Understanding the Founding Documents (Declaration Edition)

Is it really too much to ask that when people try to make arguments based on our country's founding documents that they at least understand the passages that they are quoting?

Don Surber  (The imprudent election of ’08) writes:

The Declaration of Independence has much to be overlooked. “All men are created equal” towers above the rest of the bold document.

But Jefferson and company inserted a caution in a document they likely knew would be debated and re-read throughout the life of the new nation they conceived.

Specifically: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

This is wise counsel. Twice in my lifetime we have seen change for light and transient causes: 1976 and 2008. Rather than endure a little rough spots, we as a people went overboard — expanding the power of the central government because things were not perfect.

All well and good that Surber was unhappy with the election results of 1976 (Carter over Ford) and 2008 (Obama over McCain) — such is his right and there are plenty of people who would agree with him.  However, the application of the above from Declaration is utterly incorrect.  I realize that he is, at least in part, using it as a launching off point for a blog post.  However, it fits into a broader attempt in our current discourse to imbue incorrect meaning into various founding documents.

Jefferson was not speaking about elections.  He wasn’t talking about public policy.  He certainly wasn’t talking about “expanding the power of the central government because things were not perfect.”

First, it should be noted that when the Declaration was penned that fateful summer of 1776 the Constitution wasn’t even a glint in Madison’s eye.  It would be over a decade before the convention would meet and so Jefferson was not thinking about elections or basic governance.  He was talking about revolutionary change — about tearing down an existing institutional framework and replacing it with another.  He was not talking about changing administrations or public policy foci within an existing institutional framework.

Second, like the rest of the Declaration, Jefferson was heavily borrowing from John Locke, who noted that while people have the fundamental right to dissolve governments under certain circumstances, such moves should only happen in rare circumstances (which is what Jefferson is referring to above).

This makes me think of the following passage from Locke’s Second Treatise on Governement (from Chapter XIX:  Of the Disolution of Government):

Sec. 225. Secondly, I answer, such revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs. Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient laws, and all the slips of human frailty, will be born by the people without mutiny or murmur. But if a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going; it is not to be wondered, that they should then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected; and without which, ancient names, and specious forms, are so far from being better, that they are much worse, than the state of nature, or pure anarchy; the inconveniencies being all as great and as near, but the remedy farther off and more difficult.

Indeed, if one actually looks at the text of the Declaration , the line that precedes the one Surber quotes above is:

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.

Again:  that’s about radically changing the structure of government, not electing a particular party to the presidency.

If one is going to attempt to deploy the founding documents to make an argument, use the documents correctly.

I will leave aside the assertions that Surber makes about what he calls the “calamity [we] elected president” in terms of exactly how radically different Obama really is from the administration that preceded him (although I will note:  not nearly as different as Surber suggests).

FILED UNDER: The Presidency, US Politics, , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter