Thursday, December 16, 2010

Essay on Declaration of Independence

Essay on Declaration of Independence

The 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence, what was to become one of the most important and influencial documents in history, agreed to "mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." Apparently these men were quite serious to their cause, for they all knew they were committing treason.

Fundamentally the Declaration of Independence is at the same time a statement of intent to renounce British rule over the colonies and an argument justifying that intent. The justification for why the colonies had chosen to break with England lies in the philosophical position that human beings -- commoner and king alike -- are first bound by "the laws of nature" and that these natural laws should preempt the traditional notions of sovereign rule by divine right. This natural law theory is predicated on various far-reaching assumptions or "self-evident truths."

The most important assumptions made by the Declaration of Independence are that all men are created equally; that all men have the absolute right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"; that government is a social contract between the governing body and the people who are governed; that society consents to the formation of government in exchange for governmental protection of the rights of individuals within that society; and finally that if society withdraws its consent, the government can be replaced.

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Between the American colonies and Britain specifically, if the British government fails to protect the absolute rights of the colonists by denying them life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness, then the British government has breeched its social contract and the consent of the colonies to be governed by Britain may be withdrawn. Once colonial consent to be governed by the British is withdrawn, that government can be replaced.

The Declaration of Independence acknowledges, however, that a government should not be replaced "for light and transient causes." As such, the Declaration proceeds with a list wrongs which act as evidence of Britain's breech of contract with the colonies and their justification for withdrawing consent to be governed by Britain.

While all of the colonial complaints and charges may well have been true, the British government, of course, did not agree with the premises cited in the Declaration. The British government did not recognize that citizens have absolute rights. As such, it did not require consent to govern and could, in fact, govern in whatever manner it saw fit. The colonists, however, having concluded that their absolute rights were self-evident and therefore not negotiable, came to a practical and philosophical impasse with the British government.

Based upon the assumptions, the argument, and the evidence promulgated in the Declaration of Independence, the colonies openly withdrew their consent to be governed by the British and declared themselves "free and independent states" under a newly formed government.

Would I have signed the Declaration of Independence? Do I believe the colonies were justified in breaking from England? This is a very close decision, but I would not have signed the Declaration. I do not, however, argue strongly against those who supported it.

I agree with the concept of natural law, that human beings are possessed of certain fundamental rights. I believe that government should exist for the benefit of society by protecting the fundamental rights of individuals. I also believe that government is necessary to an orderly society and that the rights of individuals cannot be protected without government. Government is therefore a necessary component of a society which accepts the precepts of natural law. And I strongly believe that a government which substantially fails in its duty to protect the fundamental rights of its citizens can and should be replaced.

For me, the Declaration of Independence revolves around the issue of whether there was a sufficient breech of social contract with the colonies, notwithstanding that the British recognized no such contract. It is clear that no government governs perfectly. No government can cater to each and every individual within society, and there is always some portion of society which quarrels with the effectiveness or legitimacy of its government. The perceived degree to which any government fulfills its obligation to society always slides on a continuum. So the question is, to what degree must a government fail in its obligation to society for society to reject that govenment, and the answer to that question is open to debate. If we accept that government should not be replaced for "light and transient causes," what standard should be used? I would think a very high standard.

Without delving into all the specific colonial complaints outlined in the Declaration against the British government, I think they fall short as a justification for treason. I can't help but wonder if the colonies would have been so quick to revolt had Britain simply not imposed a few annoying taxes. After all, Britain was not engaged in any campaign to starve, murder, torture, or enslave its citizens. Britain's primary intent was to govern the colonies to their mutual benefit, within the constraints of a monarchical government. Based on the argument presented in the Declaration of Independence, I do not believe that the British government's conduct rose to the level of sufficiently denying colonial citizens their fundamental rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Finally, it is easy to believe 225 years later that the colonial decision to become independent was correct because this experiment in democracy worked and America became the most powerful and prosperous country the world has ever seen. But a good result is not always good evidence of a good decision.

While the theoretical framework under which the colonials presented the Declaration of Independence is obviously a good one, the ongoing application of that theory has been difficult. Throughout our history, during 225 years of experience, we have struggled to balance the interests of government against the needs of society and the rights of individuals. Indeed, our history is punctuated by many examples of our government's failure to provide at least some of its citizens the fundamental human rights demanded by the Declaration. And while we have the freedom to openly express our dissatisfaction with government and are free to try to change it, we are not free to destroy it.

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