The American Declaration of Independence is a radical document. It was and remains to be radical in its language, implications, and original intent. It boldly asserts that people as individuals not only have the right, but the obligation to throw off and tear down any government which ceases to fulfill the role for which is was created and which has turned down the road to despotism. The underlying theme of this document is individual freedom, interest, and responsibility—stating that the people have a responsibility to destroy such a government which conflicts with what they perceive to be their freedom and personal or aggregate interests.
The ideology set forth in the American Declaration of Independence is essentially one which can be described with two words—anarchy and secession. It would be helpful to note that by anarchy it is not meant chaos or even the Greek meaning of “without rulers,” rather I am using the term simply to describe a condition of voluntary association in which people are only bound by those things to which they have freely given their consent, and are only governed insofar as they have chosen to delegate the power they possess to govern themselves. For secession we will use the Oxford Dictionary definition of “the action of withdrawing formally from membership of a federation or body especially a political state.” The language of the Declaration boldly asserts these ideas in that it empowers the individual and raises them to the position of being able to judge for themselves which political institutions or systems work for them and which do not, and grants legitimacy to efforts of those individuals to leave or dissolve any political institutions which become unfavorable to them. While the ideology of this document seeks to embolden the people with self-determination and personal responsibility, the Constitution of the United States seeks in nearly every line to not only control the masses, but to create a structure which takes the revolutionary spirit of the Declaration and fizzles it out.
The Constitution was written to create a system which established elite control, security from future rebellion, and centralized power. These are the opposite of the ideology put forth by the Declaration of Independence and, indeed, the very things that the Declaration was attempting to rouse people to fight against. The Declaration promotes the ideas of revolution, while the Constitution promotes that of security; the Constitution is about control and the Declaration, about liberation and personal freedom. These differences arise because the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written for essentially opposite purposes. The former was destroying a political order and the latter, creating one. The problem with the US Constitution and indeed all constitutions is that they seek to create a lasting political order and to do so they necessarily need to put in provisions for that order to defend itself. This is the fundamental disagreement between these two documents—that the Declaration was written under the impression that individuals possess the right to leave or secede from any political entity which they feel does not represent their interests, and the Constitution was written under the impression that it would create a lasting political covenant and be the “supreme law of the land,” supplanting the supremacy of the individual with the supremacy of the different institutions which it created. This is why the Constitution does not fulfill the ideological commitments set forth in the Declaration, because, though we tend to praise it for its creation of a democratic government, in reality the Constitution takes the anarchic, voluntary, secessionist, and empowering language of self-determination in the Declaration and boils it down to casting a vote and only being able to change the government from within the framework of that same government.
Before delving into how the ideology and language of the Constitution do not live up to that of the Declaration of Independence it would be helpful to further explain why the ideology of the latter document is clearly one composed of anarchy and secession. The premise of the declaration—namely that the colonists had the right to dissolve their existing political ties and create new ones—presupposes that political ties are only as good as the ends they serve and can be terminated once those ends cease to be served. This is a secessionist argument because it justifies the right of the colonists to secede from the British Empire. It is the same argument put forth in South Carolina’s Declaration of Secession which was written to justify the breaking away from the Union. This document says essentially the same thing as the Declaration of Independence in that it defends the right of people to dissolve undesirable political bonds. The fact that the Declaration shares the same language and ideology with an overtly secessionist document speaks to the ideology of the former. Following this secessionist logic to its conclusion will cause one to realize that if the colonies can justifiably secede from the British Empire, then the ideology of the Declaration also allows for Massachusetts to secede from the United States, Boston from Massachusetts, and the Bostonian citizen from Boston. This idea of being able to break political bonds is also very anarchic in nature. This is because the proclaiming of a right for a group or individual to leave a political unit and set up a new one (or not) means that those groups or individuals have ultimate sovereignty over themselves and have an inherent right to govern themselves. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”(Jefferson, 1776)—these words embody the idea that governments are a form of voluntary association to which people can choose to give power to, or not, choose to be a part of, or not. That is anarchy; and one can see that secession and anarchy are closely linked because secession is the action that one takes to reassert the anarchic principle that individuals are originally, and ought to be again if they see it fit, their own government.
“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”(Jefferson, 1776). These words embody the meaning and intent of the whole Declaration of Independence—that the governed are the power behind the government and that they are responsible not to it, but for it. And with that responsibility come the power and obligation to oust that government which becomes tyrannical and despotic, and to institute a system which better fulfills the role which the people have set forth. One will quickly discover that a provision does not exist in the Constitution that says citizens are absolved of allegiance and obligation to it in the event that it ceases to serve their individual or aggregate ends. This is most clearly seen through the situation of Henry David Thoreau in his work Civil Disobedience. Thoreau was a man who disapproved deeply of slavery seeing it as the highest form of moral and social injustice, and also a man who was abhorred by the Mexican-American War seeing it as purely a war of conquest in order to gain more territory to spread the institution of slavery. His ideology is in line with the Declaration of Independence in that it recognizes the “right of revolution” or the right to refuse allegiance and to resist a government which has become tyrannical (Thoreau, 1849). His method of refusing allegiance from this particular political covenant is to refuse to pay portions of his taxes. He does this recognizing the fact that by doing so he is opening himself up to attack by the government in the form of them taking and destroying his property and “harassing his family without end”(Thoreau, 1849). This harassment is warranted by the Constitution because the Constitution does not recognized the right of individuals or groups to decide that they are no longer bound by its laws (or, in consequence, its protections) as the Declaration recognized the right of the colonists to declare they were no longer bound by the laws of England.
The ideology of the Declaration is blatantly suppressed in the Constitution. The framers fear of internal rebellion and secession pours through the lines of it in the form of the military and security apparatus it creates. In Article I, Section 8 the framers are careful to give control of all branches of the military and even ultimate control of the State Militias to the central government. It was explicitly written in the same section that Congress has the power to call up militias in order to “repress insurrections.” In section 9 of Article I the power is given to Congress to suspend Habeas Corpus—widely considered one of the fundamental and crucial mechanisms for protecting citizens against arbitrary state action—in times of rebellion. The Federalist No. 23 also denotes that one of the primary purposes of the Union and Federal government was to preserve public peace against internal convulsions and that the Federal government would have the powers to carry this out “without limitations” (Hamilton, 1787).
Clearly the framers were troubled by the idea of some future civil unrest or upheaval. Tellingly, it is that very unrest and upheaval for which the language of the Declaration of Independence calls. Giving the central government complete control of the military and investing command of that military solely in one man, the holder of the office of the President (Article II, Section 2), and furthermore exclusively stating that one of the functions of that military is to subdue internal rebellions does not seem to fit well with the idea of the people having the power to alter or abolish any government which strays from the realm for which is was created, and which seeks to take the liberty of its citizens.
Though when closely scrutinized the ideology and purpose of these two documents are clearly at odds, people may argue that the Constitution does live up to the Declaration because the Constitution sets up a form of republican government of the people, by the people, and for the people, etc. This argument would entail a misreading of the Declaration because nowhere in that document does it talk about forms of government or which form is the most ideal. The ideology of the Declaration is not one of democracy or a particular system; rather it is simply, as it was already stated earlier in the essay, an ideology of self-determination and voluntary association. This suggests that, according to this document, it does not matter what form of government is implemented, whether it be a direct democracy, an indirect, more removed democracy, or some type of monarchy—so long as every person bound by it has given their consent and reserves the right to remove that consent in the event that the government becomes destructive to them. Therefore the Constitution setting up a republican, democratic form of government does not necessarily conform it to the ideology set up in the Declaration of Independence.
Up until this point this essay has argued that the US Constitution does not faithfully create or uphold a system which adequately fulfills the promises and ideology set forth in the Declaration of Independence. To make this argument the opening and ending paragraphs in the document have been more useful than the list of grievances because they adequately convey the ideological message and mood which is not conveyed by the Constitution. However, if one were to make the argument that the Constitution does hold true to the promises made in the Declaration, then the other most convincing argument would be that it does so because it provides an effective solution for many if not most of these grievances.
The Declaration was written in a specific time for a specific purpose—namely to inform the King of England that these 13 North American colonies were seceding from his Empire and to inform him of the reasons there for. It could be argued that the Constitution too was an extension of this because it sought to create a government which was cured of the ills of the British government and which could never abuse its power in the way that the King did. And, in the spirit of the Declaration, the Constitution does indeed remedy many of the complaints put forth by the colonists. For example, the Constitution puts the US military under civilian control in Article II, Section 2 by making the President Commander in Chief, resolves the issue of maintaining a standing army without consent of the legislatures by making Congress responsible for raising funds needed to have an army and it solves to problem of taxation without representation by giving the power to levy taxes and raise funds to the House of Representatives which is popularly elected by the people. Among other things the Constitution also guarantees a trial by jury, prohibits mandatory quartering of troops and provides a protection against arbitrary laws and state action (Bill of Rights).
In this view the Constitution upholds the promises of the Declaration because it attempts (and to a large degree succeeds) to rectify the reasons which made independence necessary and creates a republican state. But although it puts in place protections against rule by one man and establishes a state in which the people have some say in how they are governed, it still falls short of the Declaration. The very act of writing a Declaration of Independence is a statement which says people are more powerful than government and that everyone, including the common man, has control over how he is governed and, indeed, if he is to be governed at all. In other words, the Constitution makes itself the supreme law of the land while the Declaration suggests that there is a power higher than government and Constitutions—namely individual sovereignty. The Constitution fails to uphold this by establishing check after check on the ability for the common man and masses to actually have this control. The Constitution allows for the government to have the power to prevent individuals or groups of individuals from removing their consent and dissolving their political ties when they become adverse to their interests. The Constitution does undeniably contain many passages which address many of the grievances laid out in the Declaration of Independence and set up a form of government which most people today would find very favorable, but, on the other hand it creates a system which is static and which forces people to be and remain a part of it and offers no course of action for those who wish to reclaim their sovereignty which the Declaration describes as only being given up through consent.
There is a power beyond and higher than government—that is what the Declaration is all about. This spells problems for not only the US Constitution, but for all Constitutions because they all must necessarily claim to be the supreme power of the land or else they would mean nothing. The anarchic and secessionist ideology laid out in the Declaration would be opposed to all forms of government because whether they are necessary or not, no government claims to govern only those who want to be governed by it. The Declaration offers people the possibility of a choice whereas the Constitution is binding and unforgiving applying to all whether they forfeit their personal sovereignty or not. The ideology of Jefferson’s document is one of freedom and self-determination and the Constitution puts forth an ideology of force, with a highly centralized, highly armed, and security oriented state which does not carry out and foster the commitments promised by his words.
Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union. 1860.
Hamilton, Alexander. “The Necessity of a Government as Energic as the One Proposed to the
Preservation of the Union. The Federalist, No.23. 1787.
Jefferson, Thomas. The Declaration of Independence. 1776.
Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience.1849.
United State’s Constitution. Articles I and II, Bill of Rights. 1787.