SPECIAL TO THE CALDWELL JOURNAL (By Daniel B. Rundquist)…It is a fact that today we live in a world littered with all kinds of news stories and what is called, “social media.” Americans are constantly assaulted with forever updating news headlines, commentary by any number of pundits and what some people call “fake news”—whatever that is supposed to be. With all this noise and blather going on, how are Americans supposed to sort it all out and find some truth to hold on to?
I realize that most Americans cram so much into their day that they are pressed to find time to focus on the events of the day and that no one wakes up in the morning saying, “You know, I really should read the Declaration of Independence today.” It is certainly not considered “breaking news.” But overlooking the significance of our founding documents can be hazardous to our liberty. Why? Because the Declaration contains both the just reasoning and purpose for both the establishment and maintenance of our free representative republic. The preamble 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…”
Let’s take a closer look at the preamble in focus, piece by piece:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident…” First, there is use of the word “we.” This means that the undersigned representatives of the people of the nation being formed were collectively taking control and acting through them. This was not a document originating from a single person like a king or president, or even an organized government or parliament. The people themselves were taking responsibility for what was to follow. It also illustrates the level of unity of the people—they did not start out by saying, “some of the people” or “most of the people.” The use of “we” means that the undersigned were representing the people who were in this American experiment together, even though it was understood at the time that among them were also the Tories—people remaining loyal to the crown.
Then comes, “…hold these truths…” which shows that as a group, Americans were inherently attached to (or “hold”) a series of absolute certainties or facts (“truths”). This illustrates the clear determination in taking the “high ground” position from the beginning. Without the certainty of truth from the start, a just system of government could never be established or maintained thereafter.
“…to be self-evident…” a reference to the fact that the truths they were about to list were so obvious to a colonial American (or anyone else) that the matter should be plain for all to see without much complication, confusion, or debate.
“…that all men are created equal…” This establishes the fact that the colonists saw no reason why they should be treated differently than other British subjects overseas. At the time it became apparent to the colonists that the king of England viewed the colonists not as loyal subjects of the Crown with the same standing as any who lived in England but rather as people of far lesser station in life who had to be maintained in a state of constant subjugation. Their petitions for redress on policies and issues went unanswered. They were not given voice in the legislature or fair trials in the court system—and for this you may recall their cry of “no taxation without representation.”
“…that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” This statement forces recognition of the establishment of the idea that God Almighty Himself—the highest authority of all—had already established basic human rights for all mankind that no man or government could ever infringe upon or erase. The rights are “unalienable” meaning they cannot be taken away from the people under any circumstance whatsoever. Even the people themselves could not justly negotiate their own rights away, then or now. This monumental assertion and change in the global viewpoint of the relationship of people to their government shook the world. Thomas Paine’s later piece in 1791, Rights of Man explains, “There was a time when kings disposed of their crowns by will upon their death-beds, and consigned the people, like beasts of the field, to whatever successor they appointed. This is now so exploded as scarcely to be remembered, and so monstrous as hardly to be believed.”
“…that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” Apparently, there is a longer list of pre-existing rights “endowed” by God to mankind because they used the phrase, “among these,” which I understand as meaning, “including, but not necessarily limited to.” The three things they do list, life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are clearly those which are centrally important to the American culture and the experiment of self-government. They first wanted to make clear that no government could deprive a person of their life or liberty. The British military was brutal at times and if one decided to make a list of their atrocities in the day, it might well require pages to do so. Imprisonment was common while wantonly punishing and executing people for various reasons became routine. The American colonists had clearly had enough and were not about to accept any further unjust and barbaric abuses.
Pursuing “happiness” on the other hand, could not even be a thought of a colonist unless both life and liberty were secured first. This “pursuit of happiness” clause does not provide any guarantee of outcome whatsoever—only that the Americans recognized that God had created mankind with the inherent right to instinctively follow those implanted desires and dreams with the abilities He provides. A king or government was not to overstep and interfere.
“…That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…” The only legitimate purpose the American Founders saw for creating any government was for securing the rights of the people. That is all. Government was not to be established or maintained by taxes for any other reason. This is the essence of “small government.”
“…deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” The colonists here establish the fact that a properly constituted government may only govern according to the will of the people it serves.
Any power the government applies outside of this clear mandate is by definition unjust. This concept was also groundbreaking—shocking and probably heretical to the established monarchy system. In the world of monarchy, the king was an instrument of God to rule over men, but here the Americans disagreed with the status quo and envisioned a government established only by the people themselves.
“…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…” Here again another inalienable right is listed—that of the people to improve, change or remove a corrupted government system and replace it with a new one entirely. This is the ultimate assault on the status quo of the day which was mostly monarchies and dictatorships around the globe. The very idea that the people of the American colonies not only could form a bottom-up, self-governing system of their own design, but that if that system were to fail for any reason they maintained the right to start all over if they so choose. This part of the preamble sets up the final case for separation from England which follows in the balance of the body of the Declaration. The document follows the mindset of Thomas Jefferson who also wrote: “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”
Americans do not have rights today because our benevolent government graciously granted them to us. We have rights because we accept that God endowed all mankind with many natural rights first—rights that transcend the authority of any government to either assign or to revoke them. We established our government for the sole purpose of defending these rights against any who would wish to subdue them.
The strength of America is clearly illustrated in the power of our founding documents. The ideas and principles of our Founders are as relevant today for modern Americans as they were the day they were first penned. Because of this, our founding documents provide Americans with a kind of cultural compass—much needed today—to help us navigate through the now weed-laden swamp of both American and global politics.