The Spirit of Independence

The Declaration of Independence was a lengthy cahier de doleances and an exercise in rhetoric of the white middle class of the thirteen colonies. Using self-righteous rhetoric and founded on Lockean principles, the signers put forth all the complaints they had about the actions of King George. The document should not be understood as a signal to future Americans as to how they should conceive of the role of government, but can shed some light on the signers’ general political philosophy.
The Declaration begins with a profession of faith in the complete works of John Locke and goes further to state that Locke’s philosophy is self-evident. The operating principles are of a government formed by men, whose duty it is to preserve their natural rights (namely, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), and which can be dissolved if it “becomes destructive to those ends.” Unfortunately for the signers, the English government was not formed with their consent, and though they may have up to this point considered themselves full English citizens, the monarchy had not cared for decades whether its citizens (particularly those in faraway, unimportant colonies) thought it was doing a good job. The signers prudently did not declare that the king should be overthrown but that he “has abdicated government here, by declaring us out of his protection and waging war against us.” This accusation even ventures into Hobbesian territory. Hobbes states that government’s main role is to ensure survival, but King George is accused of saying he won’t protect the colonists and even waging war against them. Based solely on logic and philosophy the signers’ desire to separate from this government is quite rational.
In order to appreciate the Declaration’s repercussions it cannot, of course, be taken solely as a document. It was the match on the tinder of the revolution, so to speak. It laid out the principles behind this revolution (the first successful democratic revolution in centuries) and is still an important reference today. That it does affirm Lockean thought so boldly means that many of the signers (some of whom went on to craft the nascent American government) actually believe that government exists only to preserve the natural rights of its citizens. These signers must also believe that all of the actions King George has taken are very bad (not only because they were done to the States) and that they cannot do the same when and if their new government is in place.
If these principles were really what define American spirit, then I would not say that as a country we have held true to that spirit. Our government does not limit itself to preserving life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and a large portion of the population believes that the government has gotten so bloated that it obstructs liberty if not the other objects as well. Furthermore, the government has since taken many of the actions that the signers of the Declaration found so detestable. The US has placed embargoes and blockades on other countries, “cutting off [their] trade with all parts of the world.” The military has transported citizens and residents “beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses,” such as to the prison at Guantánamo Bay. It has invaded abolished the laws in other countries “establishing therein an arbitrary government.” One might argue that these foreign policy decisions are in the interest of national self-preservation, but they still violate the apparent wishes of the signers. The signers lived in a different world: the colonists lived in a smaller area and most had similar fears (Indians, British soldiers, farm productivity, trade) and similar concepts of how to exercise one’s liberty, and what the pursuit of happiness means. Today, the US population is 100 times what it was then, and the land mass is over 5 times the size. Our population encompasses many more religions, trades, and moral codes than the population of the colonies. We don’t and can’t agree on the moral foundation of how to live one’s life. How can we agree on what our national spirit is?


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