Saturday, January 11, 2014

My Favorite Piece of (Political) Poetry

That would, of course, be the gool ol' Declaration of Independence.  Thomas Jefferson is rightly honored for his masterful wordsmithing on the document that launched us down the path of nationhood.  Listen to the words, how they slip into the ears and then into the brain in such a way as to make us instinctively nod our heads in agreement:

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.

Jefferson is saying "I know you think this is rash, but let us tell you why we think this is necessary" and then he starts laying out his case like a veteran prosecuting attorney:

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.

This is the axiom of the American system:  we are all equal;  our rights come from God, not from the King or Parliament;  government exists for the primary purpose of seeing our rights are protected;  we create the government; it doesn't just magically appear;  when government screws up, it is up to us to decide that government has, in fact, screwed up,  and having made that determination, we get to choose how we shall change our government so that it actually fulfills its purpose.

When the Declaration was promulgated, this was outrageously bizarre to almost everyone involved in politics.  The people make decisions about their government?  Are you nuts?  What do ordinary people know about government?  Kings and Parliaments worldwide couldn't imagine where we had gotten such odd ideas.  (Actually, they could.  I'm just dramatizing.  John Locke's name was well known among the European intelligentsia, many of whom wished he had never been born.)

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

That is:  "We recognize that this sort of thing doesn't happen every day, and it shouldn't.  On the other hand, sometimes it becomes necessary."  He then begins an indictment of King George III, laying out the charges one-by-one.  I won't list them all, but there are a few that are worth pondering.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness of his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

Any student of American History will recognize echoes of these in our Constitution and Bill of Rights.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, ... solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States...  And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

They didn't really have to add that last part.  Everyone who inked their name below knew they were committing treason and that they were, indeed, pledging their lives.  Several of them, in fact, ended their lives and political careers destitute at the end of a length of British rope.

How many of us, I wonder, have the cojones they did?

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