Most people miss the most significant line in the Declaration of Independence.
We tend to focus on the first two paragraphs where Thomas Jefferson laid the philosophical groundwork for political secession.
He declares, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
He asserts that government was instituted to protect these rights and that it derives its powers “from the consent of the governed.” It follows that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
The American Revolution happened long before the first shot was fired. It was a revolution in thought summarized brilliantly by Jefferson in the introduction of the Declaration of Independence.
In an 1818 letter to Hezekiah Niles, John Adams described the American Revolution in just such terms.
But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. … This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”
Adams understood ideas spark revolutions, and in America, what was at the time a radical notion drove the colonists to eventually part ways with England. During the years leading up to the war, and continuing through the post-war era, Americans conceived and developed a revolutionary political idea. Essentially, they came to believe, “Government is not the boss of us.”
Jefferson thought that it was important to set the stage by articulating these revolutionary ideas as the colonies declared their split from England. But ultimately, the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence were nothing but an expression of political principles A statement of principles doesn’t do anything. In order for an idea to have force, it must be joined with action.
We find action in the very last paragraph of Jefferson’s document. Here we find the actual declaration. Read it closely.
“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.” [Emphasis added]
Free and independent states.
Not vassals of Washington D.C.
Not the subjects of King Biden.
And most significantly, not “one nation.”
The colonies declared their independence from Great Britain as 13 independent, sovereign states.
The modern American definition of “state” creates some confusion. We think of states as subdivisions of a nation. But in the 18th century, “state” was synonymous with “nation.” When they declared independence, Georgia and New York placed themselves on equal footing with England and Spain.
Jefferson went on to write, “As Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.”
These are things only independent countries can do.
And note that Jefferson wrote “states” – plural. Not one state. Not one nation. Thirteen free and independent states. This is extremely significant because it reveals where we find sovereignty in the political system. It resides in the people of the states.
This is what we mean when we talk about “state sovereignty.” Jefferson affirmed it in the Declaration of Independence and it carried through the ratification of the Constitution. The states never relinquished their sovereignty and remain to this day “free and independent states.”
Yes, the states did enter into a union through the Constitution. They did delegate some power to the central government. But they did not abdicate their sovereignty.
Keep in mind when we use the term “state sovereignty” we don’t really mean the territory within its borders remains sovereign. We don’t mean the state government remains sovereign. We mean the political society formed by the people of that state is sovereign.
James Madison explained this concept in his Report of 1800 defending the Virginia Resolutions of 1798. These resolutions asserted the states’ right and duty to “interpose” “in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers, not granted by the said compact.”
The other position involved in this branch of the resolution, namely, “that the states are parties to the Constitution or compact,” is, in the judgment of the committee, equally free from objection. It is indeed true, that the term “states,” is sometimes used in a vague sense, and sometimes in different senses, according to the subject to which it is applied. Thus, it sometimes means the separate sections of territory occupied by the political societies within each; sometimes the particular governments, established by those societies; sometimes those societies as organized into those particular governments; and, lastly, it means the people composing those political societies, in their highest sovereign capacity. Although it might be wished that the perfection of language admitted less diversity in the signification of the same words, yet little inconveniency is produced by it, where the true sense can be collected with certainty from the different applications. In the present instance, whatever different constructions of the term “states,” in the resolution, may have been entertained, all will at least concur in that last mentioned; because, in that sense, the Constitution was submitted to the “states,” in that sense the “states” ratified it; and, in that sense of the term “states,” they are consequently parties to the compact, from which the powers of the federal government result. [Emphasis added]
This carries significant ramifications. It means the federal government isn’t really supreme. The states are. The general government only exercises supremacy within the spheres delegated to it by the states through the Constitution. As the New York ratifying document put it, “The powers of government may be reassumed by the people whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness.”
That sounds a lot like the Declaration of Independence, doesn’t it?
We celebrate the Fourth of July as the birth of a nation. It was in reality the birth of 13 nations.
Over the years, the U.S. government has become every bit as overgrown, overbearing and tyrannical as King George’s Great Britain. We should never lose sight of the fact that the American colonists did not fight to set up a new bigger, more awesomer government.
They fought for autonomy. They fought for freedom. They fought for liberty.
We trample their legacy when we willingly take on the yoke of national government centered in D.C. That is the exact opposite of the Spirit of ’76.