Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Preamble to the US Declaration of Independence is the Most Boss Copy Put to Parchment

I kind of assume most Americans are aware of the situation as of July 4th, 1776.  Maybe not.  

War had broken out between England and the Colonies.  The work of the First Continental Congress had not been able to persuade King George that rebellion was imminent were the Intolerable Acts not repealed.  In the wake of Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress convened in May of 1775, ready to begin forming an organized effort behind the military action already underway.

Curiously, it took some time for the Colonists to decide that the gunfighting between their own soldiers and British armies might mean they really needed to formally break with England.  Granted, some of this was due to the long process of managing communication between the colonies and their representatives in Philadelphia.

Finally, in June 1776 the situation logically seemed to call for a formal statement, something to be shared not just with the public, but which would communicate the intentions of the Continental Congress to the world.

Thomas Jefferson was tapped to write the document.  The work would receive word-smithing from John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, but you can't argue with the results.

"Yes, but instead of 's', let's use 'f' everywhere.  I think it'll really take off."

I think a lot of people assume the beginning of the Preamble is part of the Constitution (the second paragraph you'll find below.  The first is the Introduction).  The Preamble so clearly lays out the purpose of government for its citizens that one just sort of assumes it would be a fine way to begin your new government's bulleted rules of the road.

Instead, it makes the strongest possible argument for why the colonies have a right to break with England in terms both commoners and royals would understand.  The government is here to serve the betterment of the people - and that the government should come from the people, not the whims of a guy who was born lucky.  Still, the Preamble does not advocate for thoughtless revolution.  It hopes for peaceful change until it becomes obvious such change is no longer possible and the will of government has overtaken that of the best interest of the citizenry.

Now, everyone will see their personal causes and outrages in this, the sorts of things that make them want to send nasty letters to government employees and make wild and unsupportable statements in the comment section of their local paper's website.  But there's a pretty big difference between a law being passed you don't dig and the throttlehold of tyranny meaning some wacky King somewhere has the right to do you wrong without due process any day of the week (I hate getting tried at sea for my comments about the king).

I'm a fan of the Introduction and Preamble, and we recommend you give it a whirl.

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.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. 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.

Sure, the Colonists had precedent in Roman and Greek modes of republicanism and England had Parliament (non-Funkadelic), but there's something positively Magna Carta-ish about just point blank saying "here's what government is for, and you've clearly forgotten that and think you're in charge of all of us.  This is going poorly.  We're out.  Going to go revolutionize how people think of their nations.  Talk later," that I have to admire like crazy.

But, let's return to those first words of the Preamble:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident" - we are putting you on notice.  This is not a point of bargaining.

"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" - this doesn't just speak to England and what the Colonists think Government is for, its become the founding principle upon which we should consider our own Government's legitimacy.  It says right there, as a founding principle, that we think everyone is equal.  There are no Lords or Barons who are above us, nor should another person be seen as below us.  Certainly we do not believe a King or Queen holds divine powers beyond our comprehension and we've got to fall in line.

And most certainly - If Government isn't there to help us preserve our lives, support and defend our liberty and make the land safe for us to pursue our own paths to Happiness (ie: it shouldn't go out of its way to block our lives and liberty and thus quash any chance for happiness - you know, within reason, people), then the government has lost its claim to legitimacy.

Tommy J.  I'm a fan of his work.

For a full transcript of the Declaration of Independence, check out the Archives.gov site (and visit the Archives in person in DC to see the original signed doc and to understand why people still name-drop John Hancock.


Stuart Ward said...

"I'm not given to wild, unsupported statements." ;)

picky said...

This is, quite possibly, one of my favorite pieces of writing. It's definitely one of many reasons I love teaching American Lit.

Ryan Steans said...

@stuart - I really have been watching this movie too much lately...

RHPT said...

Bunch of insurgents.

J.S. said...

Whatever. Bunch of whiney colonists! Now I have to have a stupid passport if I want to go to London! Sheesh.