Rethinking the Southern Secession Movement of 1861

SECESSION - Union is Dissolved

by Diane Rufino, July 23, 2017

The question is: Was the Civil War fought over the issue of Slavery?  I won’t deny that slavery was an issue that inflamed the passions of both sections of the country and put each at odds with one another, but it was NOT the cause of the conflict that I will refer to as the War of Northern Aggression, a war which claimed the lives of over 650,000 young Americans.

At the end of 1860, with the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, the Union was on the verge of dissolution. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated on April 4, seven states had already seceded and a new nation had been formed, the Confederate States of America (complete with a new constitution).  Following South Carolina’s lead (December 1860), Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and then Texas formally severed political ties with the Union. On April 4, Virginia held a state convention to consider secession but voted it down, 89-45. (North Carolina would do the same). Lincoln could not allow the Union to be split; he could not lose the tariff revenue supplied by the agrarian South which, in 1859, not only supplied approximately 80% of the federal revenue, but was used to enrich the industrialized North. And so, something had to be done to give Lincoln a “pretext” to restore the Southern states to the Union.

On April 12, 1861, Lincoln tricked South Carolina militia forces into firing on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter, even after South Carolina had demanded, and even tried negotiating for, the transfer of the fort to the Confederacy. The attack on Fort Sumter would provide the pretext he needed. He used the incident to characterize the southern states as being in a state of active rebellion and thus ordering troops to subdue them. On April 15, President Lincoln declared a state of insurrection and called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion and to defend the capital.  With that proclamation, four more Southern states left the Union. The first was Virginia.

Virginia did not leave the Union because of slavery; same with North Carolina. We should take particular note of this piece of history.

Virginia looked at President’s Lincoln’s Proclamation and demand for troops, and just as her leaders did when President John Adams passed the Sedition Act, she saw serious constitutional violations and contemplated how she needed to respond.

In reading the responses by Virginia’s Governor John Letcher below, you will see that he exercised all the remedies implied in the concept of State Sovereignty, Tenth Amendment, and even the Declaration of Independence:  First, he refused to comply with Lincoln’s decree – Virginia would not supply troops. That is Nullification and Interposition. And then, because the proclamation evidenced the will of a maniac, a tyrant, and an enemy of the Constitution, and evidenced the transformation of the federal government into something Virginia could no longer trust her sovereignty with and no longer wanted to be associated with, her people decided to sever the bonds which held her in allegiance. Virginia seceded.

On April 16, Virginia’s Governor John Letcher made the following dispatch to Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Simon Cameron:

EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENT.RICHMOND, Va., April 16, 1861.

HON. SIMON CAMERON, Secretary of War:

SIR: I received your telegram of the 15th, the genuineness of which I doubted. Since that time (have received your communication, mailed the same day, in which I am requested to detach from the militia of the State of Virginia “the quota designated in a table,” which you append, “to serve as infantry or riflemen for the period of three months, unless sooner discharged.”

In reply to this communication, I have only to say that the militia of Virginia will not be furnished to the powers at Washington for any such use or purpose as they have in view. Your object is to subjugate the Southern States, and a requisition made upon me for such an object — an object, in my judgment, not within the purview of the Constitution or the act of 1795 — will not be complied with. You have chosen to inaugurate civil war, and having done so, we will meet it in a spirit as determined as the Administration has exhibited towards the South. Respectfully,

JOHN LETCHER.

The following day, Governor Letcher issued the following proclamation, which was published for the people of Virginia to read:

Whereas, Seven of the States formerly composing a part of the United States have, by authority of their people, solemnly resumed the powers granted by them to the United States, and have framed a Constitution and organized a Government for themselves, to which the people of those States are yielding willing obedience, and have so notified the President of the United States by all the formalities incident to such action, and thereby become to the United States a separate, independent and foreign power; and whereas, the Constitution of the United States has invested Congress with the sole power “to declare war,” and until such declaration is made, the President has no authority to call for an extraordinary force to wage offensive war against any foreign Power: and whereas, on the 15th inst., the President of the United States, in plain violation of the Constitution, issued a proclamation calling for a force of seventy-five thousand men, to cause the laws of the United states to be duly executed over a people who are no longer a part of the Union, and in said proclamation threatens to exert this unusual force to compel obedience to his mandates; and whereas, the General Assembly of Virginia, by a majority approaching to entire unanimity, declared at its last session that the State of Virginia would consider such an exertion of force as a virtual declaration of war, to be resisted by all the power at the command of Virginia; and subsequently the Convention now in session, representing the sovereignty of this State, has reaffirmed in substance the same policy, with almost equal unanimity; and whereas, the State of Virginia deeply sympathizes with the Southern States in the wrongs they have suffered, and in the position they have assumed; and having made earnest efforts peaceably to compose the differences which have severed the Union, and having failed in that attempt, through this unwarranted act on the part of the President; and it is believed that the influences which operate to produce this proclamation against the seceded States will be brought to bear upon this commonwealth, if she should exercise her undoubted right to resume the powers granted by her people, and it is due to the honor of Virginia that an improper exercise of force against her people should be repelled.

Therefore I, JOHN LETCHER, Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, have thought proper to order all armed volunteer regiments or companies within this State forthwith to hold themselves in readiness for immediate orders, and upon the reception of this proclamation to report to the Adjutant-General of the State their organization and numbers, and prepare themselves for efficient service. Such companies as are not armed and equipped will report that fact, that they may be properly supplied.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the Commonwealth to be affixed, this 17th day of April, 1861, and in the eighty-fifth year of the Commonwealth.

JOHN LETCHER.

On April 17, in a newly-called convention, Virginia, the traditional leader of the South, made the decision to secede – 88 to 55, on the condition of ratification by a statewide referendum. Neither Virginia nor any of the other later-seceding states understood the federal government to authorize violence against member states.

Virginia’s ordinance of secession was ratified in a referendum by a vote of 132,201 to 37,451 on May 23.

On April 4, Virginia decided to remain in the Union. How did that decision preserve or extend slavery?  Virginians had been willing to endure a crushing protective tariff under President Lincoln, the likes of the Tariff of Abominations (1828). And they understood that remaining in the Union would mean that slavery would continue to be under attack by his administration. Virginia was loyal to the Union even when the government was antagonistic to her.  No, slavery wasn’t the reason the Southern states of Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina (and probably others), left the Union. It would be Lincoln’s demand for troops that would change their minds. To these states, remaining in the Union was to abandon every principle of confederation that they valued. Continued loyalty to a Union that would attack member states and being forced to take up arms against her neighbors was inconceivable and intolerable.

Slavery was the issue that caused the North to become aggressively hostile to the states of the South and to cause the South to question whether the two regions could ever have enough of a common interest to remain joined together with a government that was to serve each equally and fairly. But the independent ambitions of the federal government and the schemes and twisted ideology of its president were the direct cause of its violent course the division would take.

 

Reference:

“Governor Letcher’s Proclamation: His Reply to Secretary Cameron – State of Affairs Norfolk,” New York Times, April 22, 1861.  Referenced at:  http://www.nytimes.com/1861/04/22/news/gov-letcher-s-proclamation-his-reply-secretary-cameron-state-affairs-norfolk.html

 

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If God Can Defeat Us in our Homes, He Can Defeat Us as a Nation

- absolute best smile (July 25, 2017)   by Diane Rufino, July 23, 2017

“If Satan can defeat us in our homes, then he can easily defeat us as a nation.” — Paul Aynes, Bible Study, People’s Baptist Church, Greenville, NC

Today was another excellent Sunday in Bible Study and at church. I am always grateful to learn about the Bible and its lessons. Folks, if you are not always learning about your faith, learning about what the Bible teaches, applying those lessons to your life, and associating yourself with people who are doing the same, then you need to think hard about how you spend your time and energies. Always invest in yourself and your family; that is your best investment and that’s where you will get the best pay-off. Stay away from hypocrites. Find the church that serves you best. We all know those who go to church on Sunday but ignore its teachings during the week and in their treatment of others. I’ve learned that the hard way this year.

Remember that Jesus not only died for our sins but he spent his time on Earth teaching. The disciples called him “teacher.” He called himself “The Son of Man.” He came to serve man, by giving us the greatest gift of all – keeping the channel open to our Heavenly Father and offering us the hope of eternal fellowship with Him. He taught so that we could live good and decent lives, serving one another, raising strong families, and therefore providing the foundation of loving, productive communities – always, of course, honoring God. By following his teachings, we can become the best versions of ourselves and thereby establish, as best as possible, the kingdom of heaven here on Earth.

But we can’t live the lessons if we aren’t taught and if we aren’t even seeking out the lessons. We shouldn’t be reading the Bible for its isolated verses; We can’t hope for a strong, healthy nation if we allow essential foundations to crumble. We can’t hope to enjoy the protection of the Divine Creator when we fail to reflect His values.

Going back to the idea that Jesus taught us the lessons that could help establish, as best as possible, a Godly kingdom on Earth, I can’t help but wonder if that was the inspiration for settling the colonies in America. I know that the Pilgrims and the Puritans left England because of religious persecution (that did not adhere to the Anglican Church, or Church of England); they focused particularly intently in the books of the Old Testament and believed that they had to live strictly to the divine law in every aspect of their lives. To that end, compacts and covenants were important in their lives. They were central to their establishments of social, political, and religious organizations. As they understood (from the Old Testament), God promised his people many things, through covenants, such as eternal life, wisdom, liberation from bondage, a new land, a prosperous nation, etc provided they obeyed His law… provided that they obeyed divine and moral law. They lived their lives and established their communities intending to be as close to God’s chosen people as possible.

We may recall from school: The Pilgrims came to America in 1620, aboard the Mayflower, and settled Plymouth Colony. The Puritans reached the new world in 1629 and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony (and they would establish other colonies, such as the Connecticut colony, later on).  The term “Puritan” first began as a taunt or insult applied by traditional Anglicans to those who criticized or wished to “purify” the Church of England. Although the word is often applied loosely, “Puritan” refers to two distinct groups: “separating” Puritans, such as the Plymouth colonists, who believed that the Church of England was corrupt and that true Christians must separate themselves from it; and non-separating Puritans, such as the colonists who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed in reform but not separation. Most Massachusetts colonists were non-separating Puritans who wished to reform the established church.  (Donna Campbell, “Puritanism in New England”).

This reliance on covenants, on promises, on adherence to God’s law, perhaps the reason our founders often referred to our nation as being “guided by Divine Providence.” Samuel Adams once wrote: “Numerous have been the manifestations of God’s providence in sustaining us. In the gloomy period of adversity, we have had ‘our cloud by day and pillar of fire by night.’ We have been reduced to distress, and the arm of Omnipotence has raised us up.”  Our nation’s victories in the Revolution and subsequent wars, our prosperity, and even the inspired words in our founding documents have been attributed to the “benevolence” or the “providence of Almighty God.”  (“Providence” meaning “wisdom”). Otto von Bismarck, ruler of Prussia and then all of Germany (he formed the German empire, 1862-1890) commented: “There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children and the United States of America.”

If our country indeed was founded, in large part, by groups of people who lived according to covenants, including with God and with one another – to follow His laws and to do so for the benefit of one another – then I understand why our early generations believed, and perhaps expected, that God would extend His blessings to the new nation.  Early governments were structured this way. There was firm reliance on the Almighty.  A person who can govern himself properly is an excellent member of society. A society comprised of such individuals needs very little government. A society comprised of such individuals requires very little laws.  When less government is required, more freedom is enjoyed.  Robert Winthrop, former Speaker of the US House (1838-1840) explained it well: “Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled either by a power within them or by a power without them; either by the Word of God or by the strong arm of man; either by the Bible or by the bayonet.”

When less government is required, communities are happier and healthier because everyone is doing right by others; they are exercising their God-given liberties without burdening those of others and they are providing the help and support of others that otherwise government would need to do. In other words, they are getting along because the precepts of the Bible have taught them how to handle the evils that arise in society – vice, greed, ambition, crime, coveting, injustice, oppression, infidelity, immorality, and abuse of civic duty, and they are conscientiously committed to following such precepts.

Matthew 22:36-40 says:  36. “Teacher, what is the most important commandment in the Law?”  37-39. Jesus answered: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. This is the first and most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like this one. And it is, “Love others as much as you love yourself.”  40. All the Law of Moses and the Books of the Prophets are based on these two commandments.

The sixth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams took note: “The law given from Sinai was a civil and municipal as well as a moral and religious code; it contained many statutes . . . of universal application-laws essential to the existence of men in society, and most of which have been enacted by every nation which ever professed any code of laws.”

And his father, John Adams, had delivered this famous message: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

We hear it over-and-over again – that religion and morality are essential to the existence of men in society; that our government system, as established and limited by the Constitution, cannot be maintained unless the people are religious and moral; and that religion and morality are indispensable if we hope to secure the freedoms that we have. And yet we see a trend in the very opposite direction.  The people of the United States are becoming more distant from God, they are becoming shockingly immoral, they spend more and more time in the pleasures and distractions of this world than in education and spiritual renewal, and they work tirelessly to violate the laws of nature that have guided the world from its beginning and have successfully sustained its progression and survival. Satan has been deceiving us in our priorities and in the way we view our lives; rather than living a life of discipline and purpose, today’s individuals live for pure pleasure and self-gratification. It’s a “me, me, me” generation.  Satan has been destroying our homes. In schools, teachers and administrators no longer assume that their student’s parents have the same name, are married, or are even the opposite sex.

We can’t protect our families and strengthen our nation if we don’t secure the one pillar that props us up most strongly – religion. Religion provides the foundation for morality and the two of these together help us make the decisions that keep our nation in good health. To fight Satan, we must spend more time learning what God and Jesus expect from us. We must learn what God’s law means and how we are meant to apply it. Too many people treat the Bible like the progressives treat Constitution – as if it were a “living, breathing document, to be re-interpreted according to the social dictates of the time. In other words, they are willing to perverting it. But here’s the thing:  God’s Law has divine and natural elements to it, and as such, it is unchangeable, infallible, and universal.  Laws made by humans are imperfect, just as humans are. They are subject to change, to be molded and to evolve with time just as people and societies do. But laws that come from God, who, by definition, is the epitome of universality and infallibility, must be perfect, unchanging, and universal. They transcend all time and all cultures. As Marcus Tullius Cicero (of Rome) wrote: “There will be but one eternal and unchangeable law that will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and ruler, that is, God, over us all…”

Again, we are helpless and ill-equipped to meet today’s evil challenges when we don’t study the Bible.

If going to church on Sunday is about feeling good because you’ve made a donation or because you’ve put in an appearance, then all you have, my friends, is a hobby. It’s a waste of your time. If you’re reading a Bible verse here and there in church, then all you’re doing is reading the Bible to know the Bible. You should be in a church that is Bible-centered, where you read the Bible to know God and to study Christ’s teachings. You should be investing in your lives and in your families, and by extension, investing in your communities. The future of our society here in the United States, and therefore the future of our very republic and our ideals depends upon moral accountability.

“We ought to muse upon the things of God, because then we get the real nutriment out of them…… Why is it that some Christians, although they hear many sermons, make but slow advances in the divine life?  It’s because they neglect their closets, and do not thoughtfully meditate on God’s Word. They love the wheat, but they do not grind it; they would have the corn, but they will not go forth into the fields to gather it; the fruit hangs upon the tree, but they will not pluck it; the water flows at their feet, but they will not stoop to drink it. From such folly deliver us, O Lord…… ”― Charles H. Spurgeon

 

References:

Diane Rufino, “Self-Governing Individuals are Necessary for a Self-Governing Society,” www.forloveofgodandcountry.com, April 14, 2013.   Referenced at:  https://forloveofgodandcountry.com/2013/04/14/self-governing-individuals-are-necessary-for-a-self-governing-society/

Donna M. Campbell, “Puritanism in the New England,” Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washington State University. .Referenced at:  https://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/purdef.htmby

Those Who are Tearing Down Confederate Monuments are Forcing Selective Amnesia on Americans

ROBERT E. LEE - in front of door

by Diane Rufino, July 27, 2017

In this era when Southern (Confederate) leaders, symbols, generals, buildings, etc are being erased from our memory and history, and vilified in our conversations because of their connection to slavery, I wanted to take this opportunity to remind folks that they should really do some homework before jumping on this politically-correct bandwagon.  A history lesson is an opportunity for speech, for dialogue, for debate, for learning.  Erase history and you erase much more than the mere reminder than an event happened. Erase the memory of the Confederacy and you erase a time when states had the backbone to stand up for the principles in the Declaration of Independence (“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..”). Erase the memory of the Confederacy and you erase a time when states were willing to exert their natural rights of self-determination (aka, secession) rather than allow the federal government to subjugated them completely to its ambitious designs. Erase the memory of the Confederacy and you erase the last time in our nation’s history when states actually believed themselves to be the powerful sovereigns that they thought they would be under the US Constitution.

Be careful how you treat history.

Now many, it seems, are calling for the destruction of the monuments erected to Confederate leaders and Confederate generals, such as the great General Robert E. Lee.  There is no finer gentleman, no finer American, no finer human being than General Lee.  When President Lincoln tricked the South Carolina militia to fire on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1860, therefore giving him the reason he needed to raise troops to invade the South and force it back into the Union, he had some soul-searching to do. He was summoned to serve Lincoln and command the Northern Army, but then he would have to take up arms against the state he loved so much. Back in the day, one’s citizenship and one’s loyalties were first and foremost with one’s state (except, of course if you were a member of Congress). It was Lincoln’s Proclamation of April 15 that made Lee’s decision to fight for Virginia an easy one. Lincoln sent a dispatch to states such as Virginia and North Carolina, demanding that they send 75,000 troops to the Northern Army in order to invade the “rebelling states.”  Taking up arms, killing fellow Southerners, and imposing government force on his neighbors were things his conscience would not allow.  And so, he resigned the standing position he had with the government and joined the Confederate cause (Virginia voted to secede on April 17).

Lincoln had a tortured understanding of the Constitution and the South was right to resist.  Robert E. Lee, like so many other Southerns, was not a supporter of slavery and was looking forward to the day when the institution would either die a natural death (which it was on its way to doing) or would be abolished. He thought it an evil institution.  But slavery was not the cause of the hostilities that brought the War. It was government ambition, the disregard for States’ Rights, and the use of government force against member states (the ones who created the government in the first place) that initiated the violence that would claim more than 650,000 young American lives.  General Lee made the right choice. It may not have been the choice that best served our collective conscience regarding the enslavement of an entire race, but that’s not what the war was about. He made the right choice because only when states have the power to make their rightful decisions, including the decision to separate from an abusive government, can they effectively carry out the essential role that they play in our government system – to check the federal government when it oversteps its constitutional authority.

So, those who clamor to take down the statues of men like General Lee, or to erase his name from buildings and streets, take a moment to read what he had to say about slavery when the war was over: “I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained.”

2017 Independence Day Reflection

The Liberty Bell

by Diane Rufino, July 4, 2017

“My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died; Land of the Pilgrims’ pride, from ev’ry mountainside, Let freedom ring!

Every successful experiment starts with a great hypothesis.  A hypothesis is a testable answer to a scientific question; an educated guess. One can say that our great American experiment started with a profound hypothesis. That hypothesis held that liberty is most secure when it is recognized and accepted that human rights are endowed by the Creator — not by government — and are therefore inalienable; that governments are creations or creatures of the People, instituted primarily to secure their rights and to serve them as they seek to establish an ordered society; and that once government becomes destructive of its ends, the People have the natural and inherent right to alter or abolish it and establish another form of government in its place.

That hypothesis was our Declaration of Independence.

Those who read the Declaration and think it stands merely for the notion 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…” are missing the bigger picture. They are missing out on perhaps the most revolutionary, the most profound, the most important political statement ever made. It is the document that has changed the world.

And yet, in planning to declare independence from Great Britain, our Founders could not know that this document, in all its grandeur and espousing such profound and enlightened principles, would be the vehicle. Perhaps history put the right man in the right place at the right time, for the right purpose.

Once hostilities broke out between the colonies and Great Britain, the colonies sought to use the opportunity to issue a simple declaration, stating that they regarded themselves as no longer a part of the British Empire but rather as free and independent States.  Thomas Jefferson would give us much more than a simple declaration.

On June 7, 1776, acting under the instruction of the Virginia Convention and particularly its presiding officer Edmund Pendleton (who had served as the President of the First Continental Congress), Richard Henry Lee on introduced a resolution in the Second Continental Congress proposing independence for the colonies. The Lee Resolution contained three very simple parts: a declaration of independence, a call to form foreign alliances, and “a plan for confederation.”

Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances.

That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.

On June 11, the Second Continental Congress appointed three concurrent committees to address Lee’s Resolution – one to draft a declaration of independence, a second to draw up a plan to form foreign alliances, and a third to plan a form of a confederation for the colonies. To draft the declaration, Congress named a five-member committee comprised of John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut. Although Adams was deemed best qualified to write the draft, he urged Jefferson to write it. Jefferson had approached his friend Adams to confirm that he would be drafting the declaration. But Adams responded: “I will not. You should do it. You ought to do it.”  When Jefferson asked why, Adams explained: “Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.”  [Adams was indeed unpopular; he had represented the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre

That very day, Jefferson would begin work on the Declaration of Independence. He moved into a small house -two blocks from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress had been meeting – in order to write in seclusion. Because several members of the Congress wanted to seek instruction from their colonies before addressing such an extreme measure, the vote was deferred until July 2.

On July 2, the Congress voted on independence. It adopted the Lee Resolution, which, as reproduced above, declared the individual states independent from Great Britain. “Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”   But the Congress decided it needed to draft a document explaining the move to the public (“The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world…”)  Such a draft had been proposed and submitted by the Committee of Five (written by Jefferson), and it took two days for the full Congress to agree on the edits. That is why we see the words “IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776,” at the top of the Declaration, because that is the day the last version was approved and signed in Philadelphia, at Independence Hall.

Once the final version was approved, the actual Declaration on Independence document that was signed on July 4 was sent to a printer named John Dunlap. About 200 copies of the Dunlap Broadside were printed and sent to the states, including to General George Washington.

The document was not titled “Declaration of Independence” nor does the term appear anywhere in the document, yet that was clearly its intention. The declaration justified the independence of the colonies by first asserting their collective understanding of the relationship between the individual and government, as well as the purpose and limits of government, then listing the colonists’ grievances against King George III (summing up with the line: “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people”), and finally asserting certain natural and legal rights, including the right of secession (“That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved”).

The Declaration of Independence was a transformative document.  No longer would individuals have to petition or plead with government to respect their rights. Going forward, government would be established for the primary purpose of securing and enlarging their rights, guaranteeing that an ordered society would be possible while still allowing individuals to exercise the rights that they were born with; governments would no longer treat individuals like “subjects.” They would not be subject to the good graces or generosity of a King or his wrath or insecurity. “Inalienable” would now characterize the rights that their forefathers, Englishmen, could only enjoy if the King allowed it.

I love how exquisitely the Declaration of Independence explains how government is grounded in God’s Law and Nature’s Law and that it is always a creature of the people, for the people. For that reason, governments are always “temporary” in nature, enduring only as long as they protect and secure certain essential individual rights and as long as they serve productive ends. When a government ceases to serve either end, nature and Thomas Jefferson tell us that people have the right, the natural right (the right of self-determination, which is equally as “inalienable” as the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”) to alter or abolish it. And that is what the people of the American colonies, chose to do. The Declaration made the case for that decision, explaining that the “government” of Great Britain – the King and Parliament – had become destructive and abusive of their rights, which had been set forth in the great Magna Carta and solidified in the English Bill of Rights of 1689. As Jefferson made clear, because “the history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States,” it was their natural right to sever political bonds with it, declare independence, to secede from Great Britain), and to establish a new government better suited to serve them and to respect and exemplify their ideals. The founding principles so brilliantly laid out in the Declaration form a foundation as strong as bedrock for our individual rights. If they are endowed by the Creator, who dare have the authority to take them away?  Similarly, if they are natural rights, belonging to us at our birth, we don’t lose them – just as we don’t lose the ability of our bodies to reproduce and have children and just as a falling body will always be acted on by the force of gravity. Some things are simply absolutes. Nature dictates life since it is from nature that we exist.  Jefferson grounded our rights in both God’s Law and Nature’s Law (some will argue that they are, in fact, one and the same), as the first paragraph of the Declaration makes clear: “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.”

If we only took the time to read this magnificent document, to study it, and to truly understand and appreciate every phrase that Jefferson included, we would have a far deeper sense of gratitude for our Founders and their inspired wisdom and foresight and a far deeper appreciation for what this country stands for (or “stood for”). Perhaps people might even realize that being an American is a far greater privilege that they had ever bothered to contemplate and that maybe, just maybe, such a privilege carries an obligation to conduct oneself in a respectful and dignified manner, always mindful of what he or she represents as a citizen and always ready to defend and exemplify the best that the country stands for. I love our Declaration of Independence, and to me, it is, and has always been, the most important of all founding documents – serving as our nation’s moral compass and forever shining a light on the reasons and principles of our existence.

Jefferson’s profound hypothesis still stands. But has our experiment steered away from hypothesis so that the ultimate question can no longer be answered?  That is the question.  What does the future hold when we’ve loosened the moorings that once tied Liberty to the principles in the Declaration?

 

PHILLY 2017 - Diane in front of house Jefferson wrote Declaration #2