It’s again time for my annual Fourth of July, “Declaration and us” essay. In this series of essays, I try to honor the day by taking the document seriously. From the start of the series in 2014, I’ve taken my bearings from Jefferson’s famous phrase (in a letter to Richard Henry Lee) that the Declaration is “an expression of the American mind.” My guiding questions have been: how did that mind look at the world? How would that mind look at our world?
This year is no different. What is different is the topic. How can we discern grave political evil? For as it happens, the American mind expressed in the Declaration is neither an ostrich nor a Pollyanna. Quite the contrary, it is on the lookout for political “evils.” Specifically, it would have us be on the alert for “abuses and usurpations” on the part of government, or for their cousins, “injuries and usurpations.” Most ominously, it would have us be on the lookout for “designs” on the part of government agents and their allies to subject a free People to the greatest political evil, “absolute Despotism.” As the founding document of the United States of America, the Declaration stands as a warning to subsequent American governments that they exist under judgment.
They are under human judgment, but they are also under divine judgment, as the concluding paragraph of the document indicates. In appealing to “the Supreme Judge of the world,” the signers of the Declaration applied a distinct sort of ‘religious test’ to themselves and to King George’s government, which he failed by systematically violating the duties of his office. To be sure, this test was different from the religious tests subsequently banned by the Constitution. Both, however, go together in the American founding dispensation. While the Constitution enshrines religious liberty, the Creator’s moral-political standards are inscribed in the Declaration’s normative vision for politics and government. So too are conscientious appeals to His verdict on conduct that violates them.
To be sure, the Declaration also observes a certain natural conservatism and patience on the part of the People in the face of even egregious governmental misconduct. And it counsels “prudence” in dealing with errant government. But repeated misconduct can add up to “a long train of injuries and usurpations” that finally calls for recognition and response. And if the People are slow to grasp the trajectory of events, leaders can step forward and, by bringing principles to bear on marshaled facts, help focus and form the popular mind. This is an important part of what “the Representatives” of “the good People of these Colonies” are doing in the Declaration itself.
Last year I wrote about the instruction and example the Declaration provides to those who wish to band together against the designs of a misguided administration bent on manifold mischief. This year, I wish to turn to the logically prior topic, the criteria of judgment the Declaration puts forth to discern advancing injustice. The Declaration does so in two places principally. The first deals with what I have elsewhere called “the principles of politics,” which are found in the second part of the document. This part lays out the “ends” of rightful government and the principles of its construction; both can be employed as criteria to judge governmental officials and their deeds. To what ends do their actions tend? Are they acting within the bounds of their offices? More substantively, does government in all its branches—legislative, executive, and judicial—aim at the principal object of government, which is to protect the inalienable rights of its citizens? These are direct questions that go to the heart of the matter.
The second passage is the lengthy list of “injuries and usurpations” perpetrated by the king and his allies in Parliament laid out in part three of the Declaration. Because it lists specific abuses, injuries, and usurpations on the part of the king and (eventually) Parliament, it is particularly relevant to our topic, for several reasons. It draws our attention to specifics, which in turn imply or refer to principles. That combination is itself a lesson for political judgment. Particulars, patterns, and principles must be brought and thought through together when considering the conduct and character of government. In this respect, the Declaration is both a specimen and a model of political reasoning. Having founded America, it can continue to form Americans. In what follows, therefore, I will survey the list in order to tease out principles, then venture a few applications to our government as presently constituted. The reader, of course, is welcome to agree, disagree, or add to my applications.
The full list of grievances contains twenty-seven items, eighteen committed by the king, and nine by Parliament. They divide into five parts and progress in a crescendo of malfeasance to a necessary conclusion.
The first seven items bear upon the king’s—the executive power’s—relationship to legislative power, specifically the legislatures of the Colonies. The legislative power of government and its well-working is the first concern of the mind surveying the American past and present. In social contract theory that priority makes perfect sense, since legislative power is the first power of government discussed by Locke, for example. In language more consonant with the Declaration itself, legislative precedence is warranted as the chief organ of the self-government of a free people. To attack the rights of legislatures is not just to deny the norm of common rules equally applied, but to attack a sovereign people in its character as self-governing. This is the opening section’s chief and underlying concern. It is so important to Declaration thinking that it will recur later as Parliament’s chief misdeed.
After the legislature, the next two items deal with the executive’s relationship to the judiciary. Thus, within the first nine items, we have the three great powers of government. Implicit in the fact that charges of executive wrongdoing are again being leveled, are standards of the proper relationship between it and the judicial power. The two invoked here are adequate provision for the judicial protection of a People and, connected to that, the independence of the judiciary. “He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers” and “He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.” With respect to the king’s wrongdoing, there are sins of omission and sins of commission. In both cases, one detects an executive intent on bending the judicial power to his will. These are actions of an aspiring tyrant.
Next come three very disconcerting “works” of the executive in areas that in principle are central to his office (administration and defense), but in practice betray an ominous “Design.” The list is short enough to cite.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to Harass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military Independent of and superior to the Civil Power.
While the erection of new offices may, in the abstract, be justified or innocuous, its real purpose becomes clear when officeholders proceed to harass and impoverish those they should serve. The biblical term “swarms” is particularly telling here, as it indicates excessive numbers bent on nuisance and spoliation. The term indicates executive governance gone terribly awry.
This a fortiori is the case with the two subsequent items, which consider the case in which the executive has used its authority over military forces as though peacetime were wartime and “the Military” was solely its instrument to wield. Here basic principles of non-threatening, non-tyrannical, government have been flouted. Following the earlier trend, the legislative contributions to free government have been overridden. This is already quite alarming, but there is even worse executive action to recount.
Before continuing in this bellicose vein, however, the Declaration lists nine usurpations on the part of Parliament. Parliament was enlisted as the king’s ally in violating the “constitution” that had organized political relations between the colonies and the metropole. An opening statement prepares the specific charges to follow: “He has combined with others [Parliament] to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation.” Then follow nine specific instances of Parliament’s “pretended Legislation.” The ninth returns to the first seven items of the list and strikes at the heart of American self-government. Their “pretended Legislation” aimed at “suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.” Here was a direct, and definitive, assault on colonial self-government.
The fifth and last section of the indictments returns to the monarch and brings to a bloody culmination his belligerent actions. Withdrawing his protection from the colonies, he has introduced a state of nature between them and himself. In keeping with the worst possibilities of that condition, he has waged war against them. His conduct of this war has included “transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny,” “exciting domestic insurrections amongst us,” and enlisting Indian tribes to wage war against “all ages, sexes, and conditions.” In a characteristic act of tyranny, he has compelled citizens captured at sea to bear arms against their country and their civic brethren. Classical wisdom long ago recognized that sowing discord among citizens and pitting them against one another is the modus operandi of the tyrant. King George confirms this ancient wisdom.
This last point can be a jumping off point to today. The appointments and executive orders of our present government make clear that it is all-in when it comes to advancing identity politics. This form of politics deliberately sows discord among the citizenry, inflaming factions for political gain. It conceptualizes the American people in terms of opposing groups and pits them against each other. In so doing, it violates the Declaration’s fundamental conception of justice, which centers on the rights of individuals, their talents and skills, their character and deeds. It should be constantly called out as the ugly face that true systematic injustice displays today. Patriotic representatives should make a habit of ending each speech in Congress with politica identica delenda sunt.
Given the Declaration’s keen interest in the king’s abuse of the military and administration, it would look with horror on the weaponizing of departments by partisan chief administrators. Disconcerting realities in this vein have come to light repeatedly in recent years. Informed citizens today might reasonably worry that the leaders of the IRS, FBI, and CIA are fundamentally untrustworthy, and potentially willing to neglect or even betray their core mission for the sake of serving the political interests of particular parties or powerful men. In response to COVID-19, many governmental organizations arrogated even more invasive powers to themselves, further legitimizing citizens’ concerns about abusive applications of administrative power. If these developments are not carefully monitored, honest American citizens, legitimate civic organizations, and ‘threatening’ presidential candidates will continue to be targeted for harassment and worse by their political opponents.
The ongoing implementation of identity politics in our armed services brings the two preceding points together. Enforced wokeness has predictably demoralized our military, accelerated retirements, and exacerbated the decline in recruitment. These results confirm the wrongness of making the military an ideological plaything, more concerned about social engineering than the waging of war. The debacle of the withdrawal from Afghanistan also displayed the military malfeasance of our current regime, while calling into question the military’s current leadership. Not a single general officer resigned in the wake of this national humiliation. Ideology and careerism make for a toxic brew. Ideology and power can be even more dangerous. They are sooner or later destructive of the liberties and self-government of a people.
Almost a quarter of a millennium ago, the American colonists considered the king’s conduct and reflected on its significance in light of their own desire and capacity for self-governance. They decided they had no future with him, so their future had to be without him. We may need to ask similar questions about some of our officials today.