This week we discussed the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. Certainly the whole document has great importance for us, but whereas the specific grievances have come and gone, we rightly remember the words of the first paragraphs.
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, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But 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.
We take this wording for granted today, but Jefferson’s words espoused some revolutionary ideas. In 1765, the colonists (for the most part) couched their dispute with England in terms of English rights, i.e. “The English government fails to give English liberties to its citizens.” In the Declaration, however, we see the colonists fighting for human, not British rights. Their struggle took place specifically against England, but in the broader sense the colonists fought to be more human.
Jefferson professed Deism and not Christianity, but he clearly states that these rights have universality because of the identity and purpose of our Creator. Jefferson takes the Romans 13 dilemma we discussed a few weeks ago and turns it on its head. Government’s exist to protect human dignity. If they fail in this, government becomes the rebel against God, and this means people have a duty to fight them, not merely permission. Jefferson’s stroke remains brilliant and controversial even today.
Unlike other countries (founded on shared history or shared biology), the United States founded itself on an idea. The universality of this idea has done much to shape our history. Critics of our policy often accuse us of “meddling” in affairs that don’t concern us. Certainly this charge has at least some merit. But in our defense, we might say that we can’t help it. The Declaration makes humanity itself our business. We might further state that we have no wish to make others more like us, rather, we wish to help them become more human. There may be some self-deception in this line of reasoning, but I think many Americans think this way whether consciously or no. On the flip-side, this universality has helped us be more open to other peoples emigrating and finding a place in our society.
We also discussed two other controversial aspects of the Declaration:
- Should we have the right to “pursue happiness?” What has this meant for us? I touch on some of these ideas in this post here.
Author/commentator Malcolm Muggeridge thought the inclusion of the “pursuit of happiness in the Declaration a great disaster. He said,
There is something ridiculous and even quite indecent in an individual claiming to be happy. Still more a people or a nation making such a claim. The pursuit of happiness… is without any question the most fatuous which could possibly be undertaken. This lamentable phrase ”the pursuit of happiness” is responsible for a good part of the ills and miseries of the modern world.
The truth is that a lost empire, lost power and lost wealth provide perfect circumstances for living happily and contentedly in our enchanted island.
I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die. For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus.
- Jefferson’s original draft of the Constitution contained a strong anti-slavery section, but in the end he removed it to allow for all colonies to join in signing the document. This may have helped us fight the war for independence, but it disastrously postponed our nation dealing with the terrible crime of slavery. Was this worth it?
We then moved on to finish the fighting in the war, and focused on the battles of Saratoga (1777) and Yorktown (1781). On Friday we played a game in class where the rules gave certain advantages to the “favorite.” But the “underdog” also had key advantages. .
- They could afford to play more recklessly as they had less to lose
- If they got luck or could bluff their way to one big success, they could simply fold (i.e. retreat in orderly fashion) and wait until time ran out in the game.
Many of you may have seen an action movie where the lone hero has to fight his way into a compound, boat, or other structure. Despite being badly outnumbered, he manages to get the bad guys and escape. Along with Hollywood convention at work, the hero does have some actual advantages. He knows that every person he sees is a bad guy, where his opponents must exercise much more caution. They hesitate and give the hero the advantage, who can shoot first and ask questions later.
This analogy could easily get stretched too far, but British failures at Saratoga and Yorktown show the great difficulty the British faced to win the war. How could they solve the problems that created the war in the first place through violence? The deteriorating situation between England and the colonies between 1763-1775 craved a political response that the English proved unable to provide. Victory through violence therefore demanded an absolutely crushing military victory, and would have to take great risks to achieve it. Both times they attempted this, it backfired on them.
Americans had more “freedom” in their strategy because their failures mattered little and their successes got magnified greatly in their political effect. England’s political bungling prior to the war itself paved the way for their defeat.
Here is the march the British played when they surrendered at Yorktown, “The World Turned Upside Down.”