“This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.” — Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825.
One of the most rewarding things I have done in my life was to enroll in Hillsdale College’s Constitution 101 course. Through the lectures, study guides, selected readings — and yes, quizzes I have learned more about the founding of this Republic and the mind of our founders that any previous time in my life.
The video lectures are not only informative, but interesting as the professors do a great job of explaining not only the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but also providing the background of the thinking that went into the formulation of these two documents. Abraham Lincoln referred to the Declaration as an “Apple of Gold” and the Constitution as “a Frame of Silver.” No better description could be said.
Today we are facing one of the greatest crises since 1854 and the run up to the Civil War. Since the ear of Woodrow Wilson progressives have been telling us that the Constitution is a living document malleable to change by agenda driven, politically appointed justices of the Supreme Court who have made decisions based on the political climate and agendas of the legislative and executive who are in power — not on the original intent of the framers. This has taken us down the road to where we are today with the Court deciding if the government can force a private citizen to buy something or take and action they do not wish to take.
Decisions such as Wickard v Filburn, Roe v Wade, Korematsu v. United States, where 100,000 American citizens were interred in concentration camps during World War II for no other reason that their ethnicity, and Kelo v. City of New London have shattered the concept of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in favor of granting the government more power than was ever envisioned by the Founders.
Today the general knowledge of the electorate is pathetic, especially among our high school and college students. In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center only 8% of those taking the simple quiz could answer all 13 questions correctly with the average for high school graduates answering correctly was a mere 6.5 and college graduates at 9.9. These are all voters and future voters.
So with a hat tip to Hillsdale College I would like to share with you what these two great documents mean and how we should strive to return to the original intent of the Founders who pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to give us the greatest government man could devise.
Before I begin I must make note of something called the Federalist Papers. These were a series of 85 articles published in the newspapers of the day by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay under the nom de plume of Publius presenting arguments for the adoption of a Federalist Republic. These 85 essays best present the state of the American Mind at the founding of the Republic.
Thomas Jefferson said, was the product of “the American mind.” Our Constitution was made with the same purpose as the Declaration—to establish a regime where the people are sovereign, and the government protects the rights granted to them by their Creator.
The word “constitution” means “to ordain and establish something.” It also means “to set a firm thing strongly in place.” It is linked to two other words: “statute” and “statue.” All three words—constitution, statute, and statue—connote a similar idea of establishing something lasting and beautiful.
The Constitution, then, is a work of art. It gives America its form. To fully know the “cause,” or purpose, of America, one must know the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, its author, mentioned four thinkers for their contribution to molding “the American mind”: Aristotle, Cicero, Algernon Sidney, and John Locke.
It was Locke who stated in his Second Treatise of Government, Chapter 2, Section 6 of The State of Nature:
“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”
Studying these philosophers is a wondrous task in itself, and it greatly helps our understanding of America, just as it informed the statecraft of the Founders. Knowing the meaning of the Declaration and Constitution is vital to the choice before us today as to whether we will live under a Constitution different than the one bequeathed to us.
It was Calvin Coolidge who said in his speech on July 5, 1926 on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence rejecting Progressivism root and branch, and defending America’s founding principles.:
“It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.”
To understand the Declaration we must go back to Sons of Freedom and their fight for liberty.
On December 16th, 1773, “radicals” from Boston, members of a secret organization of American Patriots called the Sons of Liberty, boarded three East India Company ships and threw 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. This iconic event, in protest of oppressive taxation and tyrannical rule, is immortalized as "The Boston Tea Party."
Resistance to the British Crown had been mounting over enforcement of the 1764 Sugar Act, 1765 Stamp Act and 1767 Townshend Act, which led to the Boston Massacre and gave rise to the slogan, “No taxation without representation.”
But it was the 1773 Tea Act, under which the Crown collected a three pence tax on each pound of tea imported to the Colonies, which instigated the Tea Party protest. In turn, that uprising galvanized the Colonial movement opposing British parliamentary acts, as such acts were a violation of the natural, charter and constitutional rights of the colonists.
In response to the Colonial rebellion, the British enacted additional punitive measures, labeled the “Intolerable Acts,” in hopes of suppressing the burgeoning insurrection. Far from accomplishing their desired outcome, however, the Crown's countermeasures led colonists to convene the First Continental Congress on September 5th, 1774, in Philadelphia.
By the spring of 1775, civil discontent was at its tipping point, and American Patriots in Massachusetts and other colonies were preparing to cast off their masters.
On the eve of April 18th, 1775, General Thomas Gage, Royal military governor of Massachusetts, dispatched a force of 700 British Army regulars, under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, with secret orders to capture and destroy arms and supplies stored by the Massachusetts militia in the town of Concord. However, Patriot militiamen under the leadership of the Sons of Liberty anticipated this raid, and the confrontation between militia and British regulars en route to Concord, was the fuse which ignited the American Revolution.
Near midnight on April 18th, 1775, Paul Revere, who had arranged for advance warning of British movements, departed Charlestown (near Boston) for Lexington and Concord in order to warn John Hancock, Samuel Adams and other Sons of Liberty that the British Army was marching to arrest them and seize their weapon caches. (Notably, the catalyst that launched the eight-year struggle for American independence had its beginnings with an effort by the government to disarm the people.) After meeting with Hancock and Adams in Lexington, Revere was captured, but his Patriot ally Samuel Prescott continued to Concord and warned militiamen along the way.
In the early dawn of April 19th, the first Patriots' Day, 77 militiamen under the command of Captain John Parker assembled on the town green at Lexington where they soon faced Smith's overwhelming force of British regulars. Parker did not expect shots to be exchanged, but his orders were, "Stand your ground." When a few links away from the militia column, the British Major John Pitcairn swung his sword, and said, "Lay down your arms, you damned rebels!"
Not willing to sacrifice his small band of Patriots on the Green, Parker ordered his men to hold fire and disperse. However, none laid down their arms as demanded by the British. As Parker's men dispersed, the British opened fire. Eight of Parker's men were killed and 10 wounded. Parker later wrote in sworn deposition, "I immediately ordered our Militia to disperse, and not to fire: Immediately said Troops made their appearance and rushed furiously, fired upon, and killed eight of our Party without receiving any Provocation therefor from us."
The British continued to Concord, where they divided up and searched for armament stores. Later in the day, the second confrontation between regulars and militiamen occurred as British light infantry companies faced rapidly growing ranks of militia and Minutemen at Concord's Old North Bridge. From depositions on both sides, the British fired first on the militia, killing two and wounding four.
This time, however, militia commander, Major John Buttrick, yelled the order, "Fire, for God's sake, fellow soldiers, fire!" Fire they did, commencing with "the shot heard round the world," as immortalized by poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Farmers and laborers, landowners and statesmen alike, pledged through action what Thomas Jefferson would later frame in words as "our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor." In the ensuing firefight, the British took heavy casualties and in discord retreated to Concord village for reinforcements, and then back toward Lexington.
In route to Lexington, the regulars took additional casualties, including those suffered in an ambush by the reassembled ranks of John Parker's militia -- "Parker's Revenge" as it became known. The British were reinforced with 1,000 troops in Lexington, but the King's men were no match for the militiamen, who inflicted heavy casualties upon the Redcoats along their 20 mile tactical retreat to Boston.
Thus began the great campaign to reject tyranny and embrace the difficult toils of securing individual Liberty. “[T]he people alone have an incontestable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to institute government and to reform, alter, or totally change the same when their protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness require it," wrote Samuel Adams.
By the time the Second Continental Congress convened on May 10th, 1775, the young nation was in open war for Liberty and independence, which would not be won until a full decade later, at great cost of treasure and blood. Of the contest for Liberty, Thomas Paine noted, "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."
On May 15th, Congress adopted a resolution calling on the states to prepare for rebellion. In its preamble, John Adams advised his countrymen to sever all oaths of allegiance to the Crown.
On July 6th, Congress approved the “Declaration of the Cause and Necessity of Taking up Arms,” drafted by Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson, which noted: “With hearts fortified with these animating reflections, we most solemnly, before God and the world, declare, that, exerting the utmost energy of those powers, which our beneficent Creator hath graciously bestowed upon us, the arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume, we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating firmness and perseverance employ for the preservation of our liberties; being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live as slaves.”
A year later in Philadelphia, on July 4th, 1776, Jefferson and 55 merchants, farmers, doctors, lawyers and other representatives of the original 13 colonies of the United States of America, in the General Congress, Assembled, pledged “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” to the cause of Liberty. They declared, “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.”
Our Declaration of Independence was derived from common law, “the Laws of Nature and Nature's God,” all men being “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” It calls upon “the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions” and “the protection of Divine Providence.”
The Declaration's common law inspiration for the Rights of Man has its origin in governing documents dating back to the Magna Carta (1215), and was heavily influenced by the writings of Charles Montesquieu and John Locke.
Our Founders further avowed, “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.”
However, its most immediate common law inspiration was William Blackstone's 1765 “Commentaries on the Laws of England,” perhaps the most scholarly historic and analytic treatise on Natural Law.
Blackstone wrote, “As man depends absolutely upon his Maker for everything, it is necessary that he should in all points conform to his Maker's will. This will of his Maker is called the law of nature. ... This law of nature, being coeval [coexistent] with mankind and dictated by God Himself is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times; no human laws are of any validity if contrary to this. ... Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered [permitted] to contradict these.”
Justice James Wilson, a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and one of George Washington's first nominees to the Supreme Court, wrote, "Law — communicated to us by reason and conscience — has been called natural; as promulgated by the Holy Scriptures, it has been called revealed... But it should always be remembered, that this law, natural or revealed — flows from the same divine source; it is the law of God. Human law must rest its authority, ultimately, upon the authority of that law, which is divine."
In 1776, the Second Continental Congress appointed a committee representing the 13 states to draft a formal document of incorporation, and then approved the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union for ratification by the states on November 15th, 1777. The Articles of Confederation were finally ratified on March 1st, 1781, and “the United States in Congress assembled” became the Congress of the Confederation.
The Revolutionary War ended in 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris after the defeat of the British under General Charles Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown on October 19, 1781. It was now up to victors for form a system of government to insure the rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence, something that would take them another four years to complete.
My next part will address the problems and thinking that went into the framing of the silver frame for the apple of gold.
Click Here for Part Two