Monday, July 6, 2009

Thoughts on the Declaration of Independence

It's just past the 4th of July and I'm meditating on one of the most significant documents in our culture:  the Declaration of Independence.  The Declaration was not simply an astounding piece of prose, it was a breath-taking attack on everything that was then contained in the word 'government'.

At the time of the Declaration there was virtually no place on earth one could go to be FREE.  Except for 'the wilderness' the world was controlled by kings and emperors;  everyone else was 'a subject'.  In England, the Magna Carta provided something by way of protection for the common man against the king, but not much.  Your life was pretty much not your own to do with as you pleased.  Yes, of course, there were political philosophers of the liberal persuasion (John Locke among others) who held that man was not simply capable of self-government but entitled to it, owing allegiance to no one.  They, however, weren't in charge of things;  the kings and emperors were.

So the sentiments in the Declaration truly were 'revolutionary', espousing some very out-of-the-mainstream ideas.  Our Founding Fathers wanted to start a fire and they did.  Consider:

"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..."  This is political arson:  the sole function of government is to secure the rights held by common men as their heritage from God  (or Nature or whatever externality doesn't offend your sensibilities);  these rights can't be taken away by any earthly power.  The king is employed by the people who consent to his governance!  When the government stops performing its function the people have the right to dump it.  In fact, it's a duty:  "...it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government...".

The practical problem is:  how does one 'dump' a government the size of ours?  That's not a rhetorical question;  it needs an answer.  You can't simply vote the rascals out because the rascals count the votes.  Think:  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad;  the Iranians are just now discovering that it's a bad idea to leave control of the elections in the hands of the incumbents.

The revolutionaries knew how to dump a government;  they were just too gentlemanly to say it in blunt terms, possibly reasoning that if people couldn't figure it out for themselves it was probably too late anyway.  Besides, there was the example of the Revolutionary War itself.  You dump a government, in the extreme, by taking up arms.  You overthrow the government by force.  (Where is that House Un-American Activities Committee when you really need them?)

That, in effect, is what the Second Amendment is all about.  Why is the right of the people to keep and bear arms not to be infringed?  In the end it is so that we, the people, may overthrow the government we created...  by force when/if we need to.  That we can resort to force if things get really bad may be the reason we have not yet had to resort to force.  If we allow ourselves to be disarmed...  'for the children' or any other reason...  that option disappears and if things then get really bad, the only option left will be to 'grin and bear it'.

Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in his dissent in Silveira v Lockyer (2003):  "The prospect of tyranny may not grab the headlines the way vivid stories of gun crime routinely do.  But few saw the Third Reich coming until it was too late.  The Second Amendment is a doomsday provision, one designed for those exceptionally rare circumstances where all other rights have failed—where the government refuses to stand for reelection and silences those who protest; where courts have lost the courage to oppose, or can find no one to enforce their decrees.  However improbable these contingencies may seem today, facing them unprepared is a mistake a free people get to make only once."

The Constitution is the User's Manual for our government.  The specification document is the Declaration of Independence.  If something in the Constitution is unclear or hard to interpret, you go back to the 'spec' to find out what was intended.  When you start to fully appreciate the incendiary nature of our founding document, it gives you a funny feeling...  it gives me a funny feeling like looking over the edge of a very deep canyon.  Yeah, you know what I mean.

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