As on all Independence Days, the media is trotting out the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence and suggesting that they are the only part of the document that matters and that they are passages that by themselves express what Jefferson and his 40-plus co-drafters called “the American mind.”
Actually, the media, the academy, and most members of both political parties stop reading the Declaration after the sentence: “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.” They then use this sentence as justification for the disastrous interventionist foreign and domestic policies the U.S. government has pursued since Woodrow Wilson’s presidency.
The quoted sentence, of course, was meant by Jefferson and his fellow drafters to say that because British Americans were entitled to those rights they were likewise entitled to try to defend them against usurpation by a tyrannical government. (NB: This also is the crux of the 2nd Amendment.) There is not the slightest historical basis for reading into the drafters’ words an American responsibility — then or now — to defend those rights for any other people or nation. Such a defense was and is up to those foreigners who believe their “unalienable rights” have been taken, constrained, or denied. If they do so, fine. If they do not, fine. If they try and fail, tough. It is all their business.
Jefferson and especially his fellow penman had not a lick of the mentality of the universal-rights crusader in them. (NB: Jefferson, being a true Democrat, later had some sympathy for the French revolutionaries in their violent and terror-filled effort to remake all the world in their image.) The Declaration’s drafters were pessimistic, hard-headed, non-idealistic, and commonsensical men who were defending their own just-born nation by seeking to recover a constitutional inheritance — English and British liberties and the rule of law — that had been taken from them in just over a decade by the British imperial government. They had no intention of setting the world ablaze with a revolution that would guarantee their recovered rights to all other peoples, nor were they going to war to exterminate monarchy and other authoritarian forms of government from the world. They were solely hoeing their own row, and could not have cared less about what foreigners did or did not do to acquire similar rights.
The Declaration is a stridently nationalistic document that announces the decision of British Americans to wage a war to achieve independence from the British Empire and recover the rights and liberties their ancestors brought with them from the British Isles. Their war was waged to restore the status quo ante not to change the world so it would be a reflection of America and its ways.
The Declaration is vital for Americans today because it frankly explains that Americans were and are responsible for defending their own liberty and therefore obliged to fight any governmental effort aimed at usurpation and/or enslavement. The document justifies rebellion squarely on this basis, indicting King George III and his government for their unrelenting intervention in governing matters that had been handled nearly exclusively by colonial legislative assemblies for more than a century, as well as for their introduction of economic sanctions; their military occupation of Boston and the closing of its port; their violation or suspension of colonial charters; their limitations on of trial by jury and the colonial judiciary’s independence; and their appointment of General Thomas Gage to govern Massachusetts by martial law and arming him with the authority to seize the weapons of British Americans.
Faced with London’s lawless interventionism, and after having patiently, lawfully, and mostly peacefully opposed it for a dozen years, Jefferson and his colleagues wrote that enough was enough, and in the Declaration’s single most important sentence laid down a timeless guideline for proper, lawful, and manly American political behavior, writing that “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.”
America’s Declaration of Independence is a fierce statement of the determination of British Americans to separate themselves from an imperial government that had become tyrannical and lawless by ignoring the political settlement of the Glorious Revolution and the subsequent English Bill of Rights and by denying to British Americans the rights, liberties, and privileges that they guaranteed equally to the king’s subjects in the British Isles and North America.
The Declaration was meant to settle this intra-British crisis. Claims that it was meant to establish the new United States as a holier-than-thou, worldwide crusader promoting and imposing those rights by military force, as well as all the other absurd “universal rights” invented since Wilson’s second term, is a perverse invention by U.S. politicians, academics, preachers, pundits, and ideologues whose war-causing interventionist handiwork has made the U.S. government the most hated on earth, and to increasingly appear — given its “long train of abuses and usurpations” of the U.S. Constitution — as the enemy of Americans at home.
On this Independence Day it would be well for non-elite Americans to reflect on what their interventionist betters are doing at home and abroad that makes a mockery of the Declaration and the Constitution, and then take to heart the following sentiment that Robert E. Lee wrote to the British historian Lord Acton late in 1866, “I yet believe,” General Lee said,
that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people, not only essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard to the continuance of a free government. I consider it as the chief source of stability to our political system, whereas the consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.