When Americans Understood the Declaration of Independence
by Thomas J. DiLorenzo
The Fourth of July was not always a national celebration of the militarization of American society and of the federal government’s never-ending quest for world domination (disguised as "defending our interests abroad"). Americans did not always attend church services on the Sunday before the Fourth of July to "honor" their "military heroes" and pray that they may kill many more human beings in other countries that have done them no harm. Americans once actually read and understood the Declaration of Independence for what it was: a declaration of secession from the British empire and a roadmap for opposing a highly centralized, militaristic empire of the sort the U.S. government has become.
The Declaration of Independence was the ultimate secessionist or states’ rights document. "Governments are instituted among men," Thomas Jefferson wrote, for the sole purpose of securing God-given, "unalienable" rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Moreover, governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed" and nowhere else. And "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 . . ."
The way in which "the People" were to express their consent (or lack thereof) was through state and local political organizations. Hence, in the final paragraph of the Declaration of Independence Jefferson wrote that: "We . . . the Representatives of the united States of America . . . are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that 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."
It is important to note that the word "united" is not capitalized but "States" is, and that the individual states are described as "Free and Independent." Thus, the free, independent, and sovereign states were united in the cause of secession from the British empire. The phrase "united States" did not mean, and does not mean in any of the founding documents, the "United States government," as is commonly believed today. It is always in the plural to signify that the free and independent states are united in their common cause of protecting life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To Jefferson and the other signers of the Declaration of Independence, each American state was sovereign in the same sense that Great Britain, France, and Spain were sovereign states. It was through "representatives of the united States" that the consent of the people was to be expressed (or not).
It was Abraham Lincoln, who Murray Rothbard once described as a masterful "liar, conniver, and manipulator," whose rhetoric began to fog the understanding of Americans of their Declaration of Independence. Lincoln’s twisted language in The Gettysburg Address that focused solely on the words "all men are created equal" in the Declaration, were designed to reinterpret the preeminent secessionist document as an anti-secessionist document. It was an attempt to fool Northern voters into believing in the absurd notion that he was a Jeffersonian.
Not that Lincoln ever believed that all men were – or should be considered to be – equal in any sense. As he stated in the September 18, 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas: "I will say than that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that here is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race".
In his first inaugural address Lincoln strongly supported the Fugitive Slave Act and the proposed "Corwin Amendment" to the Constitution, which had already passed the House and Senate, which would have prohibited the federal government from ever interfering with Southern slavery. Thus, it was his position that slavery should be explicitly enshrined in the Constitution, made "express and irrevocable" to use his exact words, which is hardly the position one who believes that "all men are created equal" would take. It was empty political rhetoric at its worst.
At the time, nearly everyone else in the Northern states understood the actual meaning of the Declaration of Independence, as opposed to Lincoln’s attempt at the rhetorical bastardization of the document. This point is documented in a two-volume work entitled Northern Editorials on Secession, edited by Howard Cecil Perkins. It is a collection of 495 Northern newspaper editorials from September 1860 through June 1861 on the issue of secession. The majority of Northern newspaper editorials, writes Perkins, favored peaceful secession because Northern editorialists generally believed in the Jeffersonian dictum that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. The Southern states no longer consented to being governed by Washington, D.C., they reasoned, therefore, they should be allowed to go in peace, however misguided their reasons for secession might have been. "During the weeks following the election [of Lincoln], Perkins writes, "[Northern] editors . . . assumed that secession as a constitutional right was not in question . . . . On the contrary, the southern claim to a right of peaceable withdrawal was countenanced out of reverence for the natural law principle of government by consent of the governed."
Perkins highlights what he calls "a classic statement" of this position, written by New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley on November 9, 1860: "We hope never to live in a republic whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets." At the time, the New York Tribune was the most influential newspaper in America. There are dozens of other statements to that effect from newspapers all over the Northern states. On December 17, 1860, the New York Tribune further editorialized that if "Mr. Jefferson’s statement in the Declaration of Independence that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed" is accepted, and "if it justified the secession from the British Empire of Three Millions of colonists in 1776, we do not see why it would not justify the secession of Five Millions of Southrons from the Federal Union in 1861."
This view of the Declaration of Independence, the pro-Lincoln Indianapolis Daily Journal wrote on December 22, 1860, "shows us the course to be pursued towards South Carolina. It is to let her go freely and entirely . . . without resistance." On January 11, 1861, the Kenosha, Wisconsin Democrat added that "the very freedom claimed by every individual citizen, precludes the idea of compulsory association, as individuals, as communities, or as States . . . . The right of secession adheres to the people of every sovereign state." "The founders of our government," moreover, "were constant secessionists . . . not only in theory, but in practice," the Wisconsin paper reminded its readers.
"[I]f disunion must come, let it come without war," wrote the Albany, New York Atlas and Argus on January 12, 1861. For war would mean "the ruin of business, the destruction of property, oppressive debt, grinding taxation and sacrifice of millions of lives . . ." On the same day the New York Journal of Commerce advocated the peaceful secession of the Southern states by asking, "Shall we, by such a policy [as war] change our government from a voluntary one, in which the people are sovereigns, to a despotism where one part of the people are slaves? Such is the logical deduction from the policy of the advocates of force."
On February 19, 1861 the Detroit Free Press expressed the hope that "By recognizing the independence of the Southern Confederacy, we should, to a considerable degree, disarm its people of the hostility they naturally feel towards the people of the North." If so, then the two sections could trade with one another, establishing ties that could eventually lead to a reuniting of the union.
On March 11, 1861 the Trenton, New Jersey Daily True American editorialized that failing to acquiesce in the peaceful secession of the Southern states would be to "embark in the mad and Quixotic attempt of conquering and holding the seceded States in subjugation." Furthermore, the pro-war argument that "the laws must be enforced at all hazards" [i.e., Lincoln’s argument], "are not new arguments; they are such as prevailed with Lord North and the other minions of George III and their futile efforts to crush out American Independence." A union maintained by force "would be worse than a mockery," the New Jersey newspaper wrote.
On March 21, 1861 the New York Times pointed out that even "the Abolitionists everywhere have been in favor of a dissolution of the Union from the beginning" as a way of politically isolating the Southern states and pressuring them to end slavery. (It should be noted that New York did not emancipate its last slaves until 1853). "Let us separate in peace," the Times editorialized, for "force, as a means of restoring the Union . . . is out of the question." Even the Springfield Daily Illinois State Journal, from Lincoln’s home town, wrote on April 3, 1861 that "the sooner we cut loose from the disaffected States, the better it may be for all parties and for the nation." "Public opinion in the North seems to be gradually settling down in favor of the recognition of the New Confederacy by the Federal Government," the Hartford, Connecticut Daily Courant editorialized on April 12, 1861.
Once Lincoln manipulated South Carolinians into firing on Fort Sumter as a pretext for invading his own country (the very definition of treason according to Article 1, Section 3 of the Constitution), newspapers that were associated with and controlled by the Republican Party invented the fiction that there is a supposed difference between a right of secession based on Jefferson’s words in the Declaration and a "right of revolution." The former was illegitimate, they said, whereas the latter was not. This was not something that Jefferson or any other founders believed. It was an invention of the Republican Party propaganda apparatus, and is repeated to this day by pseudo-historians such as Harry Jaffa and his fellow "Straussian" neocons.
Another Republican Party fiction is the bizarre claim that Lincoln was a Jeffersonian for having mouthed the words "all men are created equal" in the Gettysburg Address. This fiction is the cornerstone of the Jaffa/Straussian false "history" of the "Civil War." (Jaffa has never written anything about the war per se, or even many of Lincoln’s actions and behavior. His books have to do mostly with the rhetoric of Lincoln’s speeches).
This second fiction has long been a cornerstone of the culture of lies and propaganda that supports American military imperialism. It is the language of permanent revolution, as the late Mel Bradford wrote in numerous articles and books, not too different from the ideology of the twentieth-century communist propagandist Leon Troksky who was also known for his theory of "permanent revolution." (It should not be surprising that many of the founders of "neoconservatism" who were students of Leo Strauss or his students, proudly boasted that they were Troskyites in their youth. The late Irving Kristol would be the best example).
By the late nineteenth century Lincoln’s bastardization of Jefferson’s language in the Declaration of Independence was employed to "justify" aggressive military imperialism in the name of spreading "equality" around the globe. "All men" means all men, not just American men, the "progressives" argued. Therefore, in the name of the sainted "Father Abraham" [Lincoln], Americans were told that it was their "divine" duty to invade, conquer, and occupy such places as the Philippines in order to bring American-style freedom to those lands. Today the Philippines, tomorrow Europe. For example, one of the most vociferous proponents of the Spanish-American war was Indiana Senator Albert Jeremiah Beveridge, who advocated the war in a speech before the U.S. Senate in which he declared that: "It was America’s destiny to set the world its example of right and honor, for we cannot fly from our world duties. We cannot retreat from any soil where Providence has unfurled our banner. It is ours to save that soil, for liberty and civilization" (Quoted in Gregg Jones, Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream, p. 95).
More than 200,000 Filipinos were murdered by American soldiers in order to "save" their "soil" for liberty. As for the real Jeffersonians who opposed the Spanish-American war, Beveridge mocked them by saying, "the opposition tells us we ought not to rule a people without their consent." But Filipinos were not capable of self-government, he said. They needed their American occupiers to "rescue" them from "savage, bloody rule of pillage and extortion." This "march of the flag" is "America’s divine destiny," he bloviated. This last passage sounds more like the effects of the American invasion and occupation of the Philippines than the cause.
If Americans ever began celebrating the real meaning of the Declaration of Independence, then they would embrace the Jeffersonian rights of secession and nullification as a means of fighting back against governmental tyranny. They would also withdraw their support for the U.S. government’s aggressive wars of imperialism in the Middle East and elsewhere, along with its hundreds of military bases on every continent on the planet. They might even begin an opposition to being plundered by the incredibly corrupt military/industrial/congressional complex and its main funding sources, the Fed and the income tax.
Copyright © 2012 by LewRockwell.com