GUEST COLUMN: The Declaration of Independence

Article excerpt

Many political documents are nothing more than statements of a moment. They're outdated almost as quickly as a daily newspaper.

Consider the ridiculous Post Huron statement, drafted 50 years ago by the far-left Students for a Democratic Society. "We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit," it begins. Well, since those students are now retirees, mostly living in "modest comfort" on Social Security, the rest of the statement is rendered meaningless to today's world.

Or there's the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, signed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union. President George W. Bush finally put that agreement to rest in 2002, more than a decade after the U.S.S.R. had disappeared.

As Americans get set to celebrate the Fourth of July, it's worth asking: Is the same thing true of the Declaration of Independence? It may be seen as nothing more than a list of complaints filed against a tyrannical monarch by a bunch of white landowners wearing wigs. Since King George III and the colonists are long dead, their words no longer matter, right?

Wrong.

Indeed, the Declaration charged the king with 30 offenses, some legal and some matters of policy. Thus, the colonists announced they were "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 brilliance of the document is that the Founders didn't stop there. The Declaration's greater meaning was as a statement of the conditions of legitimate political authority and the proper ends of government. It proclaimed that political rule would, from then on, reside in the sovereignty of the people. "If the American Revolution had produced nothing but the Declaration of Independence," wrote the great historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, "it would have been worthwhile."

The ringing phrases of the document's famous second paragraph are a powerful synthesis of American constitutional and republican government theories. All men have a right to liberty as they are by nature equal. None are naturally superior, and deserve to rule, or inferior, and deserve to be ruled. …

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