Celebrating “Free and Independent States” this 4th of July

 

flnCL7II’m sure that many of you, like me, will be dusting off your copies of the Declaration of Independence to commemorate the 4th of July. The question is: will you read the whole thing or just the opening paragraphs?

Everyone likes to quote the invocation of the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” but — for my money — that’s not the part that we most need to remember. Rather, the most important passage of the Declaration comes at the end when the Continental Congress describes the United States as a group of “Free and Independent States.” The key word here is the plural states. July 4th is America’s birthday, but America was born as a union of sovereign states, not a single consolidated nation. Our leaders often gloss over this basic historical fact; President Obama, for example, has stated that our Founders “declared a new nation” on July 4th.

In fact, nobody in 1776 thought that the United States was a single nation; the Declaration’s lead author, Thomas Jefferson, consistently described the U.S. as a “compact” among states. The Paris Peace Treaty, which formally ended the Revolutionary War, does not grant freedom to “the United States.” Rather, in language that mirrors the Declaration, it recognizes each individual state to be “free, sovereign and independent.” The American negotiators in Paris could not, for example, commit to pay compensation to British loyalists whose property was confiscated during the war but could only promise to “earnestly recommend” that each state pay such compensation. The American union at that time was governed by the Articles of Confederation, which described the United States as a “firm league of friendship.”

Ratification of the Constitution in 1789 created a stronger central government than had existed under the Articles of Confederation – a “more perfect” union – but a union nonetheless. James Madison, regarded as the father of the Constitution, famously asserted the right of each state to “interpose” its own authority to block federal laws that exceed Congress’s power – in that case, the Sedition Act, which criminalized political dissent. In the first half of the nineteenth century, states used their sovereign powers to offer refuge to fugitive slaves in defiance of federal law and to withhold troops from the War of 1812.

The idea of the United States as a single nation began to be promoted only in the decades after the Civil War by advocates of a strong central government, such as Francis Bellamy whose 1892 Pledge of Allegiance demands fealty to “one nation” (the “under God” part was added later). The Progressive and New Deal eras witnessed a massive transfer of powers to the central government, often at the behest of special interests who preferred to deal with a single regulator in Washington.

This history matters (as I discuss at length in my book, A Less Perfect Union) because it reminds us that the federal government did not create the states: it was the other way around. Although it is fashionable to dismiss the states as “mere administrative units,” as two Berkeley law professors wrote in 1994, the federal government simply would not exist without the states. Whatever sovereign powers the federal government possesses are powers that were granted to it by the states. The most treasured part of the Constitution – the Bill of Rights – was designed to protect the states against federal overreach. The final provision of the Bill of Rights, the Tenth Amendment, guarantees that the states shall preserve all their powers except those that the Constitution specifically grants to the federal government or withholds from the states.

The Fourth of July celebrates rebellion against centralized authority. The Declaration, like the revolutionary cry of “no taxation without representation,” is a plea for local self-government. The Founding Fathers thought that decisions about taxing, spending, and other domestic concerns should be made close to home, not by a distant and unresponsive sovereign. The Supreme Court’s June 26 ruling in Obergefell v Hodges starkly illustrates the current threat to local democracy: five unelected judges removing a critical issue from the democratic process to suit their own policy preferences.

What do you think? Are there other neglected parts of the Declaration we should focus on this 4th of July?

Image Credit: Deviant Art user HeerSander.

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There are 19 comments.

  1. Contributor

    Adam Freedman: What do you think? Are there other neglected parts of the Declaration we should focus on this 4th of July?

    This is going to be a sort of odd answer, but I think one of the unfortunate things about the Declaration — not even really its fault — is how it’s led to the misunderstanding that the Revolution was largely an anti-monarchical thing. That didn’t come in until very late in the game, and only after it became clear that the Crown would not protect the colonists from Parliament or generally permit them self-rule.

    Coming back to your question:

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

    Boy, is that ever topical.

    • #1
    • July 3, 2015, at 8:25 AM PDT
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  2. Inactive

    I think this is the main neglected part we should focus on. The states need to stand up to the feds. Not sure the best way to do that, but that is what is needed.

    • #2
    • July 3, 2015, at 8:30 AM PDT
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  3. Inactive

    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,

    I am startled by just how relevant the first part of this seems today and how scary it feels even to quote the second part.

    • #3
    • July 3, 2015, at 8:40 AM PDT
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  4. Contributor

    As a Californian, I’m not uncomfortable with a Republican U.S. Congress protecting the liberties of individuals and businesses presently subject to the socialist schemes of the Sacramento solons.

    • #4
    • July 3, 2015, at 9:02 AM PDT
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  5. Member

    He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

    This seems pretty pertinent today. 

    • #5
    • July 3, 2015, at 9:16 AM PDT
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  6. Inactive

    “He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither…” Wait, what?

    • #6
    • July 3, 2015, at 9:25 AM PDT
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  7. Inactive

    “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 [regulations].”

    • #7
    • July 3, 2015, at 9:26 AM PDT
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  8. Inactive

    “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. ” Okay, maybe that’s a bit strong, so far.

    • #8
    • July 3, 2015, at 9:28 AM PDT
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  9. Inactive
    MLH

    The entire list of grievances.

    • #9
    • July 3, 2015, at 9:28 AM PDT
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  10. Inactive

    “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us…” As in Baltimore, Ferguson, etc.

    • #10
    • July 3, 2015, at 9:29 AM PDT
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  11. Member

    It took a couple hundred years, but we’ve traded a distant king for a distant central authority whose will is just as arbitrary, capricious, and unrepresentative as any king ever to rule over a people.

    • #11
    • July 3, 2015, at 9:31 AM PDT
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  12. Member

    Jim Kearney:As a Californian, I’m not uncomfortable with a Republican U.S. Congress protecting the liberties of individuals and businesses presently subject to the socialist schemes of the Sacramento solons.

    Except the Republican U.S. Congress is not protecting anything or anybody. They seem to be marching hand in hand with their Democrat overlords. I’m reading Clarence “Darrow, For The Defense” and there hasn’t been much improvement in our government from the turn of the turn of the 20th Century. Things and people are still being blown up, business destroyed, illegal arrests, with the unions and crony capitalism still in control. One of his statements, “Who is going to prosecute the prosecutors? Nobody” still holds true.

    • #12
    • July 3, 2015, at 9:38 AM PDT
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  13. Contributor
    Adam Freedman Post author

    Lucy Pevensie:I am startled by just how relevant the first part of this seems today and how scary it feels even to quote the second part.

    I think it’s okay if we focus on the “alter” part — it hasn’t come to the point of “abolish” I think

    • #13
    • July 3, 2015, at 10:09 AM PDT
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  14. Contributor
    Adam Freedman Post author

    Jim Kearney:As a Californian, I’m not uncomfortable with a Republican U.S. Congress protecting the liberties of individuals and businesses presently subject to the socialist schemes of the Sacramento solons.

    If only Congress would do so! In theory the 14th Amendment was a helpful corrective to ensure that the states did not invade the liberties of their citizens. But the most important provision — the Privileges or Immunities Clause — was essentially nullified by the Supreme Court after only a few years (in the The Slaughterhouse Cases). Of course, due process and equal protection were important as well, but we all know what the courts have done to those provisions.

    • #14
    • July 3, 2015, at 10:12 AM PDT
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  15. Member

    So why should we continue to trust them with any power?

    • #15
    • July 3, 2015, at 10:18 AM PDT
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  16. Contributor

    Adam Freedman:

    Jim Kearney:As a Californian, I’m not uncomfortable with a Republican U.S. Congress protecting the liberties of individuals and businesses presently subject to the socialist schemes of the Sacramento solons.

    … Of course, due process and equal protection were important as well, but we all know what the courts have done to those provisions.

    Please don’t assume that all here agree with you on that point. Griswold, Roe, Casey, Lawrence and Obergefell were not unanimous interpretations, but the majority outcomes are satisfactory to conservatives who do not share the SoCon agenda.

    • #16
    • July 3, 2015, at 11:14 AM PDT
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  17. Member

    Adam, regretfully sates rights, I am afraid, is a bus that has left the station.

    • #17
    • July 3, 2015, at 11:28 AM PDT
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  18. Member

    I think the localvore movement bodes well for an ultimate rebellion against centralization.

    At some point, I think, people will want to keep their tax dollars in their own states, and that will be the beginning of the end for the Washington juggernaut.

    I also think the greater the number of people who are self-employed (and self-employment amusingly has been the Democrats’ answer to the soft recovery, and it has been embraced by Democrats far and wide such that the highest number of new businesses, all farms, during this period has been in none other than my own state, Massachusetts), the greater the number of people who are interested in thrift. These are people who are apt to eye the excesses of Washington with rising cynicism. “What are they doing with the money I send them?”

    • #18
    • July 4, 2015, at 2:56 AM PDT
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  19. Inactive

    Merina Smith
    I think this is the main neglected part we should focus on. The states need to stand up to the feds. Not sure the best way to do that, but that is what is needed.

    Repeal of the 17th Amendment would be a good place to start

    • #19
    • July 4, 2015, at 10:35 AM PDT
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