HGov: Declaration of Independence

06 Roots of Democracy

America during the colonial period developed traditions of limited government and self-government. These traditions were rooted in governing practices, political theory, and cultural values.

The two basic principles that are key to English political thought are limited government and representative government. The seeds for the idea of limited government first appeared in the Magna Carta of 1215. In 1689, Parliament passed the English Bill of Rights, which set clear limits on the monarch. Enlightenment ideas introduced a social contract that existed between government and the people it served. English colonists brought their ideas about government to the American colonies. When the first colonists arrived in North America, the idea of limited government was not unheard of. The colonists drafted and signed the Mayflower Compact, which stood as an example of colonial plans for self-government. Each of the thirteen colonies wrote a constitution, elected representatives to a legislature, and separated the powers of the executive and legislative branches.

The Enlightenment was an eighteenth-century philosophical movement that began in western Europe with roots in the Scientific Revolution. The focus was on the use of reason rather than tradition to solve social dilemmas. The following Enlightenment philosophers contributed directly to the formation of thought that led to the creation of the American Constitution and government.

Thomas Hobbes’s famous work Leviathan argued that if humans were left to their own devices, chaos and violence would ensue. In a state of nature, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He argued that the best way to protect life was to give total power to an absolute monarch.

While Hobbes was concerned primarily with the protection of life, John Locke went further and argued in his Second Treatise on Civil Government that liberty and property also needed to be respected. According to Locke, life liberty, and property were natural rights granted by God; it was the duty of all governments to respect and protect these rights. If the government did not, Locke contended, the citizens have the right of revolution.

Charles de Montesquieu was a French philosopher who greatly influenced the founders. His De L’Esprit des Lois (The Spirit if the Laws) advocated the separation of power into three branches of government.

Jean Jacques Rousseau argued that the only good government was one that was freely formed with the consent of the people. This consent was shown in a powerful “social contract” which was an agreement among people.

declaration of independenceWe begin our discussion on the development of the Constitution by discussing the goals of government presented by the Declaration of Independence of 1776. After the British won the costly French and Indian War, King George III levied taxes on goods purchased in the colonies. The colonists protested. In retaliation, Parliament harshly reduced the rights of colonists. Colonial leaders began to work together to take political action against British oppression. The first battle of the Revolutionary War occurred in 1775, and delegates at the Second Continental Congress assumed the powers of the central government. On July 4, 1776, the colonies broke from British rule after signing the Declaration of Independence.

The committee of leaders of the Continental Congress agreed on a statement that explained the need for attempted separation from Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston included the ideas from philosophers such as Locke, Rousseau, and Montesquieu in the Declaration of Independence.

Looking at Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, you can’t help but notice the similarities between the language Locke used and the phrases used in the Declaration of Independence. Ideas such as natural rights as they relate to life, liberty, and property; the consent of the governed; and the concept of limited government were all borrowed by the authors of the Declaration of Independence. For instance, Locke describes natural rights as “the state of nature has a law to govern it, which obliges everyone.” The Declaration of Independence calls natural law “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” On equality, Locke refers to people as “men being by nature all free, equal and independent,” whereas the Declaration of Independence announced that “all men are created equal.” In addition, the Declaration of Independence used many of the concepts from English Common Law related to the rights of the accused and the institutions such as representative colonial assemblies as the rationale why the colonists wanted to revolt against Great Britain.

The list of charges against King George III also had a significant effect on the goals of the Articles of Confederation and then on the Constitution itself. The Declaration of Independence lists many abuses brought about by bad leadership. Using the philosophical arguments of John Locke and others, this list is a blueprint of what government should not be allowed to do. It enumerates what freedoms government must provide for citizens and how citizens should control government.

Using Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government as a model, Jefferson emphasized how the government was a form of social contract between citizens and leaders. Jefferson wrote that government exists to provide liberties and freedoms for those who agree to the rules and limits. He also wrote that the phrase “life, liberty, and pursuit of property” to emphasize the fundamental goal of the country’s government structure. The Declaration of Independence remains a key guide to the rights maintained in a limited government.

Looking at the Declaration of Independence itself, you should be able to summarize these major parts of the document:

The Philosophical Basis
Using Locke’s philosophy, the Declaration of Independence establishes “unalienable rights” as the cornerstone of natural rights. As a consequence of these rights, limited governments are formed receiving their powers from “the consent of the governed.”

The Grievances
In a lawyerlike dissertation, the second part of the Declaration of Independence makes the case against Great Britain. Taxation without representation, unjust trials, quartering of British soldiers, abolition of colonial assemblies, and a policy of mercantilism created a logic for drastic change.

The Statement of Separation
Announcing to the world that the colonists had no choice but to revolt, Jefferson stated that it is not only the right, but the duty of the colonists to change the government. You should understand how risky the revolution was for the colonists. Like David against Goliath, the outcome of the American Revolution was far from certain. England had superior power, a navy that was supreme, and resources that could support a war effort. The colonists resorting to guerrilla tactics and a knowledge of their land, had leadership and a desire for freedom.



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