“Our cause is noble; it is the cause of mankind!” –George Washington
Our nation began with these stirring words in the Declaration of Independence: “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.” Now, 231 years later, they still ring true.
We may envision the Founders as rash, rowdy rebels. Not so. Already accomplished in fields of endeavor, they were settled in character and reputation. They deemed their decision necessary, and their first thought was of “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” They were men of purpose and principle, who well understood the peril of choosing to declare independence from Great Britain. Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote to John Adams, “Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the House when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe to what was believed by many at that time to be our death warrants?”
The Founders reasoned that the colonials were compelled to the separation, outlining a detailed list of particulars describing the King of Great Britain’s “long train of abuses and usurpations” that could end only in an intended “absolute despotism” and “establishment of absolute tyranny over these states.” They appealed that the free citizens they represented therefore had both a right and a duty “to alter their former systems of government” and “to provide new guards for their future security.”
They further explained, “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. 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.” They had been patient, measured and restrained in responding to the incursions on their freedoms but could be so no longer.
The central passage of the Declaration’s opening is the document’s most famous, suggesting the form of government truly fit for a free people: “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.”
The Founders sought liberty, not license – rather than a loosening of restraints, a freedom to pursue right. The objective was citizens’ safety and happiness, later called “the common defense,” “the general welfare,” and the “blessings of liberty.” The mottos of the American Revolution were “No King but King Jesus!” and “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”
Given their experiences with a leader who had violated the laws supposed to control his own conduct as much as theirs, the Founders sought to avoid the instability of democracy or of oligarchy, in which one or a handful of people can overturn the foundations by a simple vote or decree. Fisher Ames warned, “The known propensity of a democracy is to licentiousness which the ambitious call, and ignorant believe to be liberty.” John Witherspoon referred to pure democracy as “very subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage.” The Founders ultimately chose a constitutional democratic republic – based on the foundation of the reliable rule of law, responsive to the people’s “consent of the governed” through representation of the citizens, predicated on the virtue of the people.
The colonists came to these shores with a learned tradition of liberty, and this new land offered a manner of living that further taught freedom. Our performance in upholding this heritage is mixed. We are divided as a nation, no longer pressing toward unity and allegiance to shared principles. Facile commentary lauds comity as the antidote for what the Founders derided as faction, applauding the elitist establishment fetish for bipartisanship. But they are exactly wrong. Indeed, bipartisanship today is more akin to factionalism than are those adhering to the two major political parties out of principle.
There remains one crucial question: What are we willing to risk to salvage the heritage our Founders handed down to us? Our warriors in the field have demonstrated that they stand in the direct line from our Patriot Founders – prepared to sacrifice all in service. Many activist citizens gave time, effort and resources to turn aside the Senate’s recent attempts to foist a dangerous change in immigration laws on the nation. But the United States as a nation is not as secure as at its tenuous beginnings.
The signers of the Declaration concluded their treatise, “We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States…. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Do we citizens, inheritors of the Republic bequeathed us, still stand ready to hazard even half so much?