence focuses on the implications of the passage that “all men are created equal [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Dwelling on that passage might surprise Thomas Jefferson, who thought it was self-evident. The argument that flowed from his premises is more important, namely that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and when the relationship shifts to the point where government becomes a threat to the lives, liberties and pursuit of happiness of the people, it is government – not the people – that must change.
A government becomes corrupt when it abuses the power derived from the people by doing things that harm the polity and when it acts primarily as a servant of its own interests. This definition of illegitimate government has a history going back at least to Aristotle, though the 17th-century philosopher John Locke, in his “Two Treatises of Government,” gave it a form that would have been more familiar to American colonists. Beyond a certain point, when the actions of government become intolerable, the people have not only a right but a duty to reclaim their inalienable sovereignty and start over. This must be done, as Jefferson said, to “provide new Guards for their future security.”
The list of grievances in the Declaration – the part people often skip over – is critical to the argument because those grievances serve as evidence to make the case that British government had by its actions sundered the fundamental relationship between Parliament and the American colonists. Such a catalog of “abuses and usurpations” today might include: imposing confiscatory levels of overall taxation; using budget authority to transfer billions of taxpayer dollars to government insiders and pet causes; running up the national debt to a point where it is nearly equal to the nation’s total productive output; saddling current and future generations with ruinous debt to pay for pet programs that benefit the few at the expense of the many; failing to secure the nation’s borders from a flood of illegal immigrants and standing in the way of states and localities seeking to take up this fundamental duty, which the national government has chosen to ignore; and a variety of other issues ranging from a sketchy national census to crumbling national security.
The prime difference between the situation in 2010 and that of 1776 is that the people now can provide oversight through the election process. The ballot is the corrective mechanism that was unavailable to the Founders. Today’s dire situation in Washington has approached the intolerable because too few have gone to the polls to defend their rights against the predatory, permanent governing class in Congress. An electorate that fails to defend its rights deserves what it gets. Rights guarantee nothing unless they are used, and if they are not exercised, they tend to be exorcised.
After independence, Jefferson explained that the Declaration was “an expression of the American mind” intended to “give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.” The result is a timeless document the spirit of which is as applicable today as it was then. The people have the means at their disposal to take back our country and the government from the disconnected oligarchy in Washington. However, this only works if Americans actually step up. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, the country will only be a republic if the people are strong enough to keep it.