[Originally posted 1 July 2011]
When, during the Wilson-Palmer saturnalia of oppressions, specialists in liberty began protesting that the Declaration plainly gave the people the right to alter the government under which they lived and even to abolish it altogether, they encountered the utmost incredulity. On more than one occasion, in fact, such an exegete was tarred and feathered by shocked members of the American Legion, even after the Declaration had been read to them. What ailed them was simply that they could not understand its Eighteenth century English.
H. L. Mencken, The American Language, 1921, p. 388
hen the Committee of Five delegated the drafting of a declaration of the American colonies’ independence from Great Britain to Thomas Jefferson in June of 1776 they had no way of knowing that this “audacious paper” (as one critic called it) was going to become a foundational document for a new nation. And not just a new nation—a new kind of nation, a nation governed not by a executive answerable to a supernatural being seen by no-one, but rather a nation governed by the consent of its citizens as Hobbes or Locke or whoever had it, or in Mencken’s paraphrase, “people ought to choose the kind of government they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter.”
Theorists had talked up the concept for a long time, but nobody’d ever really put in into practice, as the American colonists were threatening. And it could easily have gone the other way. Robert Sobel’s brilliant For Want of a Nail looks at it from exactly that viewpoint—as a historian might look on it if the revolution had been lost.
A five man committee … was established to draw up a bill of charges against the King and a Declaration of Independence. The former resembled the one presented to King Charles I by the revolutionaries of his day; the latter was an eloquent restatement of contemporary French radical philosophy regarding the rights of man … a thinly disguised play to win further support from French intellectuals. In sum, the Declaration was more a political and propaganda vehicle than a serious attempt to state radical philosophy.
For its purposes, it didn’t really have to be anything more than “a political and propaganda vehicle”. The amazing thing is that this occasional document in fact does resonate (regardless of the distortion) down the corridors of time. No guarantees of course—look what happened to Menander, after all. Two centuries is nothing in the long view. But a great many documents haven’t had half the resonance.
Mind you, a big chunk of the document is taken up with comparative trivia—long-forgotten grievances it takes a history buff to explain. “He [King George] has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary, for public good.” “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.” “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out our substance.” (In Mencken’s restatement these come out “He vetoed bills in the Legislature that everybody was in favor of, and hardly nobody was against,” “He made the Legislature meet at one-horse tank-towns, so that hardly nobody could get there and most of the leaders would stay home and let him go to work and do things like he wanted,” and “He made a lot of new jobs, and give them to loafers that nobody knowed nothing about, and the poor people had to pay the bill, whether they could or not.”)
John Lind, an English writer who took it on himself to reply to the statement, was scathing about swarms of officers.
To articles, thus generally worded, it is not always easy to give an answer. In the instance before us, however, we are under no difficulty. The “multitude of new offices created, and the swarms of officers sent over to America” under the present reign, consist, first, in a Board of Customs; and secondly, in additional Courts of Admiralty. … They forgot to tell us, that no new power is given to these officers; that the Board of Customs continues to exercise only the same power, that the English Commissioners had always exercised; that the new Courts of Admiralty continue to exercise only the same powers, as had been always attributed to the antient Courts. They forgot to tell us, that the salaries of the officers of the four new Courts of Admiralty are fixed; can never vary: that these salaries arise, in the first place, from the produce of the forfeitures; that if any deficiency remain, that deficiency is made good out of the produce of the old naval stores: they forgot to tell us, that this is a fund purely British: they forgot to point out to us how beneficial an improvement Was hereby made on the institution of the ancient Courts of Admiralty. They forgot to tell us, that the salaries of the officers of the ancient Courts were not limited: that they arose entirely from a certain rate assessed upon the forfeitures; were the forfeitures many and considerable? the salaries rose;—were they few and inconsiderable? the salaries fell.—See now the mighty injury done to the Colonies: Justice is brought home to them: the means of acquiring it are at hand, and cheap. The temptations to injustice removed from the officers. To the salary of the officers no honest citizen in America is to contribute. Of one class of people, and of one only, can they devour the subsistence. Will the Americans confess, that the class of smugglers is so numerous in that country, as to entitle them to be called—by way of eminence—the people?
Ah, but that’s not where the Declaration of Independence shines. No, it’s the opening statement of the revolutionary principle that the people have the right to determine what government is best for them, to tinker with it, to change it, or to abolish it if necessary, that is what stands out. Sure, it was a convenient principle for a gang of revolutionaries out to sever their relationship with the nation that brought them up. Okay, it was self-serving. But it was more than that. It gave a clear statement of the basic function of government, and thereby gave a way of evaluating whether and how well a given government was in fact carrying out its function. And it asserted that people could, in the event of failure, change that government.
Among the things that government was supposed to secure for its people were “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (or in Mencken’s translation “every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time whichever way he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else”). John Lind, predictably, scoffed at the entire concept:
The rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—by which, if they mean any thing, they must mean the right to enjoy life, to enjoy liberty, and to pursue happiness—they “hold to be unalienable” This they “hold to be among truths self-evident.” At the same time, to secure these rights, they are content that Governments should be instituted. They perceive not, or will not seem to perceive, that nothing which can be called Government ever was, or ever could be, in any instance, exercised, but at the expence of one or other of those rights.— That, consequently, in as many instances as Government is ever exercised, some one or other of these rights, pretended to be unalienable, is actually alienated.
In these tenets they have outdone the utmost extravagance of all former fanatics. The German Anabaptists indeed went so far as to speak of the right of enjoying life as a right unalienable. To take away life, even in the Magistrate, they held to be unlawful. But they went no farther, it was reserved for an American Congress, to add to the number of unalienable rights, that of enjoying liberty, and pursuing happiness;—that is,—if they mean any thing,—pursuing it wherever a man thinks he can see it, and by whatever means he thinks he can attain it:—That is, that all penal laws—those made by their selves among others—which affect life or liberty, are contrary to the law of God, and the unalienable rights of mankind:—That is, that thieves are not to be refrained from theft, murderers from murder, rebels from rebellion.
Yeah, talking-points. What would we do without them?