‘Constitutions are created by revolutions, not jurists’ : In our era of nitpicking over dull charters of rights, the republication of the Declaration of Independence should make your heart beat faster. (John Fitzpatrick, July 2007, spiked review of books)
It is refreshing…and very instructive, to have the opportunity to look again at a constitutional document that should make any heart beat faster.
‘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. — 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, 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.’
Take that. It is all there really, in those few lines – if you throw in the fact that this Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, was part of the successful institution of a new government in a new country. For the first time in human history, a government was established on the explicit basis that all men are equal, that sovereignty lay with the people, and that unjust governments were there to be overturned. Women and negroes had to wait, but the crucial point is that they came to be included very much more because of this statement of principles, than despite it. Even in the doldrums and alarums of our world today, it is hard to envisage the catastrophe that would see humanity falling back again to a point before this moment in our history – although undoubtedly without vigilance a catastrophe is ever possible. […]
The American revolt, which inspired the French, had itself been inspired by earlier developments in England. When Jefferson penned those words that still resound across the world, he was of course leaning on the philosophy and phrases of men such as Thomas Paine (his Common Sense was published in January 1776) and John Locke (his Second Treatise of Government was published in 1690). He was also leaning on the struggles of men such as the Levellers who fought in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army during the 1640s.
The Levellers and their supporters in the Army drew up a document which was proposed by ‘five regiments of horse’ and read to the General Army Council at Putney on 29 October 1647. It was entitled An agreement of the people for a firm and present peace upon grounds of common right and freedom and it set out some ‘principles or rules of equal government for a free people’. It declared that the people (nearly all males, that is) were the sovereign power and should choose a new parliament every two years composed of representatives from constituencies of equal size, that there should be equality of all under the law, that every person (without qualification) should enjoy freedom of religion and freedom from conscription, and so on. It was subject to furious debate, and amendment, and eventually it was headed off by Cromwell and the grandees. But it left a mark, and set an example.
In each case, a group of human beings had consciously articulated a set of demands about how society should be organised on the basis of the equality of all, and had struggled to make those demands real. The democratic principles that survive in constitutional form today from these attempts are important both as a standard to be fully realised or transcended, and also as a lesson in how we might go about achieving such things again.
The problem that isolationists, Realists, and the rest always run up against is that the redefinition of sovereignty, whereby Britain and America (in particular) incorporate the requirement of consensual government as the basis of legitimacy, is an (the) essential element of the Founding of both states. To be untrue to the principle is to be unfaithful to the country’s essential character.