When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to 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.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
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 dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.Two legal scholars discuss the Declaration of Independence: Randy Barnett at the Washington Post; and Jerry Bower at Forbes.
Barnett provides an overview of the Declaration and its importance for understanding the relationship between citizens and government. He writes:
The Declaration of Independence used to be read aloud at public gathering every Fourth of July. Today, while all Americans have heard of it, all too few have read more than its second sentence. Yet the Declaration shows the natural rights foundation of the American Revolution, and provides important information about what makes a constitution or government legitimate. It also raises the question of how these fundamental rights are reconciled with the idea of “the consent of the governed” for which the Declaration is also famous.
Later, the Declaration also assumes increasing importance in the struggle to abolish slavery. It is a foundational document of the Nineteenth Century abolitionists and was much relied upon by Abraham Lincoln. It had to be explained away by the Supreme Court in Dred Scott. Eventually, it was repudiated by some defenders of slavery in the South because of its inconsistency with that institution.Barnett points out that much of the Declaration is a bill of indictment (a criminal complaint) against the British Crown. Barnett explains:
But to justify a revolution, it was not thought to be enough that officials of the government of England, the Parliament, or even the sovereign himself had violated the rights of the people. No government is perfect; all governments violate rights. This was well known. So the Americans had to allege more than mere violations of rights. They had to allege nothing short of a criminal conspiracy to violate their rights systematically. Hence, the famous reference to “a long train of abuses and usurpations” and the list that follows. In some cases, these specific complaints account for provisions eventually included in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.The rest of the document sets out the relationship between rights, governments and citizens.
The assumption of natural rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence can be summed up by the following proposition: “first comes rights, then comes government.” According to this view: (1) the rights of individuals do not originate with any government, but preexist its formation; (2) The protection of these rights is the first duty of government; and (3) Even after government is formed, these rights provide a standard by which its performance is measured and, in extreme cases, its systemic failure to protect rights — or its systematice violation of rights — can justify its alteration or abolition; (4) At least some of these rights are so fundamental that they are “inalienable,” meaning they are so intimately connected to one’s nature as a human being that they cannot be transferred to another even if one consents to do so.
Bower, writing at Forbes, focuses on the Declarations' statement that there are times when a citizen has a right, or obligation, to dissolve the bands between him/her and a government. Bower explains:
This implies something very important: No governmental official can deny the right of the people to dissolve the political bands which tie them to a tyrannical government, without at the same time denying the Declaration and, by extension, the Constitution on which his own power is based. If he says, “The Declaration no longer applies; you must obey my authority no matter what.” We can rightly reply, “If the Declaration no longer applies, then the government of which you are a part no longer possesses legitimacy; which means you have no authority in the first place and therefore have no right to demand that we obey.”
To determine whether the framers and their principles would cause us once again to break from a central political authority one must first get into the head space of the founders. Their way of thinking, though alien to modern political philosophy (and so much the worse for modern political philosophy), is clear and cogent:
There are certain ideas which are self-evidently true. One of those ideas is that we are created without legal primacy or inferiority with regard to one another. Another idea, which is just obviously true to people whose rational faculties are operating properly, is that the rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of a prosperous life (which is what the word ‘happiness’ meant in 1776) are not alienable, that is they cannot have a lien placed on them by any other persons, not even representatives of the state.
Not only is government denied the authority to put a lien on and repossess those rights, but it is further required to protect those rights. And in fact, the protecting of those rights is the only reason that government should exist in the first place! And not only is it necessary for government to protect these rights, but its use of power to do so is still only just if it also involves the consent of the people whose freedom and property are being protected. Further (and this is shocking, even to modern ears), when governments move from protecting those rights to injuring those rights, the people are allowed to erase the authority of the government.
So, are we there yet? That question is in the air, although I don’t think I’ve heard it put so explicitly in terms of the context of the Fourth of July, 1776. ...
Some people want to banish this conversation from polite company, but doing so does not ban the conversation from occurring; it just bans polite conversationalists from adding their influence to the debate. The greatest beneficiaries of this approach are groups at the fringe who live to incite people to violence.
No amount of banning or inciting can change the facts. 238 years ago the principles of the Declaration found that the central government had lost the right to rule and called on the people to withdraw allegiance to it. Is that the case now? Even the most ardent believer in the American experiment (and I am a very ardent one) has to acknowledge that the verdict of history is that no state remains committed to liberty forever, which means that such a time will come again. The question is whether we are there now. Tell me what you think, and then I’ll tell you what I think.I look forward to reading what he thinks.
Update (4/3/2015): Bower's article is no longer available at Forbes, but you can find it at Townhall.