Independence. From What?

The fourth day of July is known as Independence Day in the United States because the Declaration of Independence was ratified on the fourth day of July, 1776. As such, I thought it might be interesting to discuss a few of the reasons why a group of people were willing to risk their lives as well as those of their friends and family for something called “independence.”

What is independence? What did it mean in 1776? What does it mean today? Why did those people in 1776 seek independence? Are there contemporary equivalents to those reasons?

Conveniently, the Declaration of Independence includes a list of reasons why the 13 colonies sought independence from Great Britain, and includes a written attempt to capture the essence and importance of the idea of independence.

Independence can of course be summarized as an opposite of dependence. Effectively, the founders of the United States of America were declaring that the people within the founding States no longer desired to be dependent upon Great Britain and were willing to accept the risks guaranteed by leaving the British empire, including war with the empire itself. The benefits accorded to subjects of the Crown were numerous: military protection, secure trade routes, raw materials, equipment. But the burdens imposed by the Crown were also numerous, and had become destructive to the goals people brave enough to face the unknown, that is, the freedom to find a way to try to be happy.

Indeed, the second paragraph of the Declaration includes language enumerating “the Pursuit of Happiness” as one of three “unalienable Rights” for which “Governments are instituted” in order to “secure these Rights”. It becomes apparent that the primal and the primary motivation leading to the establishment of the United States of America was the freedom, the independence, to determine your own destiny, to find happiness in your own way, unmoored from assistance but also unburdened by the costs of that assistance.

In the language of the day, how did the founders characterize these burdens and costs? How did they convey the weight of these burdens in such a way as to justify provoking the world’s most powerful nation? For an attempt at gathering those answers we can look to the first three “Injuries” listed in the Declaration:

“He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good.”

“He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing Importance, unless suspended in their Operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.”

“He has refused to pass other Laws for the Accommodation of large Districts of People, unless those People would relinquish the Right of Representation in the Legislature, a Right inestimable to them, and formidable to Tyrants only.”

The word “He” in the above quotes specifically indicates King George III but It is reasonable to expand that scope to include the concept of monarchy in general. It is interesting that none of these three quotes seem severe by modern standards. One might even say they are benign, yet they sparked one of the most significant rebellions of the age. Why? Because the founders understood the importance of order through law, but also that order can only be sustained so long as the law is subject to those subjected to it. In the years leading up to the American revolution, the British monarchy had grown increasingly distant from those principles. The Declaration is full of specific complaints regarding the flippant and tyrannical behavior of the monarchy, including the three extracted above.

If a basic refusal to adhere to standards for responsive and responsible law was seen as justification for war, is there a modern analog? I think we can see a similar dynamic today represented in the conflict between the judiciary and the legislature, as well as the bureaucracy in conflict with the will of the people. Consider the reactions to the recent Supreme Court decisions regarding Roe v Wade and West Virginia v EPA.

The former (Roe v Wade) is a return of lawmaking power to the states rather than the federal legislature. In other words, it is a reassertion of the idea that law is best made by those most responsive to the people subject to that law.

The latter (West Virginia v EPA) is a rejection of the idea that an agency created by law has unlimited authority to craft and enforce rules with the same weight and punitive reach as law. This is another reassertion of the idea that the creators of law should be subject to the influence of the people affected by that law.

Both of these Supreme Court decisions were positive if viewed through the lens of the Declaration, but the reactions are telling. Those with smiling faces and extended thumbs understand that the human family is incredibly diverse and should be represented by laws just as diverse.

Those with gnashing teeth and hammering fists seem to believe that law, and the power cascading from law, should be instituted by whatever means required as long as that law complies with their dogma. King George would be proud.

Are we headed for another Declaration? Another Revolution? Only time knows, but the mechanisms that primed the creation of America, moving the source of law as far as possible from the subjects of that law, are alive and well. We must be vigilant.