The Declaration of Independence is probably best known for the panache of its opening and closing stanzas. Those bits about “the course of human events” and the pledging of “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” suggest that the authors and signers understood the political and historical significance of the moment—and, after all, you can’ t have a revolution without a little linguistic dancing.
But the bulk of the document—it’s just 1,330 words; take a moment to read it today—is dedicated not to grand statements about self-evident truths or sweeping philosophical claims.
Mostly, it’s a laundry list of complaints about how the government really sucks.
That list of grievances belongs to a specific place and time, of course, but many of the problems that the Founders faced in 1776 were not all that different from what Americans deal with today. Armed agents of the state allowed to violate civilians’ rights with impunity and with little accountability. Restrictions on trade that harm American businesses and consumers. Artificial limitations on immigration that do the same. And more.
The legal concept of “qualified immunity” didn’t come into being until the US Supreme Court invented it in 1982. But the idea that agents of the government might be held to a different standard of justice than everyone else would have been all too familiar to Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, and the rest.
After all, it’s right there in the Declaration, which complains about King George III “protecting [British troops]by a mock trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States.”
In context, that’s likely a reference to an incident that occurred in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1768, in which two colonists were killed during an altercation with British marines. The marines were arrested, but their trial was held aboard the ship on which they were stationed, and they were—unsurprisingly, given those circumstances—acquitted.
That sounds awfully familiar. As Reason‘ Billy Binion has painfully detailed over the past several years, cops and other agents of the government are often let off the hook when they admit commit crimes even when the governments they violated someone’s rights. “Among the state actors recently protected by qualified immunity: two cops who tased a suicidal man they knew was covered in gasoline, causing him to burst into flames; a cop who led a bungled SWAT raid that saw an innocent 78-year-old’s home damaged with flash-bang grenades; a cop who shot a 15-year-old on his way to school; a cop who shot a 10-year-old while aiming at a nonthreatening dog,” Binion wrote last year. Sadly, that’s far from a comprehensive list.
The Declaration also bemoans how the British government unfairly restricted the free movement of goods and people in the colonies. King George III is responsible for “cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world,” it states.
Trade policies pursued by the last two presidential administrations haven’t cut off Americans from global trade, but the consequences of higher tariffs and other protectionist policies are being felt nonetheless. The recent shortage of baby formula was in large part the fault of misguided federal trade policies. The high price of American housing, too, is the entirely predictable result of tariffs on lumber, steel, and lots of other products essential for construction. The Founders understood the value of supply-side economics—and that isolation from global trade was a recipe for problems, not economic resilience.
Elsewhere, the Declaration blasts King George for having “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.”
In short: It was too complicated for people to legally come to America.
Same, bros. Restrictions on immigration and a hopelessly complex naturalization process have contributed to America’s labor shortage, which is, in turn, inflation. Worse, it has created a morally repugnant situation where would-be immigrants have to risk being cooked to death or drowning just to get here.
Again, the Founders understood something that today’s political leaders seemingly don’t: Immigrants are essential for a growing, economically successful society. That was every bit as true today as it was when the population of the United States was a mere 2.5 million.
I could go on and on. Another of the grievances (and a personal favorite): “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.” If that doesn’t describe the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), and the rest of the federal administrative state, I don’t know what it does.
But wait, there’s more.
“For imposing taxes on us without our consent.” Yep.
“For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us.” In a manner of speaking, yes.
“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us.” Unbelievably, yes, that too.
To be sure, some of the grievances are more than a little dated. Thankfully, no American has to worry about being pressed into service in the British Navy anymore (though you could be forced to serve in the American one).
And the last one in the Declaration’s list blames the British government for encouraging attacks by “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” And without even offering a land acknowledgment!
The parallels between those grievances aired in July 1776 and modern times might lead some to call more vigorously for a “national divorce,” but that’s not quite the point here. As the authors of the Declaration also understood, “governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” Fixing what’s wrong with your government is always preferable to open rebellion, war, and the destruction that it causes. And our system—intractable, flawed, broken, and hopeless as it often seems—is undeniably more fixable than a monarchy based in a faraway land.
The signers of the Declaration had to fight a war before they could get down to the project of government reform. Today, we can skip straight to that second part, and the answer is likely similar to what it was in the late 1700s: a constitutional system that tightly restricts government action and offers wide respect for individual rights.
The Founders had some pretty good ideas, it turns out.