From Townhall Magazine's July feature, "How to Celebrate the Fourth of July," by Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College:
*Note: Get a special, one-week only discount on a one-year Townhall Magazine subscription by ordering HERE!
Two hundred thirty-six years ago this Fourth of July, 56 men signed the document that created the American republic. They represented a people of about 3 million grouped in a series of 13 colonies along the eastern seaboard of the United States. They were all wanted men, sought by the commander of the British forces in North America for sedition and treason. He had behind him the resources of the greatest military power on earth. They had behind them the bare beginnings of a government, hardly anything of an army, but something mighty in the way of an idea.
This nation had therefore a desperate beginning. Who but the boldest could believe that the signers of the Declaration of Independence were laying the foundation of the greatest constitutional republic in history? Now that republic has spread across the continent, and its influence reaches around the world. Its population has increased a hundredfold. Its Constitution has provided government to a free people constantly growing in size and territory, each new state joining the union as an equal, its citizens never subjects, its people ever free. There is no story close to it in the history of man.
Statesmen and thinkers have attributed the strength and goodness of the nation to the principles in the Declaration. Many others have denied this. Statesmen and thinkers have proclaimed the Constitution a just and beautiful implementation of the principles of the Declaration. Many others have denied this. These denials are more common in times of crisis in our country. They are very common now.
It is a sign of our time that the sitting chief executive of our country eschews the permanent meaning of the Declaration and the idea of fixity in the Constitution. In the “Audacity of Hope,” Barack Obama writes: “Implicit in [the Constitution’s] structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or “ism,” any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course. …”
Obama has stuck to this theme during his presidency. This May at Barnard College, he proclaimed the great virtue of the Constitution to be its openness to change: “It allowed for protests, movements, and the assimilation of new ideas that would repeatedly, decade after decade, change the world—a constant forward movement that continues to this day.” There is neither form nor firmness. All is fluid, according to Obama, and this liberates us to do whatever we will.
America has gone very far down the trail that Obama is blazing. Right now, the expenditures of all government—state, local and federal—exceed 40 percent of the gross domestic product. If trends continue, the public sector will soon grow larger than the private sector, and then the government will have more resources than those it governs.
Moreover, it governs increasingly without authority from the branches that are elected by the people. The new Dodd- Frank finance law creates something called a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This agency does not get its budget from Congress. Rather, its money comes from a guaranteed percentage of the budget of the Federal Reserve, which gets its money from its operations as a bank. Congress is even specifically forbidden in the law to hold hearings into the budget of the new CPFB. And it has wide examining power over every form of consumer finance in the nation. In unfettered scope of authority, and in near perfect separation from popular control, it is different from anything before it in America.
Because we have come so far from the founding institutions, it is worthwhile to remind ourselves what they are. This anniversary of the Declaration of Independence provides a splendid occasion, because both the principles of the nation and its institutions are summarized beautifully in its 1,300 words. Let us then read it for a moment.
Notice first of all how remarkable it is that the document should begin universally. The authors were obviously mindful of the fact they were wanted men. They conclude the Declaration with a solemn promise, made to each other in the mood of soldiers facing battle: “In support of this Declaration we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” (emphasis added). The particularity of this commitment, each man speaking for himself in promise to the others in the room, is what one might expect of legislation passed on the eve of a war, legislation that is itself a written act of treason.
If these men were in a situation urgent unto death, how can we account for the abstract and universal nature of the beginning of the Declaration? It begins with an “absolute truth” (to use the president’s term) expressed in words that have rung around the world: “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 …” (emphasis added).
Notice that this quotation refers to no particular time, but to any time in the course of human events. Notice that it refers not to the American people, but to “one people,” meaning any people. It is a very absolute and universal way of talking. It issues immediately a proclamation of truth: “We hold these truths to be selfevident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
Just as the Founders did, so may anyone look for his rights under these “laws of nature and of nature’s God.” Anyone whose rights are denied will feel their weight. The Jew rounded up by the Nazis, the black slave held in Mississippi in 1840, may both look to this document as the charter by which he can advance. Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder, was aware of this and wrote that indeed, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” These principles place every man and woman deprived of their rights in the same place that the Founders occupied on July 4, 1776: they may appeal to an absolute truth, written in the nature of man and in the nature of things, against any power that will offend their rights. Perhaps they cannot find the strength to overcome their oppression. Never mind: their cause is still the just one. They will see, and even in moments of clarity their oppressors will see, that the great self-evident truth that all men are created equal means nothing more nor less than that all men are men. It means nothing less than that no one may rightly govern another except by his consent. It means that the purpose of government is to “secure these rights”: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
These are the principles of the United States. The fact that they were announced at the onset of its revolution, and the fact that the revolution proceeded in their name, seals them in the blood and the history of this land.
The Declaration is not only about principles; it also describes institutions, the kind of institutions best adapted to protect the rights of a people. These institutions are expressed in the middle section of the document, the section in which the specific crimes and injustices of the king of England are described. The three broad constitutional principles that he violated form the backbone of the later Constitution of the United States. The first step in understanding that Constitution is not to learn its details, although they are relatively few. The first step is to understand the grand arrangements of government necessary to constitutional rule.
The first of these three principles is representation. The king is said to have interfered with the representatives of the people in their attempt to pass laws “most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” The Declaration recognizes that human beings are made to live under law, and they have a right for those laws to be passed by people who represent them. This right is not to be interfered with by any force. Any force doing so interferes with the consent of the governed and cannot rightfully claim obedience. Violation of the representative principle is, by itself, cause for revolution.
The second of these principles is separation of powers. At the outset of the American Revolution, the king and his governors were the executive branch. By interfering with the legislature, the king violated not only the right of the people to representative government but also the necessity for separation of powers. He violated this necessity also by making “judges dependent on his will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.” God is named four times in the Declaration, once as each of the three branches of government, and once as a founder. The lesson is simple: God may well be the maker of the laws of nature and of nature’s God, and He may well be at the same time the Supreme Judge of the world, and He may also be Divine Providence. But no man or small group of men may rightly combine in their own hands all the powers of government. That is for God alone.
Finally, the Declaration calls for a limited government. The king was taxing America’s forefathers without their consent, and he was using the money, among other things, to pay for a hired army to oppress them. He sent many officials to make sure that his will was followed on all occasions, whatever the commoners may wish. The Declaration charges him with erecting “a multitude of new offices, and [sending] hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.” In other words, the king offended against the principle of limited government. He was building a structure too strong for the people to manage.
The modern bureaucratic state reproduces many of the features that led to the writing of the Declaration of Independence and that gave shape to the Constitution of the United States, which follows these three basic principles in its entire structure. Go before the bureaucracy and see that it is arranged both to make and enforce its own rules, and if one objects he must appear first before a judge who is employed by that same bureaucracy. And now a bureaucracy has been created that operates on a budget outside the control of the Congress.
This Fourth of July, we might well remind ourselves of the beauty, the greatness and the long serviceability of our constitutional institutions and of the principles from which they flow. This Fourth of July is a great time to recall these things, because the Declaration gives the Constitution its cause and also its basic form and function. We Americans may choose to discard this legacy and give up our birthright. Let us at least know what we are doing.
Celebrate the Declaration, and also remember its meaning. It is what a citizen does on the Fourth of July.
Want to read more features like these? Subscribe to Townhall Magazine!