Rethinking the Southern Secession Movement of 1861

SECESSION - Union is Dissolved

by Diane Rufino, July 23, 2017

The question is: Was the Civil War fought over the issue of Slavery?  I won’t deny that slavery was an issue that inflamed the passions of both sections of the country and put each at odds with one another, but it was NOT the cause of the conflict that I will refer to as the War of Northern Aggression, a war which claimed the lives of over 650,000 young Americans.

At the end of 1860, with the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, the Union was on the verge of dissolution. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated on April 4, seven states had already seceded and a new nation had been formed, the Confederate States of America (complete with a new constitution).  Following South Carolina’s lead (December 1860), Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and then Texas formally severed political ties with the Union. On April 4, Virginia held a state convention to consider secession but voted it down, 89-45. (North Carolina would do the same). Lincoln could not allow the Union to be split; he could not lose the tariff revenue supplied by the agrarian South which, in 1859, not only supplied approximately 80% of the federal revenue, but was used to enrich the industrialized North. And so, something had to be done to give Lincoln a “pretext” to restore the Southern states to the Union.

On April 12, 1861, Lincoln tricked South Carolina militia forces into firing on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter, even after South Carolina had demanded, and even tried negotiating for, the transfer of the fort to the Confederacy. The attack on Fort Sumter would provide the pretext he needed. He used the incident to characterize the southern states as being in a state of active rebellion and thus ordering troops to subdue them. On April 15, President Lincoln declared a state of insurrection and called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion and to defend the capital.  With that proclamation, four more Southern states left the Union. The first was Virginia.

Virginia did not leave the Union because of slavery; same with North Carolina. We should take particular note of this piece of history.

Virginia looked at President’s Lincoln’s Proclamation and demand for troops, and just as her leaders did when President John Adams passed the Sedition Act, she saw serious constitutional violations and contemplated how she needed to respond.

In reading the responses by Virginia’s Governor John Letcher below, you will see that he exercised all the remedies implied in the concept of State Sovereignty, Tenth Amendment, and even the Declaration of Independence:  First, he refused to comply with Lincoln’s decree – Virginia would not supply troops. That is Nullification and Interposition. And then, because the proclamation evidenced the will of a maniac, a tyrant, and an enemy of the Constitution, and evidenced the transformation of the federal government into something Virginia could no longer trust her sovereignty with and no longer wanted to be associated with, her people decided to sever the bonds which held her in allegiance. Virginia seceded.

On April 16, Virginia’s Governor John Letcher made the following dispatch to Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Simon Cameron:

EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENT.RICHMOND, Va., April 16, 1861.

HON. SIMON CAMERON, Secretary of War:

SIR: I received your telegram of the 15th, the genuineness of which I doubted. Since that time (have received your communication, mailed the same day, in which I am requested to detach from the militia of the State of Virginia “the quota designated in a table,” which you append, “to serve as infantry or riflemen for the period of three months, unless sooner discharged.”

In reply to this communication, I have only to say that the militia of Virginia will not be furnished to the powers at Washington for any such use or purpose as they have in view. Your object is to subjugate the Southern States, and a requisition made upon me for such an object — an object, in my judgment, not within the purview of the Constitution or the act of 1795 — will not be complied with. You have chosen to inaugurate civil war, and having done so, we will meet it in a spirit as determined as the Administration has exhibited towards the South. Respectfully,

JOHN LETCHER.

The following day, Governor Letcher issued the following proclamation, which was published for the people of Virginia to read:

Whereas, Seven of the States formerly composing a part of the United States have, by authority of their people, solemnly resumed the powers granted by them to the United States, and have framed a Constitution and organized a Government for themselves, to which the people of those States are yielding willing obedience, and have so notified the President of the United States by all the formalities incident to such action, and thereby become to the United States a separate, independent and foreign power; and whereas, the Constitution of the United States has invested Congress with the sole power “to declare war,” and until such declaration is made, the President has no authority to call for an extraordinary force to wage offensive war against any foreign Power: and whereas, on the 15th inst., the President of the United States, in plain violation of the Constitution, issued a proclamation calling for a force of seventy-five thousand men, to cause the laws of the United states to be duly executed over a people who are no longer a part of the Union, and in said proclamation threatens to exert this unusual force to compel obedience to his mandates; and whereas, the General Assembly of Virginia, by a majority approaching to entire unanimity, declared at its last session that the State of Virginia would consider such an exertion of force as a virtual declaration of war, to be resisted by all the power at the command of Virginia; and subsequently the Convention now in session, representing the sovereignty of this State, has reaffirmed in substance the same policy, with almost equal unanimity; and whereas, the State of Virginia deeply sympathizes with the Southern States in the wrongs they have suffered, and in the position they have assumed; and having made earnest efforts peaceably to compose the differences which have severed the Union, and having failed in that attempt, through this unwarranted act on the part of the President; and it is believed that the influences which operate to produce this proclamation against the seceded States will be brought to bear upon this commonwealth, if she should exercise her undoubted right to resume the powers granted by her people, and it is due to the honor of Virginia that an improper exercise of force against her people should be repelled.

Therefore I, JOHN LETCHER, Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, have thought proper to order all armed volunteer regiments or companies within this State forthwith to hold themselves in readiness for immediate orders, and upon the reception of this proclamation to report to the Adjutant-General of the State their organization and numbers, and prepare themselves for efficient service. Such companies as are not armed and equipped will report that fact, that they may be properly supplied.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the Commonwealth to be affixed, this 17th day of April, 1861, and in the eighty-fifth year of the Commonwealth.

JOHN LETCHER.

On April 17, in a newly-called convention, Virginia, the traditional leader of the South, made the decision to secede – 88 to 55, on the condition of ratification by a statewide referendum. Neither Virginia nor any of the other later-seceding states understood the federal government to authorize violence against member states.

Virginia’s ordinance of secession was ratified in a referendum by a vote of 132,201 to 37,451 on May 23.

On April 4, Virginia decided to remain in the Union. How did that decision preserve or extend slavery?  Virginians had been willing to endure a crushing protective tariff under President Lincoln, the likes of the Tariff of Abominations (1828). And they understood that remaining in the Union would mean that slavery would continue to be under attack by his administration. Virginia was loyal to the Union even when the government was antagonistic to her.  No, slavery wasn’t the reason the Southern states of Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina (and probably others), left the Union. It would be Lincoln’s demand for troops that would change their minds. To these states, remaining in the Union was to abandon every principle of confederation that they valued. Continued loyalty to a Union that would attack member states and being forced to take up arms against her neighbors was inconceivable and intolerable.

Slavery was the issue that caused the North to become aggressively hostile to the states of the South and to cause the South to question whether the two regions could ever have enough of a common interest to remain joined together with a government that was to serve each equally and fairly. But the independent ambitions of the federal government and the schemes and twisted ideology of its president were the direct cause of its violent course the division would take.

 

Reference:

“Governor Letcher’s Proclamation: His Reply to Secretary Cameron – State of Affairs Norfolk,” New York Times, April 22, 1861.  Referenced at:  http://www.nytimes.com/1861/04/22/news/gov-letcher-s-proclamation-his-reply-secretary-cameron-state-affairs-norfolk.html

 

Those Who are Tearing Down Confederate Monuments are Forcing Selective Amnesia on Americans

Image

ROBERT E. LEE - in front of door

by Diane Rufino, July 27, 2017

In this era when Southern (Confederate) leaders, symbols, generals, buildings, etc are being erased from our memory and history, and vilified in our conversations because of their connection to slavery, I wanted to take this opportunity to remind folks that they should really do some homework before jumping on this politically-correct bandwagon.  A history lesson is an opportunity for speech, for dialogue, for debate, for learning.  Erase history and you erase much more than the mere reminder than an event happened. Erase the memory of the Confederacy and you erase a time when states had the backbone to stand up for the principles in the Declaration of Independence (“Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness..”). Erase the memory of the Confederacy and you erase a time when states were willing to exert their natural rights of self-determination (aka, secession) rather than allow the federal government to subjugated them completely to its ambitious designs. Erase the memory of the Confederacy and you erase the last time in our nation’s history when states actually believed themselves to be the powerful sovereigns that they thought they would be under the US Constitution.

Be careful how you treat history.

Now many, it seems, are calling for the destruction of the monuments erected to Confederate leaders and Confederate generals, such as the great General Robert E. Lee.  There is no finer gentleman, no finer American, no finer human being than General Lee.  When President Lincoln tricked the South Carolina militia to fire on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1860, therefore giving him the reason he needed to raise troops to invade the South and force it back into the Union, he had some soul-searching to do. He was summoned to serve Lincoln and command the Northern Army, but then he would have to take up arms against the state he loved so much. Back in the day, one’s citizenship and one’s loyalties were first and foremost with one’s state (except, of course if you were a member of Congress). It was Lincoln’s Proclamation of April 15 that made Lee’s decision to fight for Virginia an easy one. Lincoln sent a dispatch to states such as Virginia and North Carolina, demanding that they send 75,000 troops to the Northern Army in order to invade the “rebelling states.”  Taking up arms, killing fellow Southerners, and imposing government force on his neighbors were things his conscience would not allow.  And so, he resigned the standing position he had with the government and joined the Confederate cause (Virginia voted to secede on April 17).

Lincoln had a tortured understanding of the Constitution and the South was right to resist.  Robert E. Lee, like so many other Southerns, was not a supporter of slavery and was looking forward to the day when the institution would either die a natural death (which it was on its way to doing) or would be abolished. He thought it an evil institution.  But slavery was not the cause of the hostilities that brought the War. It was government ambition, the disregard for States’ Rights, and the use of government force against member states (the ones who created the government in the first place) that initiated the violence that would claim more than 650,000 young American lives.  General Lee made the right choice. It may not have been the choice that best served our collective conscience regarding the enslavement of an entire race, but that’s not what the war was about. He made the right choice because only when states have the power to make their rightful decisions, including the decision to separate from an abusive government, can they effectively carry out the essential role that they play in our government system – to check the federal government when it oversteps its constitutional authority.

So, those who clamor to take down the statues of men like General Lee, or to erase his name from buildings and streets, take a moment to read what he had to say about slavery when the war was over: “I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained.”

2017 Independence Day Reflection

The Liberty Bell

by Diane Rufino, July 4, 2017

“My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died; Land of the Pilgrims’ pride, from ev’ry mountainside, Let freedom ring!

Every successful experiment starts with a great hypothesis.  A hypothesis is a testable answer to a scientific question; an educated guess. One can say that our great American experiment started with a profound hypothesis. That hypothesis held that liberty is most secure when it is recognized and accepted that human rights are endowed by the Creator — not by government — and are therefore inalienable; that governments are creations or creatures of the People, instituted primarily to secure their rights and to serve them as they seek to establish an ordered society; and that once government becomes destructive of its ends, the People have the natural and inherent right to alter or abolish it and establish another form of government in its place.

That hypothesis was our Declaration of Independence.

Those who read the Declaration and think it stands merely for the notion 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…” are missing the bigger picture. They are missing out on perhaps the most revolutionary, the most profound, the most important political statement ever made. It is the document that has changed the world.

And yet, in planning to declare independence from Great Britain, our Founders could not know that this document, in all its grandeur and espousing such profound and enlightened principles, would be the vehicle. Perhaps history put the right man in the right place at the right time, for the right purpose.

Once hostilities broke out between the colonies and Great Britain, the colonies sought to use the opportunity to issue a simple declaration, stating that they regarded themselves as no longer a part of the British Empire but rather as free and independent States.  Thomas Jefferson would give us much more than a simple declaration.

On June 7, 1776, acting under the instruction of the Virginia Convention and particularly its presiding officer Edmund Pendleton (who had served as the President of the First Continental Congress), Richard Henry Lee on introduced a resolution in the Second Continental Congress proposing independence for the colonies. The Lee Resolution contained three very simple parts: a declaration of independence, a call to form foreign alliances, and “a plan for confederation.”

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.

That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances.

That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.

On June 11, the Second Continental Congress appointed three concurrent committees to address Lee’s Resolution – one to draft a declaration of independence, a second to draw up a plan to form foreign alliances, and a third to plan a form of a confederation for the colonies. To draft the declaration, Congress named a five-member committee comprised of John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut. Although Adams was deemed best qualified to write the draft, he urged Jefferson to write it. Jefferson had approached his friend Adams to confirm that he would be drafting the declaration. But Adams responded: “I will not. You should do it. You ought to do it.”  When Jefferson asked why, Adams explained: “Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.”  [Adams was indeed unpopular; he had represented the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre

That very day, Jefferson would begin work on the Declaration of Independence. He moved into a small house -two blocks from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress had been meeting – in order to write in seclusion. Because several members of the Congress wanted to seek instruction from their colonies before addressing such an extreme measure, the vote was deferred until July 2.

On July 2, the Congress voted on independence. It adopted the Lee Resolution, which, as reproduced above, declared the individual states independent from Great Britain. “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.”   But the Congress decided it needed to draft a document explaining the move to the public (“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…”)  Such a draft had been proposed and submitted by the Committee of Five (written by Jefferson), and it took two days for the full Congress to agree on the edits. That is why we see the words “IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776,” at the top of the Declaration, because that is the day the last version was approved and signed in Philadelphia, at Independence Hall.

Once the final version was approved, the actual Declaration on Independence document that was signed on July 4 was sent to a printer named John Dunlap. About 200 copies of the Dunlap Broadside were printed and sent to the states, including to General George Washington.

The document was not titled “Declaration of Independence” nor does the term appear anywhere in the document, yet that was clearly its intention. The declaration justified the independence of the colonies by first asserting their collective understanding of the relationship between the individual and government, as well as the purpose and limits of government, then listing the colonists’ grievances against King George III (summing up with the line: “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”), and finally asserting certain natural and legal rights, including the right of secession (“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”).

The Declaration of Independence was a transformative document.  No longer would individuals have to petition or plead with government to respect their rights. Going forward, government would be established for the primary purpose of securing and enlarging their rights, guaranteeing that an ordered society would be possible while still allowing individuals to exercise the rights that they were born with; governments would no longer treat individuals like “subjects.” They would not be subject to the good graces or generosity of a King or his wrath or insecurity. “Inalienable” would now characterize the rights that their forefathers, Englishmen, could only enjoy if the King allowed it.

I love how exquisitely the Declaration of Independence explains how government is grounded in God’s Law and Nature’s Law and that it is always a creature of the people, for the people. For that reason, governments are always “temporary” in nature, enduring only as long as they protect and secure certain essential individual rights and as long as they serve productive ends. When a government ceases to serve either end, nature and Thomas Jefferson tell us that people have the right, the natural right (the right of self-determination, which is equally as “inalienable” as the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”) to alter or abolish it. And that is what the people of the American colonies, chose to do. The Declaration made the case for that decision, explaining that the “government” of Great Britain – the King and Parliament – had become destructive and abusive of their rights, which had been set forth in the great Magna Carta and solidified in the English Bill of Rights of 1689. As Jefferson made clear, because “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,” it was their natural right to sever political bonds with it, declare independence, to secede from Great Britain), and to establish a new government better suited to serve them and to respect and exemplify their ideals. The founding principles so brilliantly laid out in the Declaration form a foundation as strong as bedrock for our individual rights. If they are endowed by the Creator, who dare have the authority to take them away?  Similarly, if they are natural rights, belonging to us at our birth, we don’t lose them – just as we don’t lose the ability of our bodies to reproduce and have children and just as a falling body will always be acted on by the force of gravity. Some things are simply absolutes. Nature dictates life since it is from nature that we exist.  Jefferson grounded our rights in both God’s Law and Nature’s Law (some will argue that they are, in fact, one and the same), as the first paragraph of the Declaration makes clear: “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.”

If we only took the time to read this magnificent document, to study it, and to truly understand and appreciate every phrase that Jefferson included, we would have a far deeper sense of gratitude for our Founders and their inspired wisdom and foresight and a far deeper appreciation for what this country stands for (or “stood for”). Perhaps people might even realize that being an American is a far greater privilege that they had ever bothered to contemplate and that maybe, just maybe, such a privilege carries an obligation to conduct oneself in a respectful and dignified manner, always mindful of what he or she represents as a citizen and always ready to defend and exemplify the best that the country stands for. I love our Declaration of Independence, and to me, it is, and has always been, the most important of all founding documents – serving as our nation’s moral compass and forever shining a light on the reasons and principles of our existence.

Jefferson’s profound hypothesis still stands. But has our experiment steered away from hypothesis so that the ultimate question can no longer be answered?  That is the question.  What does the future hold when we’ve loosened the moorings that once tied Liberty to the principles in the Declaration?

 

PHILLY 2017 - Diane in front of house Jefferson wrote Declaration #2

History Speaks Through the Monuments on our National Mall

jefferson-memorial-lit-up

by Diane Rufino, January 21, 2017

Yesterday I visited the Jefferson Memorial to commune with my favorite Founding Father. Jefferson is perhaps the single reason I am so very proud to be an American. The principles he articulated in the Declaration of Independence, which the Second Continental Congress adopted in 1776, laid the basis for our independence from Great Britain. It established the principles and government philosophy that defines us as a nation, and although it’s message is lost on most Americans, I am sure to remind my students how it laid the basis for government by proclaiming that power originates with the individual and that power can never be fully divested from them. The Declaration informed Britain and the rest of the world that the thirteen colonies were dedicated first and foremost to the recognition and preservation of individual liberty. To that end, they proclaimed “to a candid world” that individuals of those colonies have the natural right to a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. In other words, government serves the people and its primary role is, and should be, to protect their rights. Nowhere in our founding documents does it state that government is a permanent fixture. Nowhere does it provide that the government has the right to seeks its longevity or its permanence. Rather, it exists in form and organization just as long as it serves its legitimate ends. The people always have the right – even the duty – to alter or abolish it when it frustrates its purpose.  Jefferson and Madison, along with our other Founders, knew full well that power would corrupt if it was centralized enough in government, then government would eventually limit or even deny rights away to the people. And in many instances, we see that the fears of our Founders have come to fruition.

What I learned from Jefferson is that when it comes to citizenship, it is perhaps more important to represent an idea or an ideal than merely a physical location.

And so I sat inside the rotunda and gazed up for awhile at this under-appreciated Founding Father. I walked around the room and read some of his poignant quotes memorialized on the walls and reflected on their timeless message. Sadly, to some degree, our government has rejected his wisdom.  Then I went outside the rotunda and looked straight across the tidal basin towards the rest of the National Mall. I could easily see the Washington Monument.  And I could also see the White House.  What I couldn’t see was the Lincoln Memorial.  I thought about that for a moment. And then I began to  note its significance.

It’s true that the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial are not visible to one another. I think there is a reason for that, whether or not it was a conscious factor in the Mall’s design. Abraham Lincoln didn’t see eye to eye with Jefferson. In fact, his vision of government was quite different. While the Declaration of Independence clearly provides that individuals can alter or abolish their government, Lincoln adamantly proclaimed that the Union, and by extension the federal government, was to be perpetual. In fact, after he repeatedly ignored and even violated provisions of the Constitution, suspended habeas corpus, imprisoned journalists, publishers, newspaper owners, citizens and seized their property, waged war without a declaration, etc, he sought a resolution from Congress to excuse those violations. Such a resolution was proposed and it read: “For the preservation of the federal government,”…..  Congress would the actions of President Lincoln.  (The resolution was never voted upon because the session of Congress concluded for the year). Lincoln had to ignore the principles laid down in the Declaration if he was to use force to bring the South back into the Union and convince the North that he had the power to do so.

President Lincoln destroyed the notion of limited government and its relationship to the individual, as promised in the Declaration, and our country has never sought to reclaim those ideals. Why?  Because government had become so strong and no one, no state, and certainly no government official had the guts to challenge the creature that the government had become. States have cowered and caved. They have tacitly relinquished their independence and have become subjugated to the design and will of the federal government. Perhaps that is why, when the government designed the National Mall, it put the memorial to Abraham Lincoln at the most prestigious position. Its layout is spectacular; Lincoln sits on high, looking out over a long reflecting pool, to the strongest branch of government – Congress. Lincoln is rewarded and glorified because he is the president who achieved the most in transforming the government into one of great power and influence and coercion over its independent parts (the States). Lincoln, in a sense, destroyed the ideals that inspired our founding generation to fight for their independence.

The Jefferson Memorial directly faces the White House – the home of our President and Chief Executive. The White House does not face the Lincoln Memorial.  Could it be that this lay-out was intended to remind Presidents of Jefferson’s ideals and the principles of government outlined in the Declaration?  Could it be that the president of the United States should forever be reminded that government is not a tool of an ambitious president (as it was for Abraham Lincoln) but rather an institution which serves the people and their interests in life, liberty, and happiness.

Something to think about.

What I can say is that when I listened to Donald Trump’s inaugural address – and particularly the part when he announced: “Every four years we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power….  Today’s ceremony, however, has a very special meaning because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.”  — I couldn’t help but smile and think to myself how Jeffersonian he sounded.

Maybe, at least for the next few years, we can enjoy a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Maybe Trump, in fact, gets it.

inauguration-2017-in-front-of-jefferson-memorial-very-good

SAVE THE REPUBLIC! Rethinking the American Union of States for the Preservation of Republicanism

SECESSION - Separate or Die (head, the federal government, is chopped off)

by Diane Rufino (citing Donald Livingston in his book Rethinking the American Union for the Twenty-First Century), July 26, 2016

The purpose of this article is three-fold:  First, I want to be provocative and get readers thinking.  Second, I wish to educate the reader on our founding principles. And third, I hope to encourage the reader to read the book Rethinking the American Union for the Twenty-First Century, written in part and edited by Donald Livingston, founder and president of the Abbeville Institute.  I enjoyed the book immensely and wanted very much to help get the word out.

I think the best way to encourage one to read the book Rethinking the American Union for the Twenty-First Century is to hook him or her using one of the more thought-provoking themes of the book. And so, this article is composed in great part using selected portions from one of the chapters in that book which I found most interesting – “American Republicanism,” authored by Livingston), with a discussion of nullification, interposition, secession, and federalism by myself.  Credit, of course, goes first and foremost to Professor Livingston.

Article IV of the US Constitution guarantees to every State in the Union “a Republican form of government.”  It is known as the “Guarantee Clause.”  It has not been widely interpreted, but constitutional scholars think it ensures that each State be run as a representative democracy or a dictatorship, preventing any initiative to change a State constitution to provide such.  The Supreme Court has essentially acknowledged that it doesn’t have the slightest idea what it means, has been reluctant to specify exactly what a “republican form of government” means and has left the clause devoid of meaning.  Historically, however, republics have had distinct characteristics, namely that its citizens make the laws they are to live under, that there is a Rule of Law, and that the republic itself be relatively small with respect to population and territory, to ensure that representation is meaningful.

The American system of 1789 was not a republic. It was a federation of republics – each state itself a republic – but the Union itself was not a republic. “A federation of republics is not itself a republic, any more than a federation of country clubs is not in and of itself a country club.” Under the Constitution of 1787, the central government could rule over individuals but only under the powers delegated to it by the sovereign States. All other powers of sovereignty belong to the States, expressly reserved through the Tenth Amendment, by the natural law of sovereignty, and contractually by force of the compact theory characterizing the Constitution. Given this framework, the final safeguard for a truly republican form of government for the people in America was, and could only be, some form of lawful resistance to the concentration of coercion in the federal government, which includes state interposition, nullification, or secession. These remedies are included in the “reserved powers” belonging to the States.

Nullification is a legal theory that holds that a State has the right to nullify, or invalidate, any federal law which that State has deemed unconstitutional. If the authority for the federal government only comes from the highly-contested and debated powers that the States agreed to delegate from their reservoir of sovereign powers, as listed in the Constitution, any federal law, policy, action, or court decision that exceeds such grants of power is “null and void” and lacks enforcement power. Since the federal government will always seek to support and enforce its laws and actions, it must be the States, as the parties to the Constitution and the ones which suffer the usurpation of powers with each unconstitutional action, which must rightfully declare “unconstitutionality” and prevent them from being enforced on a free people. Because the right of nullification is not prohibited by the Constitution (nor is it even addressed), it is reserved by the States under the Tenth Amendment.

Interposition is another claimed right belonging to the States. Interposition is the right of a State to oppose actions of the federal government that the state deems unconstitutional by in order to prevent their enforcement.  The very definition of a tyrannical government is one that imposes unconstitutional actions on its citizens. Tyranny is arbitrary rule. Interposition is the actual action, whether legislative or otherwise, to prevent an unconstitutional federal law or action from being enforced on its people. The most effective remedy against unconstitutional federal action, as emphasized by both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, is nullification together with interposition. Interposition finds its roots in the Supremacy Clause.  While the Constitution and the laws made in pursuance are considered the supreme law of the land, laws (and other actions) not grounded in rightful or legitimate Constitutional powers are not supreme and the States are well within their powers to prevent such usurpation of government power belonging to their sphere of authority.

Secession, like nullification and interposition, is not prohibited by the Constitution (or even addressed), and hence, is a reserved right of the States.

Nullification and interposition were invoked in 1798 by Kentucky and Virginia to identify the Alien & Sedition Acts as unconstitutional and to prevent citizens of those states from being imprisoned essentially for their exercise of free speech and press. Secession was threated in 1815 by Massachusetts after it characterized Jefferson’s embargo against Great Britain and his Louisiana Purchase and then Madison’s War of 1812 as a history of abuses against the North, with an intent to further the interests of the South. All three States’ Rights’ remedies were regularly invoked in the antebellum period, in every section of the Union, to assert State sovereignty and to constrain the central government. As of 1860, the central government was out of debt and imposed no inland taxes. It existed simply off a tariff on imports and land sales. The Supreme Court was tightly constrained in its exercise of judicial review. It challenged the constitutionality of acts of Congress only twice – in Marbury v. Madison (the Judiciary Act of 1789) and the Dred Scott decision (the right of a slave to challenge his status in a non-slave state when brought there by his master). States and localities in almost all States in the North refused to comply with the Fugitive Slave Act (nullification), either by statue or by civil acts of disobedience, and most strikingly, the Wisconsin legislature and the State Supreme Court in 1854 and 1859 outright challenged the constitutionality of the Act (citing coercion of the states and state officials). South Carolina nullified the Tariff of 1828, citing the improper nature of the tariff, changing it from an ordinary tariff (for revenue collection for the government) to a protectionist tariff (to provide direct funding of “improvements” for the North, as well as other enormous benefits), and claiming it was nothing more than a federal scheme to directly enrich the North at the great expense of the South.

Today, it is taught and it is believed that the “checks and balances” in the American system are only those between the president, Congress, and the Supreme Court. We know about the veto procedure, the ratification process for treaties, appointments (including federal court justices) and judicial review (this last check is not in the constitution actually but a creature of the Supreme Court itself!)  The purpose of our Separation of Powers and our series of checks and balances is to prevent the consolidation of power in any one branch of government and any one group of representatives.  But only a very limited number of Americans understand and appreciate that the greatest check on the consolidation of power comes from the unique design feature of our government established by the States and our Founding Fathers in the conventions and debates creating the Constitution – and that is Federalism.  Federalism is idea that real power is shared by the members of the “federation,” which are the States, with the creature they created (the federal government), which is the reservoir of powers expressly delegated to it by the US Constitution.  Federalism is a “sharing” or “division” of power among sovereigns in order to prevent concentration and tyranny.  The idea is that the government, as a sovereign with very limited and expressly delegated powers, and the States, as sovereigns retaining all other powers of government, will jealously guard their sphere of power and will watch, ever-so-vigilantly, the actions of one another.  What more effective check on government power could there be !!  Sovereign versus sovereign, which is what the term “dual sovereignty” refers to.  Or, as I like to refer to this design feature: “Titan versus Titan” (a reference to Greek mythology).  Alexander Hamilton, in a speech to the New York Ratifying Convention on June 17, 1788, explained it this way: “This balance between the National and State governments ought to be dwelt on with peculiar attention, as it is of the utmost importance. It forms a double security to the people. If one encroaches on their rights they will find a powerful protection in the other. Indeed, they will both be prevented from overpassing their constitutional limits by a certain rivalship, which will ever subsist between them.”

Sadly, this most effective check on consolidation of power in DC has been effectively eroded – mainly at the hands of the US Supreme Court.  The checks from the States on central authority in the form of nullification, interposition, and secession have now been ruled out.  And this is just another way of saying that the federal government can define the limits of its own powers. And that is what the American colonists and ratifiers of the Constitution drafted in Philadelphia in 1787 meant by “absolute monarchy.”

Ask yourself this:  Which branch of government ruled out the essential and natural remedies of nullification, interposition, and secession?  The answer is the US Supreme Court, supporting the ambitious plans of the federal government and improperly relying on Marbury v. Madison (1803) and the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution for authority. For a State to treat its decisions with less than full support would bring the full resources of the federal government into its backyard. It’s happened before. Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Rather than interpreting the Constitution, which pretty much is its sole task, the Supreme Court has redefined a new political and government system, one that is quite different from the one entrusted to us by our framers and founders.

When authority taken by the federal government falls outside of the enumerated powers, it makes no sense to ask the federal government to rule on whether the federal government has the power or not. The States, the ones which debated and ratified the Constitution for THEIR benefit, have no umpire on the bench.  As historian Tom Woods points out, if the federal government is allowed to hold a monopoly on determining the extent of its own powers, we have no right to be surprised when it keeps discovering new ones.

So, it is no surprise that the Supreme Court consistently and steadily handed down decision after decision to strip the States’ of their natural remedies against the Titan seeking to subjugate them – the federal government. Again, the Supreme Court is itself a branch of the very government that seeks to benefit from the consolidation of power it wants by weakening the States.  What better way to get the States to calm down and get in line?

Thomas Jefferson was skeptical of the federal judiciary and warned that they had the greatest potential to undermine republican government. In 1823, he wrote: “At the establishment of our Constitutions, the judiciary bodies were supposed to be the most helpless and harmless members of the government. Experience, however, soon showed in what way they were to become the most dangerous; that the insufficiency of the means provided for their removal gave them a freehold and irresponsibility in office; that their decisions, seeming to concern individual suitors only, pass silent and unheeded by the public at large; that these decisions nevertheless become law by precedent, sapping by little and little the foundations of the Constitution and working its change by construction before any one has perceived that that invisible and helpless worm has been busily employed in consuming its substance. In truth, man is not made to be trusted for life if secured against all liability to account.”

If you believe, as most Americans seem to believe (because of government indoctrination), that States no longer have the rights of nullification, interposition, and secession because of the action of one man, a virtual dictator, Abraham Lincoln, then you must reconcile the fact that no State any longer enjoys a republican form of government, as guaranteed in Article IV. That is, they no longer enjoy a republican form of government under any historical understanding of what such a government is nor under the vision of our founders. That notion has now decayed into a legal fiction.

But if the States are not republics, what are they?  Donald Livingston argues that the answer was given by Alexis de Tocqueville in his assessment of the French Revolution. According to de Tocqueville, the French revolution was intended to overturn the monarchy and return power to the people by creating a republic but in reality, it fundamentally changed nothing. The coercive government of the monarchy was simply replaced by a different type of coercive government.  The monopoly over government and land created by Kings (Divine Right of Kings) is a doctrine that embodies two bodies of the king. This duality is symbolized by this famous phrase: “The King is dead! Long live the King!” The first body of the king was the flesh and blood; the mortal body.  The second body was the monopoly, or the artificial corporation, established by birth-right and familial ties. Both bodies are coercive in nature since they are not “of the people” and can never truly represent them. When de Tocqueville said that the French Revolution fundamentally changed nothing, he meant that all that it did was kill the first body of the king. It left the second body of the king intact, merely changing its name from the “Crown” to the “Republic.” The revolution merely replaced the person of the king with a fictitious “nation-person.” In other words, what was created after the French Revolution was an absolute monarchy without the monarch; a regime that had all the major defects of a monarchy but none of the benefits. The post-French Revolution era of “republics” would increase government centralization beyond the wildest dream of any monarch. The German economist, Hans Hoppe, estimates that before the mid-nineteenth century, monarchs, as bad as they might have been, were never able to extract more than 5-8 percent of the gross national product (GNP) from the people, whereas “republics” have been able to exploit over 60 percent.

In his war to prevent Southern independence, Lincoln and the perversely-named “Republican” Party destroyed the two American institutions that had made true republicanism possible in a region on our continental scale – State nullification and secession. Without these rights, there can be no practical check to centralization and oppression of government, and hence, no practical way to ensure that the People of the several States are guaranteed a republican form of government.

Is it possible to have an exceedingly large republic, such as the size of our current-day United States?  British philosopher David Hume once considered the question of a large republic. He proposed the first model of a large republic in his essay “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth,” which was published in 1792.  Hume’s model did not physically seek to divide territory up physically into individual sovereigns but rather to decentralize government power so as to preserve the human scale demanded of republican self-government. The question is whether this can realistically be done.

Hume agrees with the republican tradition that “a small commonwealth is the happiest government in the world within itself.” But Hume’s model of a large republic, in contrast to the historically small republic, would be to order the large republic in such a way as to have all the advantages of a little republic. The question is whether Hume’s model is translatable to the real world: Can the size of a republic be expanded without destroying those values unique to republican government (self-government and the rule of law) that require a human scale.

Hume’s idea of a large republic is something of the size of Great Britain or France. (Remember his essay was written in 1792!)  As a comparison, Great Britain is approximately equivalent in size to Wyoming and France is approximately equivalent in size to Texas. In Hume’s model, the republic is divided into 100 small republics, but with a national capital. Each of these small republics is then divided into 100 parishes. The members of each parish meet annually to elect 1 representative. This yields 100 representatives in each small republic’s legislature. The legislature selects from among its members 10 magistrates to exercise the executive and judicial functions of the republic and 1 senator to represent the republic in the national capital. That yields 100 senators, from among which 10 are chosen to serve as the national executive and judiciary.

Laws would be proposed by the national senate and passed down to the provincial republics or ratification. Each republic has one vote regardless of population, and the majority rules. To free the provincial legislature from having to vote on every trivial law, a bill can be sent instead to the ten provincial magistrates in each republic for ratification.

How does Hume’s large republic compare to the “highly-centralized regime” that the United States has become today?  Hume’s republic has 100 senators in the national capital representing the individual States, as we do. But the legislative body representing the nation of individuals is located in the several capitals of the provincial republics. This provides three essential advantages.  First, it provides a better and more republican ratio of representation to population. Hume’s republic is the size of Britain, which in his time had some 9 million people; yet his regionally dispersed legislature jointly yields 10,000 representatives.  [100 x 100].  By contrast, the United States has 305 million people, which is 34 times as many inhabitants. Its representative body contains not 10,000 representatives but only 435 representatives – a number that Congress capped by law in 1911.  Hume’s large republic provides a ratio of 1 representative for every 900 people, and so it is of a republican scale.  This is very important !!  The United States’ system provides 1 representative for every 700,000 people, which is not even remotely within a republican scale.

And if you are thinking that this unrepublican character of the United States can be remedied by abolishing the law setting the cap at 435 and increasing the number of representatives in the US House, you will need to understand that judging by the size of legislatures around the world, 435 is just about the right size for a lawmaking body. Everything in nature has a proper size for optimum functionality. A cell can only grow to a certain size (a certain volume-to-cell-surface ratio) so that it can absorb nutrients, eliminate waste, and respire most efficiently. A jury of 12 is perfectly suited to determine the facts of a case; a jury of 120 would be dysfunctional.  When the first US Congress met in New York in 1789, there were 65 representatives. There was 1 representative for every 60,000 people. James Madison thought that was an inadequate ratio to adequately represent the people in a republic. When the number of representatives was capped at 435 in 1911, the population in the United States was 93,863,000. That means that there was 1 representative for every 215,777 inhabitants. If we were to use the same ratio that was used in 1789 – 1: 60,000 – there would be over 5,000 members in the House of Representatives. This would be impossibly large for a lawmaking body. Size does matter.

So, if the number of representatives in Washington DC cannot be increased as the population increases, then we have clearly reached the point where talk of republican self-government is utterly meaningless.  We are merely a republican in name only. In the not too distant future, the population of the United States will reach 435 million. This would yield one representative for every million persons.  Who could honestly believe a regime under this system could be described as a republic?

The point is that a country can literally become too large for self-government.  It becomes unresponsive to the people because its representatives cannot possibly represent the interests of all its constituents.

If the United States has indeed reached the point of political obesity, then the only remedy would be to downsize. The United States will need to be downsized either through peaceful secession movements or through a division into a number of federative units forming a voluntary commonwealth of American federations – an idea that Thomas Jefferson was fond of.

For the moment, let’s put peaceful secession aside (which would divide the Union into distinct territorial jurisdictions or would create individual, independent sovereigns).  Suppose that the United States adopts such a model as Hume’s large republic. This would require abolishing the House of Representatives in Washington DC (Yay!) and transforming the State legislatures into a joint national legislature. The Senate would propose legislation to be ratified by a majority of the States, each State having one vote.

Consider trying to enact the unpopular legislation passed in 2009 and then 2010 under such a model. Of course, I’m referring to the Bailout bills and the stimulus packages of 2009 and then the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (or grossly referred to simply as the “Affordable Care Act’; or aptly named “Obamacare”) of 2010. A strong majority of Americans opposed the bailouts for the monster banks whose corrupt and inept policies caused the financial meltdown in 2009, the economic stimulus packages that they knew wouldn’t work, and Barack Obama’s healthcare plan of some two thousand pages, rushed through after secret meetings and secret deals and with publicly-acknowledged privileges given to some states and not others, and admissions by its leading supporters (Democrats) that they hadn’t even read it.  To this should be added that many believe that Congress has no constitutional authority to bailout businesses, let alone arbitrarily choosing which ones to provide federal aid, nor to impose a national healthcare plan, regardless whether it is good or not and whether or not it would help certain citizens out. Now, had these bills been sent down to the State legislatures for debate and ratification, as required by Hume’s large republic model, their defeat would have been so certain that they probably would never have even been proposed in the first place.

The second advantage presented by Hume’s model is that by dispersing the national legislature among the provincial republics (the smaller republics), he has eliminated the corruption that inevitably comes from putting the House of Representatives and the Senate in the same place. The number of representatives in Washington is 435 in the House, and 100 in the Senate– for a grand total of 535 lawmakers. A majority of this number is only 269. This small number rules 305 million people. And the majority can be even less, since both houses can lawfully operate, and they often do, with a mere quorum. A quorum majority of both houses of Congress is only 135 !!

Consider also that the US Supreme Court, centered in DC, a branch of the federal government, with justices who are appointed according to political and ideological lines – and not for proven understanding and adherence to the Constitution – has usurped the traditional “police powers” of the States, which it exercises for the health, safety (including law enforcement), welfare, education, religion, and morality of its citizens. The police powers exercised by each individual State for the benefit of its own people is the very essence of republican life. Nine unelected Supreme Court justices with life tenure – by only a vote of 5-to-4 – make major social policy for 305 million people. Political issues that are reserved to the States, such as abortion, marriage, and voter integrity laws, have been taken out of the policy arena and magically transformed into “constitutional rights.” This means, in effect, that the Court can rewrite the Constitution at will, entirely by-passing the process specifically provided for in Article V (ratification of any alteration/amendment of the Constitution by a ratification by three-fourths of the States).  Again, to think that five members of a high court can usurp lawmaking authority from the legislature (popularly-elected), can usurp powers from the States, and can transform the meaning and intent of the Constitution from the bench rather than the lawful process specifically put in place for the People themselves to define the limits of their government and we are still a republic is ludicrous.

Dispersing the legislatures among provinces would not necessarily get rid of government corruption, which is one of the biggest problems with a consolidated government. However, it would not exist on the same scale and of the same intensity that we see in DC today. Hume’s national legislature sits jointly in the 100 provincial capitals.  That means that a lobbying interest must deploy a much greater number of lobbyists and over greater distances. In addition, it would be much more difficult for representatives to coordinate with each other to buy and sell votes, as is routinely done in Congress today. With such a large republic, representatives would be more cautious and frugal in spending taxpayer money. After all, the 10,000 dispersed representatives who live in the same neighborhood with their constituents would have to look them in the eye and would have to answer to them.

Third, Hume provides a number of checks to prevent a faction from dominating the whole. If the senate rejects a proposed law, only 10 senators out of 100 are needed to veto that decision and forward the bill to the republics for consideration. Laws thought to be trivial can be sent from the senate to the ten magistrates of the republic for ratification instead of calling on the whole legislature. But only 5 out of 100 provincial representatives are needed to veto this and call for a vote of their legislature. Each (small) republic can veto legislation of another republic and force a vote on the matter by all the republics.

Should the United States be divided up into provincial republics – into a “federation of republics” – in order to provide a true republican form of government to its people?  Thomas Jefferson thought so.  George Kennan, esteemed historian and American diplomat (crafted the US policy of containment with respect to the Soviet Union) also thought so. In his autobiography, Around the Cragged Hill, Kennan argued that the United States has become simply too large for the purposes of self-government. As he argued, the central government can rule 305 million people only by imposing one-size-fits-all rules that necessarily result in a “diminished sensitivity of its laws and regulations to the particular needs, traditions, ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and the like of individual localities and communities.”  Kennan passed away in 2005.  That the lives, property, income, and fortunes of 305 million Americans should be the playthings of an oligarchy in Washington that can act by a majority in Congress of only 269 (and 135 if acting by a quorum) and that the essence of republican life – religion, morals, education, marriage, voting rights, law enforcement, and social welfare – should be decided by nine unelected Supreme Court justices is something no free, liberty-minded people should tolerate.

Of course, there is the other option – secession and the formation of individual republics, not held together in federation form. It is said that secession should and must be ruled out because it causes war and it will necessarily involve bloodshed.  But that is not necessarily true. Of course it will depend on the ambitions of the administration in Washington DC, in particular, the president.  We would hope that we should never again suffer the likes of another Abraham Lincoln. But there are many examples of states that have seceded peacefully, including a number of Baltic states from the former Soviet Union. Norway peacefully seceded from Sweden in 1905 and Singapore did so from the Malaysian federation in 1965.  Eventually, if things don’t change and freedom’s flame is close to being extinguished, secession may be the remedy to save the American experiment. Additionally, it may be the only way to save the US Constitution – by putting it in the hands of a people who will take care of it and be much more vigilante with its limited powers and its checks and balances than Americans have been.  When 11 Southern States seceded from the Union in 1860-61 and formed the Confederate States of the American, they, as a Union, established a new constitution. This would be the third constitution that Americans made for themselves, and in most respects, it was far superior to the one of 1787 – they backed out of.  It included several provisions which would have made it much more difficult for the central government to concentrate and usurp power. Had Lincoln respected the States’ right of self-determination (as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence), we would have had the unique opportunity to compare, side-by-side, how each Union of States (North or South) fared under their constitutions.  The point is that secession gave the People (acting in State conventions) the opportunity to correct the defects in the Constitution that caused them to be oppressed by government. The question will be: when that time comes (and maybe it is already here), will we have the Will to Secede!!  Already, between 19-34% of Americans (ranked by State), now believe we would be better if States peacefully left the Union.

Donald Livingston closes his discussion of “American Republicanism” with this summary: “When a healthy cell grows too large, it divides into two cells. It is the cancerous cell that no longer knows how to stop growing. That artificial corporation, created by the individual States over two centuries ago, called the “United States” has, over time, metastasized into a cancerous growth on a federation of continental scale, sucking republican vitality out of States and local communities. The natural chemotherapy for this peculiar condition is and can only be some revived form of State interposition, nullification, or secession. If these are rejected out of hand as heresies (as our nationalist historians have taught since the late nineteenth century), then we can no longer, in good faith, describe ourselves as enjoying a republican style of government.

American secession

 

Again, I encourage everyone to read the entire book – Rethinking the American Union for the Twenty-First Century.  Aside from Donald Livingston, accomplished authors and academics Kent Masterson Brown, Dr. Thomas DiLorenzo, Dr. Marshall DeRosa, Yuri Maltsev, and Rob Williams also contributed chapters.

 

References:

Donald Livingston, ed., Rethinking the American Union for the Twenty-First Century, Pelican Publishing Company, 2013.

Poll:  One in Four of Americans Want Their State to Secede, but Why?  –   http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines/2014/09/19/one-in-four-americans-want-their-state-to-secede-from-the-u-s-but-why/

Poll: A Quarter of Americans Want Their State to Secede –   http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/poll-seccession

Poll:  One in Four of Americans Want Their State to Secede –   http://dailycaller.com/2014/09/19/poll-one-in-four-americans-want-their-state-to-secede/

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Compact Theory: Security for American Liberty

CONSTITUTION - void

by Diane Rufino, July 18, 2016

A contract is a promise, or set of promises, between willing parties. The law of contracts is a body of law as old as the Anglo-American division of law and equity. When a contract is breached, law and equity provide remedies. In fact, the definition of contract includes the phrase “for the breach of which the law gives a remedy.”  Court of law provide monetary remedies for breach while courts of equity provide unique remedies designed to relieve the aggrieved party when monetary awards are inadequate, such as forcing performance by the defaulting party.  [This is where we get the words in Article III. Section 2, of the US Constitution: “The judicial power of the United States shall extend to all cases, in Law and Equity.”]  Synonymous with the term “contract” are “agreement” and “compact.”  Throughout Anglo-American history, people have organized their government through compacts or “social compacts.” The philosopher, John Locke, who our Founders leaned most heavily in founding our country and drafting our foundational documents, explained that individuals, when organized in societies, form their government by way of social compact.

Historical Anglo-American jurisprudence provided a party aggrieved by a breach of contract certain choices by law:  First, he could choose to proceed to a court of law and seek damages for the loss of money in reliance upon the contract being fulfilled. In such a court, the aggrieved party would seek from the party in breach such sums as would place him in as good a position as he would have been had the contract been fully performed.  Alternatively, a court of equity could enforce the contract for the aggrieved party by ordering “specific performance” by the defaulting party – that is, the court would force the party to fulfil his obligations under the contract. Finally, Anglo-American equity jurisprudence provided for another remedy for breach of contract – “rescission,” or the annulment of the contract. Since the end of the eighteenth century in England, rescission has often been used as a remedy in conjunction with “restitution.” The aggrieved party would ask the court to annul the contract and, at the same time, ask that he be made whole for his own performance, thereby placing him in the same position he occupied before he entered into the contract.

For a States to claim the right of secession from the Union, the Constitution must be construed to be an agreement created by the States as parties.

Unquestionably, the Constitution was created as a social compact. It had all the requisites of a contract. There were parties: thirteen States, to which were added those that similarly ratified the document in the years after 1781. There was mutuality: each State promised to give up some of its sovereignty in exchange for what the Union promised to deliver – for receiving a “common defense” and some regulation of commerce between the States where it was necessary to ensure free trade. The Constitution was created by the States and ratified by the States, each acting in Convention. It could only be amended by and between the States. And if there was any doubt about the fact that the Constitution was an agreement entered into by and between the States, Article VII states: “The ratification of the conventions of nine States shall be sufficient for the establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the same.”  If, then, the Constitution is a compact, what is the remedy for a State or a group of States harmed by a breach of the Constitution by the federal government or other States? [Under Agency law, the “agent” (government) would be fired].  The only remedy, short of persuading the party or parties in breach to conform, is the equitable remedy of rescission.

As most people already know, several states posed obstacles to the adoption of the US Constitution and the formation of the new Union. The states of Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island proved to be battleground states.  Ratification by the State of Virginia was made possible only so long as the people of Virginia expressly and specifically retained the right of rescission. The Virginia resolution of ratification of June 26, 1788 read, in part: “We, the delegates of the people of Virginia do, in the name and on behalf of the people of Virginia, declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United States, may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression.”  The vote in favor of adoption was narrow, 89-79.  Virginia was only able to obtain this vote by linking ratification to amendments to be added for a Bill of Rights, which they recommended.

In New York, the battle was just as fierce. Like Virginia, the resolution of ratification was made expressly subject to its peoples’ right of rescission. It read, in part: “We, the delegates of the people of the State of New York do declare and make known that the powers of government may be reassumed by the people whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness.”  The vote in favor of adoption was 30-27. Also following Virginia’s lead, the delegates to the NY Ratifying Convention then presented a veritable catalogue of rights that they believed should be added to the Constitution by way of amendment (a Bill of Rights).

North Carolina and Rhode Island were particularly skeptical. They didn’t ratify the Constitution until after George Washington was already sworn in as the first president of the United States in 1789. They waited until the first US Congress presented a Bill of Rights, as the States has demanded. North Carolina finally ratified the Constitution on November 21, 1789 and Rhode Island ratified on May 29, 1790 (after refusing to consider ratification and joining the Union seven times!!).  Like Virginia and New York, Rhode Island adopted the Constitution subject to an express right to resume their delegated powers. It’s Resumption Clause read, in pertinent part:

      We the delegates of the people of the state of Rhode Island and Province Plantations, duly elected and met in Convention, do declare and make known

     I.  That there are certain natural rights of which men, when they form a social compact, cannot deprive or divest their posterity – among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety…..

   III.  That the powers of government may be reassumed by the people whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness.

Because the adoption of the Constitution by Virginia, New York, and Rhode Island was accepted including their Resumption Clauses, those stipulations became part of the agreement or compact, thereby providing the same benefit to all the States of the Union.

The framers and ratifiers of the Constitution unquestionably understood the Constitution to be a “compact.” The voluminous records documenting the debates of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia of 1787 and the State Ratifying Conventions are replete with references to the Constitution as a “compact.” The Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Essays use the same language, arguing for and against the ratification of the Constitution, respectively.  Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the authors of our most important foundational documents, referred to the Constitution as such in their Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799 and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, respectively and the Southern States, in their Ordinances of Secession did likewise. When Massachusetts attempted to secede from the Union in 1814-1815, it also referred to the Constitution as a compact from which it retained the right to rescind. James Madison declared long after the ratification of the Constitution that “Our governmental system is established by a compact, not between the Government of the United States and the State governments, but between the States as sovereign communities, stipulating each with the other a surrender of certain portions of their respective authorities to be exercised by a common government, and a reservation, for their own exercise, of all their other authorities.”

If the Constitution is a compact, and it could be rescinded or annulled upon a breach, what would be sufficient to constitute a breach?  Whatever would constitute a breach is left wholly to the States seeking the extraordinary remedy of rescission. Obviously, in the words of James Madison’s 1800 Report on the Virginia Resolutions of 1798, the offensive act would have to be “a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of power not granted by the compact.”

While the governments of monarchs and dictators that ravaged Europe for centuries were based on the “universal law” that governments are not created by instruments that provide a mechanism for their own dissolution, the American government system flips that system on its head. The Declaration of Independence, embracing Natural Law and rejecting the Divine Right of Kings, proclaims that governments are only temporary in nature and are instituted among the People, by the People, and for the People for the primary purposes of securing their inalienable rights and for effecting their happiness. “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”  The Constitution, drafted to embrace the principles proclaimed in the Declaration, is therefore a revolutionary document. It is a revolutionary instrument created by a revolutionary people at the end of a successful revolution fought to end the rule of a monarch on the American States and the American people and to guarantee fundamental liberties to all citizens. The government created by the Constitution is worth keeping only so long as it serves this end. Sadly, this fundamental understanding of the formation of the Union was completely lost on Lincoln (or he was willfully and ambitiously blind to this understanding). The War of 1861 and the lies perpetrated on the country by the “victors” (because the victors have the luxury of telling the story and vilifying the conquered) have obscured the truth of our Constitution and our history. The transformation of our country from a republic to one oppressed by an over-zealous central government in the consequence of these lies.

The Constitution’s text and history before the Civil War did NOT change as a result of the surrender at Appomattox. Contracts do not textually change by the use of brute force; contracts change ONLY by the agreement of the parties. The Constitution was still a “constitution between the States” after the war as it was before. It remains so now.

If the government created by the Constitution ceases to guarantee liberty, there must be a remedy available to those oppressed by it. It is not the courts; the citizens may not even have standing to challenge the actions of the federal government, and moreover, the courts are creatures of the very government that would be the oppressor. To be sure, courts are not competent to even address constitutional challenges to acts of Congress that allege that those acts undermine the liberties of citizens and invade the powers reserved to the States. Resorting to the ballot may be ineffectual; the votes of a few metropolitan areas may negate the votes of all other regions. More than that, fundamental liberties should never be subject vote. What remains to protect individual liberties are the States as parties to the Constitution. As parties, they must exercise their “duty” to protect their citizens from a federal government that has grown too powerful, too intrusive, too dictatorial. They do that by exercising the right that parties to agreements have exercised for literally hundreds of years: to stand up to actions that invade the liberties of citizens and the reserved powers of the States by, first, nullifying the unconstitutional acts and then, if the federal government persists, seceding. The framers and ratifiers would not have thought any differently. After all, although they were revolutionaries who created a revolutionary form of government, they were also the inheritors of an Anglo-American legal tradition that had been developed over hundreds of years, which defined contracts and remedies available to those injured by the breach thereof.

SECESSION - individual states.jpg

The conflicts that divide Americans today are certainly as profound as those in other periods of our history, including those that compelled the Colonies to separate from Great Britain, those that troubled Massachusetts in 1815, and those that troubled the Southern States from 1828 to 1860.  The numerous laws, voluminous regulations, and many illegitimate rulings by the Supreme Court have abused and usurped our rights and liberties and have, in effect, evidenced the design by the federal government to consolidate us into a one-size-fits all nation untethered to the States which used to be obligated to protect us. The reasons for the Constitution have been frustrated and now forgotten. Clearly, the grounds to rescind the compact are legitimate and numerous.

In the history of the world, principles have always been more important than geographical boundaries.  We have to ask ourselves what our alternatives are in order to preserve our traditional American principles. If we continue to believe they are being subverted and eroded, and if we continue to believe that our rights, our freedoms, and our liberty are being threatened and violated, then we have to ask ourselves what our rightful remedies are.

 

References:

Donald Livingston, ed. “Rethinking the American Union for the 21st Century,” Pelican Publishing Company, 2013.

Kent Masterson Brown, “Secession: A Constitutional Remedy,” in “Rethinking the American Union for the 21st Century,” Pelican Publishing Company, 2013.

Thomas DiLorenzo, “The Founding Fathers of Constitutional Subversion,” in “Rethinking the American Union for the 21st Century,” Pelican Publishing Company, 2013.

INDEPENDENCE DAY: The Story of Us

4th of JULY - red, white, and blue wall

by Diane Rufino, July 4, 2016

Independence Day – What it really means….

What does Independence Day – the 4th of July – mean to you?  Is it just a holiday to eat, drink, and light off fireworks?  Do you display and wave the flag of the United States out of habit – because everyone else on the block does it?  Do you cover your table with a plastic tablecloth of stars and stripes and decorate your yard with red, white, and blue because that’s what Target and Walmart remind you to do with its holiday displays and sales?   Do you actually understand what the 4th of July signifies?  Did you sleep through that lesson in American History Class? Was it even taught to you at all?

I just hope you aren’t one of those Americans who doesn’t think it matters.

When I was very young, I thought Independence Day marked the day when the 13 colonies defeated the British for our independence.  Then in middle school, I learned that it marked the date the Declaration of Independence was signed.  That was the extent of my understanding until I did my own reading.  Soon I learned that not only was the Declaration of Independence signed on July 4, 1776, but that it was an act of treason against the British Crown. It was an act of treason because while the colonies were fighting for their independence, the British were fighting to quash their rebellious nature for good. Rebellion against the Crown was high treason and it would not be tolerated.

But it wasn’t until I graduated law school that I was finally able to appreciate the real significance of the Declaration of Independence.  Simply put, as its author Thomas Jefferson explained: “The Declaration of Independence… is the declaratory charter of our rights, and of the rights of man.”  And in that magnificent document, Jefferson has laid out the natural order of our rights and the natural purpose and limits of government.

The document was almost forced on the colonies by history’s happenstance. It began with the colonies’ restlessness in the wake of an over-zealous King and Parliament which first sought to extract tax revenue from them (without representation) and then to oppress and subjugate them as a means of punishment. They were punished for daring to stand up for their rights as Englishmen, as Englishmen had done for over 500 years of their history.  Indeed, the history of England has been a history of repeated attempts, first by the barons and then by all subjects, to assert basic human rights and to demand from the King a promise (a charter) that he will respect such. Some of the attempts were successful and some only temporary, but all of England’s notable charters were signed and limited the reach of the King and Parliament, even if only for a very short time.

Some of these charters and other significant documents include: The Charter of Liberties of King Henry I (1100), the Magna Carta (1215), the Petition of Right (1628), the Grand Remonstrance (1641), and the English Bill of Right of 1689.  This history is critical for the foundation for our country because all total, these documents establish the notion that government must respect boundaries on the individual, acknowledging that they have certain essential rights and liberties.  The rights and liberties asserted and re-asserted in these documents are the “rights of Englishmen” that the colonists most eagerly embraced and were most eager to protect.

Author Brion McClanahan explains the significance of England’s grand history in his article Rethinking the Declaration of Independence: “In 1100, King Henry I of England agreed to restrictions on his power through the Charter of Liberties. The English barons rejected absolute authority and sought to preserve traditional decentralized “government.” Just over one hundred years later, in 1215, King John was forced again by the English nobles to sign the Magna Charta. The “Great Charter,” as it is known in English, declared that the king was not above the law – making him essentially equal to the nobles – and it resisted the trend toward centralization in England. Though on the books, the Magna Charta was often ignored by more powerful English monarchs, but several of its provisions became the basis of English common law, most notably the writ of habeas corpus.” (See the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679).

In October 1214, King John returned to England in disgrace. His mission to reconquer his lost territory in northern France had failed and other military campaigns were unsuccessful as well. He taxed England’s barons heavily to finance these campaigns and they were not happy.  Upon his return, he found that a group of angry barons from across the country had formed an association and were prepared renounce him as king. Over the next eight months, they made repeated demands to the King, requesting that he give them a guarantee that he would observe their rights. But the negotiations amounted to nothing. And so, on May 5 of that year, the barons gathered and agreed to declare war on King John. On May 17, 1215 they captured London, the largest town in England, without a fight.  With London lost and ever more supporters flocking to the side of the barons, the King John realized he would have to address their concerns.

On June 8, he notified the barons of his willingness to negotiate. Over the next few days, the barons assembled in great numbers at Runnymede, a relatively obscure meadow just a few miles from Windsor castle, where King John was based. They arrived to repeat their demands and negotiate peace terms. On June 15, the barons presented their terms to the King and he signed the great document – The Great Charter (“Magna Carta”).

In Chapter 39 of Magna Carta, one of the document’s most important clauses, King John made the following promise:  “No freeman shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”

Here, it was agreed that the Crown and his administration would not arrest, outlaw, banish, or incarcerate any free man, deprive him of his rights, possessions or legal standing, or otherwise take official and forceful action against him, except in accordance with the lawful judgement of his equals or in accordance with the laws of the Kingdom. This was, in embryonic form, the principle of due process of law: The government shall not deprive any person subject to its jurisdiction of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. The Magna Carta provided that justice was to be guaranteed to every person in the Kingdom, that the right of justice would not be sold, delayed, or denied to any person. Thus, this critical, historic document provided that every freeman — i.e., every Englishmen who was not a serf — was to enjoy security and protection from illegal interference by the King (ie, government) in his person and property.   [See Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr. (Professor of Political Science), “The American System of Government….”]   The terms listed in the Magna Carta would later be referred to as “the ancient rights and liberties of Englishmen” in the English Bill of Rights of 1689.

King John, in giving his consent to Magna Carta, agreed that: (1) the Monarch was subject to the law of the Kingdom and (2) the law placed limits on royal authority. This reflected an early stage in the development of the central idea of English and American constitutionalism — the idea that the ruler was not above the law and therefore had to abide by the law and stay within the limits the law imposed on his power.  [See Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.]

Under Magna Carta, the King still governed England, but he had to share with the barons one important sphere of political authority — the power of taxation. All royal requests for extraordinary taxes had to be submitted to the Common Council for its consideration and decision. When it came to the King’s raising revenue by means other than collecting the feudal fees and aids in amounts due him by customary right, he had to share with the barons, the largest and most powerful bloc in the Common Council, the authority to make binding decisions. The requirement, stipulated in Magna Carta, that the King submit proposals for extraordinary taxation to an assembly of his leading subjects — the barons and the Church officers of high rank — was one small but significant step on the long road to firmly establishing as a constitutional guarantee, truly binding on the Monarch and all other officers of the government, the age old principle of English government that no subject could be taxed without his consent, given by the subject directly in person or indirectly through elected representatives in a legislative assembly.   [See Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.].

When Britain began taxing the colonies without allowing them representation in Parliament, particularly with the Stamp Tax, the colonists asserted this basic right from the Magna Carta in their protest slogan “No taxation without representation.”  The phrase actually originated with Massachusetts attorney James Otis about 1761, who proclaimed: “Taxation without representation is tyranny!”

After the Magna Carta, the Petition of Right of 1628, which was written by Parliament, was presented to King Charles I to re-assert the civil liberties of his subjects.  The Petition contained four main points: (1) No taxes could be levied without Parliament’s consent; (2) No English subject could be imprisoned without cause–thus reinforcing the right of habeas corpus; (3) No quartering of soldiers in citizens’ homes; and (4) No martial law may be used in peacetime. Each of these four points enumerated specific civil rights that Englishmen felt Charles I had breached throughout his reign. Although he’d never been that popular as the monarch, his abuse of power against the people escalated to an intolerable level after Parliament refused to increase taxation and finance his unpopular foreign policies. The purpose of the Petition was to seek redress for the serious grievances Charles had committed.

When Charles showed no sign of repenting, Parliament drafted an extensive list of grievances which it presented to him on December 1, 1641. The grievances included 204 instances of gross abuses of the King’s power and usurpations of the rights of the people.  Preceding this list of grievances were the following significant paragraphs:

For the preventing of those miserable effects which such malicious endeavours may produce, we have thought good to declare the root and the growth of these mischievous designs: the maturity and ripeness to which they have attained before the beginning of the Parliament: the effectual means which have been used for the extirpation of those dangerous evils, and the progress which hath therein been made by His Majesty’s goodness and the wisdom of the Parliament: the ways of obstruction and opposition by which that progress hath been interrupted: the courses to be taken for the removing those obstacles, and for the accomplishing of our most dutiful and faithful intentions and endeavours of restoring and establishing the ancient honour, greatness and security of this Crown and nation.

The root of all this mischief we find to be a malignant and pernicious design of subverting the fundamental laws and principles of government, upon which the religion and justice of this kingdom are firmly established.

The Grand Remonstrance would help precipitate a civil war in England and eventually lead Parliament to file official charges of high treason against Charles I.  He would be tried, convicted, and executed (beheaded) in 1649. His son Charles II was exiled and his other son James II was able to escape to France dressed as a girl.

When England erupted in this civil war, the Parliament asserted its authority and suspended the reign of the Monarch, and by 1688 had become the driving force behind English law and policy. From 1649 to 1660, England became a republic. At first it was ruled by Parliament, but in 1653, Oliver Cromwell, commander of the army, became Lord Protector of England and served until he died (1658; his son took over briefly). Eventually the blood line of Charles I was restored in 1660 first with Charles II (who sat on the throne at the time of the plague and the great fire of London) and then in 1665, with James II. He was terribly unpopular, and in fact, was widely hated by the people. Not only did he force his Roman Catholic faith on the British people, but he willingly allowed the persecution of Protestants. He was forced to give up the crown in the Glorious Revolution (the “Bloodless Revolution”) of 1688.

When King James II was expelled from England in 1688, Parliament invited King William III of Orange and his wife Mary II (daughter of James II), of the Netherlands, to assume the throne.  Parliament promised no resistance. The only requirement was that they sign the English Bill of Rights that Parliament had drawn up on behalf the people. It condemned James II for violating the rights of Englishmen, which the Parliament called the “laws and liberties of this kingdom,” and placed restrictions on the powers of the monarch. William and Mary “gladly accepted what was offered them” and signed the English Bill of Rights.

Those from England who settled the colonies, particularly Massachusetts, seeking freedom from religious persecution (Puritans and Pilgrims) and others, brought this history – and these rights – with them. After all, they were still Englishmen; they were living on a continent claimed by England and establishing settlements and communities pursuant to land patents issued by the King.

But the bond of affection would seem to be one-way only.  While the colonists sought to live as loyal subjects to the Crown, enjoying the same the rights and liberties as the citizens of England, England sought to exploit the colonies for raw materials, trade, and taxes.  For several years, things were good. No complaints.  But just as the British colonies were growing and expanding, there were French colonies growing and expanding as well – in the frontier region west of Virginia up to Canada. They were mainly fur-trappers. Eventually, Britain felt its American colonies and interests were being threatened and the two empires went to war. It lasted seven years (the French-Indian War, aka, the Seven Years War, 1754–1763), and eventually, the French were expelled and England secured greater territory. Believing the war was primarily for the benefit of the safety and security of the colonies, Parliament enacted a series of taxes on the colonies to recoup the money it had spent. [Note that around 1750, the plantations were established and against the wishes of the colonies, Britain pushed the slave trade on them to ensure that raw materials such as sugar, tobacco, indigo, cotton, and rice were produced plentifully and productively and shipped to England]

Accordingly, Parliament enacted the following taxes:  The Navigation Acts (1651, 1660, and 1663; duties on tobacco and molasses, to name a few), the Plantation Duty Act (1673; a duty on plantations), the Sugar Act (1764; a duty or tax on sugar), the Stamp Act (1765; a tax on all documents, including legal documents, calendars, cards, etc), and the Townshend Acts (1767; duties on items imported by the colonists, including glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea).  The colonists were outraged.  They weren’t outraged at the taxes themselves, but rather by the violation of their essential right to have representation in the legislative body that passes such tax measures.  “No Taxation Without Representation!”  They compared the current king, King George III, to Charles I for indiscriminately taxing the colonies without their consent. The Sons of Liberty organized at this time – originating in Massachusetts and New York and eventually having a presence in all thirteen colonies – and they were extremely effective at protesting these taxes and frustrating their enforcement.

Protests heightened with the passage of the Tea Act in 1673. The Tea Act allowed the British East India Company, which had a surplus of tea, to have a monopoly on import tea to the colonies. In passing this act, Parliament actually thought it was doing a favor to the colonies by providing tea at a reduced price (due to the surplus).  In fact, the cost of the tea, together with the new tax (“a mere 3 pence”), would be lower than the cost of the tea provided by other sources.  But Parliament didn’t get it.  The colonists didn’t think government had the right to force a monopoly on them and interfere with the trade of colonial tea merchants. Colonial merchants couldn’t compete with the less-expensive tea that the East India Tea Company provided so abundantly. And so, the colonists once again took matters in their own hands. In Pennsylvania and New York, colonists did not allow British tea ships to enter the large city ports. They sent ships out into the harbors to block the tea ships.  In Boston, they had a “party.”  On that evening of December 16, 1773, approximately 100 “radicals,” members of a secret organization of American Patriots called the Sons of Liberty, dressed up as Mohawk Indians, boarded three East India Company ships, broke open all 342 wooden chests of tea, and dumped them into the Boston Harbor.  The value of the tea destroyed, in today’s market, would amount to about $1 million.

Well, that particular act of protest was the one that the broke the camel’s back. At first King George III didn’t seem too perturbed at the incident, but soon, the tide of British public opinion would grow against the colonists, whom they regarded as rebellious and childish, and that rising sentiment would force Parliament and King George to punish the citizens of Boston for their recalcitrance. Parliament would no longer tolerate disobedience; the colonies’ “rebellious spirit” would finally have to be addressed and they would have be made to obey British laws. Parliament would no longer be soft when it came to obeying British laws. It would show the colonies what happens to those who happen to have a “rebellious spirit” and are disobedient, and in doing so, reinforce upon them the need to obey its laws.  What followed would be a series of laws called the “Coercive Acts” (also referred to as the “Intolerable Acts”).

On March 28, 1774, in response to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passed four acts which together became known as the Coercive Acts. These individual acts included: (1) The Boston Port Act, which closed the port of Boston until damages from the Boston Tea Party were paid (no ship carrying colonial goods could enter or leave Boston Harbor until the Massachusetts Colony paid for all the tea that was destroyed);  (2) The Massachusetts Government Act, which effectively revoked Massachusetts Charter of the Province of Massachusetts Bay (1691), its colonial charter, prohibited democratic town meetings, and turned the royal governor’s council into an appointed body with wide-ranging powers (in other words, shifting government authority from Massachusetts colony to the royal governor);  (3) The Administration of Justice Act, which made British officials immune to criminal prosecution in Massachusetts; and  (4) The Quartering Act, which required colonists to house and quarter British troops on demand, including in their private homes as a last resort.

Indeed, the situation was intolerable. Parliament ordered the Royal Navy to blockade the Boston Harbor, preventing ships from entering and bringing in goods and supplies and blocking colonial merchant ships from leaving and selling their goods.  By fiat, the basic structure of colonial government was altered. England was now governing the colony. To add insult to injury, King George appointed General Thomas Gage, who had served as the head of the British Army in North America, as the new Governor of Massachusetts, and he brought troops with him.  On May 13, General Gage arrived in Boston with four regiments of troops. Aside from the fact that the colonists felt stripped them of their previously enjoyed rights, perhaps more unnerving was the presence of four thousand British soldiers in Boston. Under the Quartering Act, there would be guaranteed residence for the British Army and the citizens of Massachusetts would be required to quarter them, if necessary (otherwise they would have to remain on ships).  The Quartering Act required the colonies to house British soldiers in barracks provided by the colonies. If the barracks were too small to house all the soldiers, then localities were to accommodate the soldiers in local inns, stables, ale houses, and houses of sellers of wine. Should there still be soldiers without accommodation after all such public houses were filled, the colonies were then required to take, hire and make fit for the reception of his Majesty’s forces, such and so many uninhabited houses, outhouses, barns, or other buildings as shall be necessary.  Finally, British officials could abuse these acts and be free from prosecution in the colony.

In response, provincial militias started to gather munitions and store them in the countryside out of reach of the British regulars.

On May 26, Parliament dissolved Virginia’s colonial government – its Virginia House of Burgesses.  And on September 1, General Gage seized the Massachusetts Colony’s arsenal at Charlestown, located just across the Charles River from Boston – near Bunker Hill.

On Benjamin Franklin’s advice, the colonies decided to meet in a common body to address Britain’s treatment of the colonies, in particular the blockade of Boston Harbor and the Intolerable Acts on the Province of Massachusetts.  And so, on September 5, the First Continental Congress met with 56 delegates in Carpenters Hall in Philadelphia. Twelve out of the thirteen colonies sent delegates (Georgia did not send any). The Continental Congress, which would meet on two separate occasions, became the governing body of the “united” colonies during the time leading up to and then during the American Revolution.

On October 14, the First Continental Congress adopted a Declaration and Resolves against the blockade, the Coercive Acts, the Quartering of troops, and other objectionable British actions. These resolutions listed a series of grievances against Parliament (where have we seen that response before?) and appealed to the King to intercede on behalf of the colonies for proper respect for their rights as Englishmen. The Declaration and Resolves began as follows:

The good people of the several colonies of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts-Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Newcastle, Kent, and Sussex on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North- Carolina and South-Carolina, justly alarmed at these arbitrary proceedings of parliament and administration, have severally elected, constituted, and appointed deputies to meet, and sit in general Congress, in the city of Philadelphia, in order to obtain such establishment, as that their religion, laws, and liberties, may not be subverted: Whereupon the deputies so appointed being now assembled, in a full and free representation of these colonies, taking into their most serious consideration, the best means of attaining the ends aforesaid, do, in the first place, as Englishmen, their ancestors in like cases have usually done, for asserting and vindicating their rights and liberties, DECLARE,

That the inhabitants of the English colonies in North-America, by the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts, have the following RIGHTS:

Resolved, N.C.D. 1. That they are entitled to life, liberty and property: and they have never ceded to any foreign power whatever, a right to dispose of either without their consent.

Resolved, N.C.D. 2. That our ancestors, who first settled these colonies, were at the time of their emigration from the mother country, entitled to all the rights, liberties, and immunities of free and natural- born subjects, within the realm of England.

Resolved, N.C.D. 3. That by such emigration they by no means forfeited, surrendered, or lost any of those rights, but that they were, and their descendants now are, entitled to the exercise and enjoyment of all such of them, as their local and other circumstances enable them to exercise and enjoy.

Resolved, 4. That the foundation of English liberty, and of all free government, is a right in the people to participate in their legislative council: and as the English colonists are not represented, and from their local and other circumstances, cannot properly be represented in the British parliament, they are entitled to a free and exclusive power of legislation in their several provincial legislatures, where their right of representation can alone be preserved.

The Declaration and Resolves was presented to the King and then to Parliament on January 19, 1775.  King George laughed and dismissed the document and the Parliament did not even address it.  King George, to whom the Declaration was addressed, never even offered a formal response, for in his mind, he did not have to submit to the demands of the colonists, whom he regarded as insolent children.  He famously said to the Prime Minister Lord North: “The die is now cast, the colonies must either submit or triumph.”  He would not negotiate with them. His tacit response made it clear that he meant to maintain political unity between the colonies and the United Kingdom even at the expense of the happiness of the colonists.

Word of the Intolerable Acts and the subjugation of the colonists in Boston began to spread to other colonies and they began to react. Perhaps the most famous response came from Virginia, and Patrick Henry!

Because England had dissolved Virginia’s colonial government, its Virginia House of Burgesses, the state’s colonial leaders were forced to meet in secret.  And so they did, on March 20, 1775, at a small church which is now called St. John’s Church, in Richmond, away from the Capitol in Williamsburg. Delegate Patrick Henry presented resolutions to raise a militia, and to put Virginia in a posture of defense. He believed that martial law would eventually come to Virginia. Henry’s opponents urged caution and patience, holding out hope that the King would eventually respond – and respond generously – to the Declarations and Resolves.  On the evening of the 23rd, Henry presented a proposal to organize a volunteer company of cavalry or infantry in every county of Virginia and delivered a fiery speech in support of it.  His final words “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” would be a rallying cry for the cause of independence and indeed, his entire speech is probably the most stirring, most passionate case in defense of liberty in our American history.

The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfil the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.

Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.

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. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves, and the House? Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with these war-like preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask, gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, 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 free² if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending²if 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! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!

They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But 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? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable²and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.

It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace²but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

Patrick Henry succeeded in convincing the body of delegates to pass his resolutions. Virginia would call up a militia.

On April 14, 1775, General Gage received orders from London to take decisive action against the rebel-rousers of Boston – the leaders of the Sons of Liberty, Samuel Adams and John Hancock. In the wee hours of the April 19, seven hundred British troops were dispatched to Lexington, where they would capture Adams and Hancock, and then to Concord, where they would seize a secret stockpile of colonial gunpowder (Gage had received intelligence about its location).  But spies and friends of the Sons of Liberty leaked word of Gage’s plan. One lantern hanging from Boston’s North Church informed the countryside that the British were going to attack by land and two lanterns if they were going to attack by sea. A series of horseback riders – Paul Revere, William Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott – galloped off to warn the countryside that British troops were coming.

Word spread from town to town, and militias prepared to confront the British and help their neighbors in Lexington and Concord. Colonial militias had originally been organized to defend settlers from civil unrest and attacks by French or Native Americans and selected members of the militia were called “minutemen” because they could be ready to fight in a minute’s time. Sure enough, when the advance guard of nearly 240 British soldiers arrived in Lexington during the early morning hours, they found about 70 minutemen waiting for them on Lexington Green. Both sides eyed each other not knowing what to expect or what to do. Suddenly, a bullet rang out. It would be known as “the shot heard round the world.”  Seven American militiamen were killed in that skirmish.  The British retreated to Concord, where they found an even larger, more organized group of militiamen. They then retreated back to Boston, and as they did so, new waves of Colonial militia intercepted them. Shooting from behind fences and trees, the militias inflicted over 125 casualties, including several officers.  The American Revolution had begun.  By happenstance…. not because of the blockade of Boston Harbor, not because of the Intolerable Acts, not because of the quartering of troops, not because of King George’s rejection of the pleas of the Colonies in the Declarations and Resolves, and not because of the other instances of mistreatment of the colonies. It was because the British had come for their ammunition.

Thus, the war for independence began over the colonists’ right to bear arms and store ammunition for their defense.

Not fully expecting the standoff in Massachusetts to explode into full-scale war, the thirteen colonies agreed to reconvene the Continental Congress in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775.  Samuel Adams, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington were some of the esteemed delegates.

By the time the Second Continental Congress met again, war was already underway, and so its purpose primarily became to conduct the war and manage the efforts.  Already, colonial militias had seized arsenals, driven out royal officials, and besieged the British army in the city of Boston. On June 14, the Congress voted to create the Continental Army out of the militia units around Boston and quickly appointed Congressman George Washington of Virginia as the Commanding General of the Continental Army.  On July 6, Congress approved a Declaration of Causes outlining the rationale and necessity for taking up arms in what had become the American Revolutionary War.  The original draft was written by Thomas Jefferson but the final was written by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania. Much of Jefferson’s language was retained in the final draft. The Declaration insisted that the colonists do not yet seek independence from the mother country but were forced to take up arms “in defense of the Freedom that is our Birthright and which we ever enjoyed until the late Violation of it”, and will “lay them down when Hostilities shall cease on the part of the Aggressors.’  [Interestingly, the very first sentence of the declaration includes a condemnation of the institution of slavery, which the Crown imposed on the colonies].

On July 8, 1775, the Second Continental Congress drafted what was called the Olive Branch Petition, which it sent to the British Crown as a final attempt at reconciliation.  In it, the colonies expressed their collective desire to remain loyal to the British crown. King George, however, refused to receive it.

Rather, on October 27, the King spoke before both houses of the British Parliament to discuss the growing concern about the rebellion in America, which he viewed as a traitorous action against himself and Great Britain. He began his speech by reading a “Proclamation of Rebellion” and urged Parliament to move quickly to end the revolt and bring order to the colonies.  He spoke of his belief that “many of these unhappy people may still retain their loyalty, and may be too wise not to see the fatal consequence of this usurpation, and wish to resist it, yet the torrent of violence has been strong enough to compel their acquiescence, till a sufficient force shall appear to support them.” With these words, the king gave Parliament his consent to dispatch troops to use against his own subjects, a notion that his colonists believed impossible.

At this point, note that just as the British continued to implore the King to respect their rights and liberties with their various charters and petitions and remonstrances, the colonists followed their same path. The colonies would have preferred to remain associated with Great Britain through bonds of affection and respect, sharing the history and bounded government that had been established for over 500 years, but for over 15 years, the actions and reactions by King and Parliament amounted to “a history of repeated injuries and usurpations” which were clearly designed to establish absolute rule over the colonies. We can see how England’s own history is providing the path – even the format and the words – for Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Paine, who moved to the colonies from England at the end of 1774, published his pamphlet “Common Sense” in January 1776.  Common Sense advocated independence from Great Britain; Paine used moral and political arguments to encourage common people in the Colonies to fight for an independent government – one that suited their happiness; he appealed to their common sense. And it worked. The publication was wildly popular.

The two sides had once and for all reached a final political impasse and the bloody War for Independence would now be conducted in earnest.  The skirmish had now become a war for independence.

On April 12, the state of North Carolina authorized her delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence. This was the first official action by a colony calling for independence. The 83 delegates present in Halifax at the Fourth Provincial Congress unanimously adopted the Halifax Resolves.  The Resolves read:

The Select Committee taking into Consideration the usurpations and violences attempted and committed by the King and Parliament of Britain against America, and the further Measures to be taken for frustrating the same, and for the better defense of this province reported as follows, to wit,

It appears to your Committee that pursuant to the Plan concerted by the British Ministry for subjugating America, the King and Parliament of Great Britain have usurped a Power over the Persons and Properties of the People unlimited and uncontrolled; and disregarding their humble Petitions for Peace, Liberty and safety, have made divers Legislative Acts, denouncing War Famine and every Species of Calamity against the Continent in General…..

Resolved that the delegates for this Colony in the Continental Congress be empowered to concur with the delegates of the other Colonies in declaring Independency….

North Carolina’s state flag proudly displays this historic date.

Virginia followed suit. On May 15, 1776, the Virginia Convention passed a similar resolution. It read:

Resolved, unanimously, that the Delegates appointed to represent this Colony in General Congress be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent States, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the Crown or Parliament of Great Britain; and that they give the assent of this Colony to such declaration, and to whatever measures may be thought proper and necessary by the Congress for forming foreign alliances, and a Confederation of the Colonies, at such time and in the manner as to them shall seem best: Provided, That the power of forming Government for, and the regulations of the internal concerns of each Colony, be left to the respective Colonial Legislatures.

At that same Convention, Virginia decided to instruct its delegate in the Second Continental Congress to introduce a formal resolution to declare the colonies independent from Great Britain.  And so, on June 7, delegate Richard Henry Lee, introduced a resolution, termed the Lee Resolution or Resolution of Independence, which contained three parts: (1) to declare the united Colonies rightfully independent of the British Empire: (2) to establish a plan for establishing foreign relations with the Colonies; and (3) to establish a plan of a confederation to unite them officially.

The Lee Resolution simply read:

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;

That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances;

That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.

On June 11, 1776, the Second Continental Congress appointed three concurrent committees in response to the Lee Resolution – one to draft a declaration of independence, a second to draw up a plan of treaties “for forming foreign alliances,” and a third to “prepare and digest the form of a confederation.”  A Committee of Five was assembled to draft a document to explain the reasons for independence and it included John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert Livingston of New York, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. According to Adams, Jefferson proposed that he, Adams, do the writing of the document, but he declined. Rather, Adams said, it should be Jefferson.  Jefferson was known for his writing skills. As Adams told him: “Reason first: you are a Virginian and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second: I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third: You can write ten times better than I can.”

Thomas Jefferson - clear pic

Jefferson completed his draft of the declaration in just a few days. He argued in his opening two paragraphs that individuals have inalienable rights, that governments are instituted by consent of the people primarily to secure those rights, and that people have the right to overthrow their government when it abuses their fundamental natural rights over a long period of time. Then, in a direct attack on King George (in like fashion to the Grand Remonstrance of 1641 and the English Bill of Rights of 1689), Jefferson listed 27 grievances against King George III – 27 instances when the king violated the “the ancient rights and liberties” of the American colonists. Having thoroughly laid out his proof that the king was a “tyrant” who was “unfit to be the ruler of a people,” Jefferson continued on to condemn the British Parliament and the British people.  “These unfeeling brethren,” he wrote, had reelected members of Parliament who had conspired with the king to destroy the rights of the colonists. Jefferson ended his draft by stating, “we do assert and declare these colonies to be free and independent states….. ”

When Jefferson submitted his draft to the Congress on June 28, the delegates left the first two paragraphs essentially unchanged.  Instead, they concentrated on Jefferson’s list of grievances against King George and the British people. On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress voted to declare the independence of the American colonies from English rule.  And on the July 4 – the Fourth of July – it approved the final edited version of the Declaration of Independence.

News of the colonies’ independence rang out in all the colonies.

While the 4th of July is the date that we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the 56 signers didn’t actually affix their signatures until August 2.  John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, was the first to sign his name and he did so in big letters. The story goes that after he signed his name, he gazed upon it and said: “There! His Majesty can now read my name without his spectacles!”

In explaining the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote: “This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.”

For most of my life, I marveled at the Declaration. Its words were stirring, its declarations were brilliant, its indictment of King George was compelling, and its conclusion was heroic.  I assumed the ideas, the words, and the flair were all the brainchild of Jefferson.  But after reviewing the historical documents he had studied all his life, and taking into account the various resolutions and declarations written and adopted by the various colonies at the time, it’s quite clear that the Declaration is a composite of several documents.  First of all, Jefferson essentially copied the form of the English Bill of Rights (and to some degree the Grand Remonstrance before it) as he sat down to compose his draft. Thus, Jefferson’s indictment of King George III was not a radical departure from accepted English practices.  He was following English tradition, which in turn he adapted to American circumstances.  I’ve seen signs and tee shirts calling our Founding Fathers “Our Founding Liberals,” but realizing that Jefferson, in writing the Declaration, followed established English tradition and re-asserted the “ancient rights and liberties” that for over 500 years have defined Englishmen, our Founders were actually quite conservative.

Winston Churchill commented on this tradition: “We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.”

In addition to historic English documents, Jefferson also borrowed language from George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Resolves in drafting the Declaration. Mason asserted that “all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights…namely the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and maintaining happiness and safety.” Jefferson altered – shortened – his language in his original draft to state: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  In fact, Jefferson adopted his famous phrase from John Locke’s 1689 publication Two Treatises on Civil Government  –  “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Everyone at the time understood that Jefferson equated “happiness” with property and safety.  By “equal,” Jefferson meant that all citizens or freeholders are, as Mason wrote, born “equally free and independent” under the law.  Note that the barons of England asserted their legal equality with the king in 1100 and 1215.  So, Jefferson was not stating anything new.  [ See Brion McClanahan, “Rethinking the Declaration of Independence”]

By its very name, the Declaration of Independence was a bold assertion of independence. Because it was asserted in defiance of the King, it was a highly treasonous document.  Its signers were traitors. The outcome of the war would decide their fate.  On October 19, 1781, British General Cornwallis surrendered his troops at Yorktown, Virginia and the British were defeated.  After six years of fighting, the Colonies had won their independence.  And once the Colonies had become independent, the Declaration essentially ceased to have any legal force. That which it sought to accomplish had been accomplished.

But that’s not where the Declaration of Independence’s story ends.

The Declaration may lack legal force but nonetheless, it remains the source of all legitimate political authority here in the United States and it memorializes the principles on which our country is founded.  Abraham Lincoln once referred to the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence as “the electric cord that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.”  And Calvin Coolidge remarked that “the doctrine of the Declaration of Independence predicated upon the glory of man and the corresponding duty to society that the rights of citizens ought to be protected with every power and resource of the state, and a government that does any less is false to the teachings of that great document — false to the name American.”

Declaration of Independence - signatures

 

A review of the most famous paragraphs of the Declaration remind us of the essential principles that make up our political foundation and ground our precious liberties.

The first paragraph reads:

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.

The first paragraph characterizes the nature of the Declaration.  When Jefferson writes that it is time for the colonies “to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another” he is saying that the colonies intend to secede from Great Britain.  The Declaration, first and foremost, is a secessionist document.  What follows in the other paragraphs are the reasons and explanations for the decision to “dissolve their political bonds”; that is, to secede.

The phrase “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them” is a particularly significant one.  It means that our rights are not a gift from the State, but arise from our nature. This marks a paradigm shift from the system in England. English law was still dictated by the Divine Right of Kings. Even though charters, petitions, and a Bill of Rights put limitations on the Crown and to some extent, on government in general, they still acknowledged that the King and the State had power over the individual. Without such charters, petitions, and Bill of Rights, the King and government could treat the individual as it wanted, generously or oppressively.  Thomas Jefferson was making it clear that in the United States, rights are NOT a gift from the State, to be enjoyed at its benevolence, but rather that they arise from Nature and from God, separately and equally.  God and Nature go hand in hand. God who created the heavens and the Earth also created the laws of nature. For those who believe God to be the great author of Nature, then rights come from Him, as our Creator. For those who lack faith, they can rest assure that our Declaration equally recognizes that all individuals possess fundamental rights because they are natural rights – part of our very humanity from birth.  Even if you do not believe in a God Almighty, still you must respect the laws of nature.  In this way, Jefferson was laying out the concept of Individual Sovereignty in a way that its people could universally understand and agree, irrespective of the particulars of their individual and very diverse faiths.  Individual Sovereignty is the basis of our Rights in this country.

We may argue yet what are Nature’s Laws, but this much we can be certain:  All people must observe and ultimately obey it, just as the laws of nature apply equally to all human beings.  Since governments are merely fictional entities created by mankind and not by nature, rights supersede government. Saying that government is more important than the individual would be “unnatural.”

In the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence reads:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.  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.

In this paragraph, Jefferson’s mighty pen goes into greater detail about the nature of the aforementioned natural rights. He tells us that our rights, which are endowed by our Creator (or Nature), are unalienable and although are numerous, the most obvious ones are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  “Unalienable” (which is the same as “inalienable”) means that the individual can never been divested of these rights. They cannot be taken away or denied.  They remain with the individual and government cannot take them away.  “Life,” of course, is clear enough.  “Liberty,” according to Jefferson, was the degree to which an individual can exercise his rights, his freedom.  The rights which come under this umbrella would include the rights asserted in the Magna Carta, for example, or in the English Bill of Rights, or in Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. (Remember the time period that the Declaration was written).  “Pursuit of Happiness” includes property, but encompasses much more.  “Pursuit of Happiness” means an individual should be able to freely exercise all his rights in order to live his life to its full potential.  That “full potential” includes the ownership of property and the fruits of one’s labor, mind, and personality (all that which makes a person a unique “individual”).  “Property” was too narrow a term for Jefferson.  Now, just as the individual has the rights to Life, Liberty, and Property, he also has the equal right to protect them.  This right of self-protection and self-preservation is also a natural right. Samuel Adams summed it best: “Among the natural rights of the colonists are these: First a right to life, secondly to liberty, and thirdly to property; together with the right to defend them in the best manner they can.”

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” is another important principle.  It is a critical and basic tenet of our form of government. First it states unequivocally that the primary role of government is “to secure these rights.” In other words, in the grand scheme of things, individual rights are supreme over the authority of the State (ie, government). The primary role of government, and the motivating force behind the formation of government, is to secure the inalienable rights, endowed by our Creator (Nature), of each individual.  This means that government is to be ideally limited to the role of a policeman, a judge, a prison warden, and a military force.  Furthermore, this provision explains that government has no powers of its own, but only “derives” its powers from individuals consenting to transfer power to it.  This is where the doctrine of Individual Sovereignty comes from. In a state of Nature, man has full sovereign power to govern himself – to provide for himself, to protect himself, to think and act as he wants.  He is responsible for himself and his conduct.  What is especially critical about this principle of “deriving powers from the consent of the governed” is that power delegated by the people is always “temporary” in nature.  The people can always re-assume their sovereign power – their right to govern themselves.

Having told us the proper function of government, Jefferson then tells us what gives cause to changing it: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

The first thing to note is that governments are always “temporary.”  Government exists at the whim of the people and have no right in and of itself to its own existence or longevity. Government is a “creation.”  It is not a natural institution. Because is arises by the “consent of the governed,” it is a product of compact.  Compacts have elements of contract law and agency law. The second thing to note is the Declaration acknowledges that individuals have the RIGHT to establish their government to effect THEIR happiness and their safety. When government ceases to serve those purposes, then individuals are well within their natural right to abolish that government and establish another.

The Declaration goes one step further and challenges individuals to be vigilante of their rights and critical of their government.  “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.”

How will a people know for sure when it is time to “abolish” their government?  Or how will they know when it is time to dissolve political bonds that tie them to another; that is, how will they know when it is time to secede from another political body?  The Declaration, in that last sentence, tells us: “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.”

And that line, as Jefferson will explain in the section that follows, sums up the position of the Colonies.  In that section, Jefferson sets out to make the case that the conduct of the King is a history of abuses and usurpations.  He lists 27 grievances against King George III – 27 instances where he violated the rights of the colonists – which he, Jefferson (and the Second Continental Congress, as evidenced by its adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776) believe evidences a design to reduce them under an absolute Despotism (tyranny).  In the last paragraph of the Declaration, Jefferson will finally make the case that because of this evil design, the Colonies have a right and a duty to dissolve their political bonds with the King.

The last paragraph reads:

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.

The Declaration of Independence ends with these powerful words: “For the support of this Declaration, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor.”  We can never forget that the Declaration was a treasonous document, which, if the British had won the war, would have sealed the fate of each of its signers and earned them a date with a hangman’s noose.  But they believed in their cause. They believed in the words they wrote in that document and they believed in their case against the King.  And they were willing to risk it all.

Signer Benjamin Rush (of Pennsylvania) wrote: “Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants?”

After signing his name in a large flowing style, it is rumored that John Hancock’s full response was this: “There! His Majesty can now read my name without his spectacles. And he can double the reward on my head!”  Benjamin Franklin, insisting that every single delegate sign the Declaration of Independence, said: “We must all hang together or surely we shall all hang separately.”  The large, burly Virginian, Benjamin Harrison, turned to the pipsqueak from Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, and joked: “I will have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body, you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.”

One day after the Declaration was adopted by the delegates to the Second Continental Congress, John Adams wrote home to his wife Abagail: “I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the gloom I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the means. And that posterity will triumph in that day’s transaction.”

In a speech he gave on the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (5 July 1926), Calvin Coolidge reflected:

Great ideas do not burst upon the world unannounced. They are reached by a gradual development over a length of time usually proportionate to their importance. This is especially true of the principles laid down in the Declaration of Independence. Three very definite propositions were set out in its preamble regarding the nature of mankind and therefore of government. These were the doctrine that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that therefore the source of the just powers of government must be derived from the consent of the governed. If no one is to be accounted as born into a superior station, if there is to be no ruling class, and if all possess rights which can neither be bartered away nor taken from them by any earthly power, it follows as a matter of course that the practical authority of the Government has to rest on the consent of the governed. While these principles were not altogether new in political action, and were very far from new in political speculation, they had never been assembled before and declared in such a combination… In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man — these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We cannot continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause… If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final.”

By a stroke of remarkable coincidence, both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the same day – the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1826.  Jefferson preceded Adams in death by five hours.

When I think about Independence Day, I think of our magnificent story.  I think about the uncompromising determination of people to live free and the eternal vigilance it took to finally secure lasting boundaries on government. I think about the ways the British and then the colonists expressed their discontent with the King and the many ways they sought to exert their rights, and how the many efforts culminated in their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence. I think about how our Founding Fathers brilliantly turned government on its head – transforming a system of government based on the Divine Right of Kings to a system predicated on Individual Sovereignty.  I think of a continuum of a story that began in 1215 with a stand-off on the meadow at Runnymede in order to secure a promise from an arrogant and ambitious king that ended with a document signed by 56 delegates assembled together from 13 separate states on July 4.  The continent may have changed, but man’s yearning to be free did not.

Now, as we all know, a country is a physical location inhabited by a body politic. Principles are embraced by people and not by geography, and so liberty and independence is a spirit that must live in all of us. If it doesn’t, then we suffer oppression together. As Machiavelli once said: “It is just as difficult and dangerous to try to free a people that wants to remain servile as it is to enslave a people that wants to remain free.”  The Declaration embraces our revolutionary spirit, and God help us when our country has the spirit of an aging grandmother. The key is to always keep that revolutionary spirit.  And maybe that’s what Independence Day is all about…. to reflect on our history and to rekindle that spirit every year.

In conclusion, I would like to implore that on this Independence Day and on every Independence Day, that we remember the advice that was once given to us by James Madison: “The people of the U.S. owe their Independence and their liberty to the wisdom of descrying in the minute tax of 3 pence on tea, the magnitude of the evil comprised in the precedent. Let them exert the same wisdom, in watching against every evil lurking under plausible disguises, and growing up from small beginnings.”

 

References:

Brion McClanahan, “Rethinking the Declaration of Independence,” Abbeville Institute, July 4, 2016.  Referenced at:  http://www.abbevilleinstitute.org/blog/rethinking-the-declaration-of-independence/

Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr. (Professor of Political Science), “The American System of Government: The American Constitutional System – English Origins (1066-1558),” Cyberland University of North Carolina.

Referenced at:  http://www.proconservative.net/CUNAPolSci201PartFourB.shtml  [In-depth study of the Magna Carta]

The Petition of Right of 1628 – http://study.com/academy/lesson/petition-of-right-of-1628-definition-summary.html

The English Bill of Rights of 1689 –  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/17th_century/england.asp

The Grand Remonstrance – http://www.constitution.org/eng/conpur043.htm

The Declaration and Resolves – http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/resolves.asp

Patrick Henry’s Speech of March 23, 1775 – https://www.history.org/almanack/life/politics/giveme.cfm

Halifax Resolves – http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-revolution/4328

Preamble and Resolution of the Virginia Convention of May 15, 1776  – http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/const02.asp

The Lee Resolutions –  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/lee.asp

“Boiling It Down, This Is What You’ve Said,” Mark America, October 15, 2011.  Referenced at:  http://markamerica.com/2011/10/15/boiling-it-down-this-is-what-youve-said/

Winston Churchill, “The Sinews of Peace”, address at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri (March 5, 1946); in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 1897–1963 (1974), vol. 7, p. 7288.

Calvin Coolidge, speech on the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (July 5, 1926).

 

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