The Corner

Culture

The Declaration of Independence: A Demand for Accountability

It is worth a few minutes of your time today to re-read the Declaration of Independence — the whole thing, not just the most famous lines. Of course it may depress us, in the circumstances of 2016, to reflect on a generation of leaders willing to pledge “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” to the cause of the nation’s liberty, when we are beset with leaders who won’t even spend their own money on their campaigns for office. But America was designed to survive such moments by correcting the mistakes of any passing age. What is more vital to remember today is that the men who wrote and signed this declaration were neither natural revolutionaries nor fetishists of democracy and elections; what they demanded most of all was a government that was accountable when it failed to respect the rights of the people. The Founding Fathers expected government to make mistakes and to commit abuses; what they wanted was a guarantee that the government would respond when its errors and crimes aroused the citizenry:

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….Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. 

To that end, a lengthy list of grievances was presented, and many of them focused on the Crown’s unwillingness to accept correction and deprivation of basic mechanisms of accountability:

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people…He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries….He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power….He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation…For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever….

This is the lesson above all others that should not be forgotten by the governing classes, here or abroad. People do not rebel against government because it is bad; they rebel because they see no hope that it can be made better, or even cares to listen.

 

Dan McLaughlin is an attorney practicing securities and commercial litigation in New York City, and a contributing columnist at National Review Online.

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