Monday, July 03, 2006

A Declaration of our Independence

At a time in our history when the President of the United States claims to be above the law, when the nation has been taken to aggressive war upon a pack of lies, when the Congress scrambles to make legal ex post facto the crimes the "President" has already committed, when the Supreme Court states bluntly that the President is a war criminal, when the private conversations and bank records of tens of millions of Americans are routinely pilfered, when the Fourth Amendment is flouted and the Constitution called "quaint" by the Attorney General and a "...Goddamned piece of paper" by the President, it is well to consider on this Independence Day the very sources of what we like to call American freedom or American liberty!

It would be well to remember that the original colonies separated from England for less. It would be well to remember that two words —probable cause —are under attack, if not killed off already. It is also important to remember that those two words stand between us and tyranny.

It is also time to make a "Revolutionary" statement: that whenever a government breaks its contract with the people; that whenever a government abrogates their "inalienable rights", it is the right of those people to abolish that government and replace it.

Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence between June 11 and June 28, 1776. Since that time, it is the Declaration of Independence that is most often thought of as our nation's most cherished symbol of liberty. Even so the Declaration is too often regarded as mere high sounding words perhaps in the same way that George W. Bush says of our Constitution that it is "...just a goddamned piece of paper"!

Nothing could be further from the truth. Jefferson was an educated man, articulate and sometimes profound. The Declaration is a product of a down-to-earth, realistic political philosophy grounded in common sense even as it eschews fanciful metaphysics and meaningless speculation. It expresses an ideal of liberty that has its roots in the no nonsense empirical philosophy of John Locke.
John Locke (1632-1704), is among the most influential political philosophers of the modern period. In the Two Treatises of Government, he defended the claim that men are by nature free and equal against claims that God had made all people naturally subject to a monarch. He argued that people have rights, such as the right to life, liberty, and property, that have a foundation independent of the laws of any particular society. Locke used the claim that men are naturally free and equal as part of the justification for understanding legitimate political government as the result of a social contract where people in the state of nature conditionally transfer some of their rights to the government in order to better insure the stable, comfortable enjoyment of their lives, liberty, and property. Since governments exist by the consent of the people in order to protect the rights of the people and promote the public good, governments that fail to do so can be resisted and replaced with new governments.

Locke's Political Philosophy

Locke wrote extensively, articulately, persuasively on such topics as the Raison d'Etre of Government, the Separation of Powers, the Ends of Government, and the Extent, indeed, the limits of governmental powers.

Jefferson was also influenced by the Virginia Declaration of Rights drafted by George Mason and adopted by the Virginia Constitutional Convention on June 12, 1776. Later, Mason's Virginia declaration became a major influence on the US Bill of Rights, drafted by James Madison.

I am confident that these men —Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, John Locke —would be appalled, perhaps as outraged as am I, that the modern GOP has literally thumbed its nose at these principles.
Section 1. That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

Section 2. That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants and at all times amenable to them.

Section 3. That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community; of all the various modes and forms of government, that is best which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration. And that, when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community has an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.

Virginia Declaration of Rights

Both John Locke and Thomas Jefferson wrote about governments that break the social contract with the people. Both Locke and Jefferson considered such a breach to be justification for a break with the offending "government":
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.

—Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence [emphasis mine]

Locke had already come to the same conclusion.
4(h). Revolution:

If a government subverts the ends for which it was created then it might be deposed; indeed, Locke asserts, revolution in some circumstances is not only a right but an obligation. Thus, Locke came to the conclusion that the "ruling body if it offends against natural law must be deposed." This was the philosophical stuff which sanctioned the rebellions of both the American colonialists in 1775, and the French in 1789.

John Locke: "The Philosopher of Freedom."

Many years later, a young revolutionary would reprise the sentiments of Jefferson and Locke:
When the forces of oppression come to maintain themselves in power against established law; peace is considered already broken.

—Che Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare

And this Independance Day is also a good day to remember what sacrifices were made for those very freedoms and rights that Bush so cavalierly dismisses with a smirk:
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.

—Declaration of Independence

Since posting this piece, I've read Katherine Vanden Heuvel's excellent piece in "The Nation". She also believes that the Bush administration has engaged in an un-American assault on our Consitution and the very rule of law, her article carries within it the seeds of a political strategy:
In clear violation of established law and centuries-old political precedent, they [Bushco] have wiretapped American citizens; imprisoned citizens without warrants, charges, or means of redress; sanctioned and abetted the torture of foreign nationals; ignored clear Congressional legislative intent with the likes of 750 signing statements; disabled Congressional oversight of their actions; undertaken an assault on the press' right to publish the truth; and suppressed dissent and public-minded information disclosure within the Executive branch itself.

This abuse and overreach of Presidential power directly challenges the "checks and balances" at the core of our constitutional design. It proposes a government fundamentally different from that declared by the Founding Fathers.


The American people's most powerful weapon in defending the Constitution is their vote in Presidential elections. But we cannot afford to wait until 2008. The danger to our Constitution is clear and present. Hence our call to all patriots to put the issue before the public in this November's elections and ask of all candidates, "Do you accept or condemn the President's assault on our Constitution?"

—Katherine Vanden Heuvel, The Nation

From one of my favorite authors, another look at just what we should be "celebrating" or, in light of recent events, just what we should be mourning:
The Declaration of Independence is the fundamental document of democracy. It says governments are artificial creations, established by the people, "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," and charged by the people to ensure the equal right of all to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Furthermore, as the Declaration says, "whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it." It is the country that is primary--the people, the ideals of the sanctity of human life and the promotion of liberty.

When a government recklessly expends the lives of its young for crass motives of profit and power, while claiming that its motives are pure and moral, ("Operation Just Cause" was the invasion of Panama and "Operation Iraqi Freedom" in the present instance), it is violating its promise to the country. War is almost always a breaking of that promise. It does not enable the pursuit of happiness but brings despair and grief.

—Howard Zinn, Patriotism and the Fourth of July

The Existentialist Cowboy
Post a Comment