Two hundred forty-three years ago tomorrow, representatives of 12 out of 13 British colonies in North America meeting in Philadelphia announced to the world what they had agreed upon July second: that these selfsame colonies ought, in the words of Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee, “…by right, to be independent states.” And the most remarkable nation in modern history was created.
We tend to forget how breathtaking this action was — today, many tend to concentrate on what the present considers the crimes and peccadilloes of our founders, rather than on their innovations and accomplishments. This robs the present of a true understanding of the past, and also prevents us seeing the present properly. To regain the proper perspective, one should understand what the Declaration of Independence we celebrate was, and what it meant —to the infant nation, and to the world.
The document approved by the Second Continental Congress was the embodiment of 100 years of political theorizing. Its principle idea was that of government by social contract, first postulated by Thomas Hobbes. He proposed that government was not something imposed by force or created by fate, deity or circumstance. Instead, it was the product of an agreement among the people and their ruler, with the object of providing security. Hobbes expressed no preferences about the type of government, but did stipulate that its power was unlimited, as far as physical security was concerned.
John Locke’s ideas were somewhat more germane. Writing on the eve of England’s “Glorious Revolution,” he accepted the idea of government by social contract but specified that, in addition to physical security, right government was to protect the inherent rights of its citizens. He named those rights as being “…life, liberty and private property.” Locke’s ideas were adopted into the first section of the Declaration, and his list of “unalienable rights” was given a slight tweak to become the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” with which we are so familiar. But there is far more.
America’s Declaration of Independence was the first instance of contractual theories of government being made real. In his “Two Treatises on Government, ” Locke proposed the radical idea that, if government is the product of a contract, the people, as the contracting party, have a right to cancel the contract if the government ceases to perform. Needless to say, in Europe’s age of absolute monarchies there wasn’t much appetite to try to verify that theory. On the other side of the Atlantic, things were different.
The men gathered in Philadelphia in July of 1776 were familiar with John Locke and his ideas; questions about the proper ends of government, its principles, the nature of representation and the origins of authority enjoyed lively debate from the Carolinas to Massachusetts. They were also increasingly aggrieved by the seemingly capricious actions of George III and his ministers, who had a real disdain for the North American colonies and little appetite for any experiments in “representation” or “liberties” as the colonists seemed to understand them.
So the first order of business after a statement of principles was to draw up a list of George III’s violations of his tacit contract with the people who were – for the moment — still his subjects. It was a long list, and not uninteresting for us today. Basically, the king was accused of violating the colonies’ long-accustomed self-government in favor of more Royal control — and more revenue thereby. It had worked in England, so the King’s ministers could think of no reason it wouldn’t work here. They were wildly incorrect.
The list mentions many variations of interference in local government; suspension of the rule of law; cancellation of local legislation and even of colonial charters; a proliferation of royal decrees, taxes, regulations – and the importation of officials to oversee their enforcement; finally, accusations of suppression of public sentiment by force of arms. It mentions that warnings and entreaties were given, and opportunities extended for mending of ways. All failed; so far as the Colonists were concerned, King George III’s contract was cancelled.
On July 2, 1776 by general agreement and two days later by vote, Americans decided to rely upon themselves to “…provide new guards for their future security.” Thereafter, in flush times and thin we have done so, and provided an example for the world. May we continue to do so, enjoying “…the protection of divine providence” for many generations to come.
Happy Birthday, America.