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"Through the Prism of the Declaration"

The Adams County Record of Council, Idaho

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Constitution Series: Installment 3

To fully appreciate the Constitution, one must read it through the prism of the Declaration of Independence. In other words, if you haven't read the Declaration, the purpose of the Constitution won't be particularly clear. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were premised on the Laws of Nature. For the first time in known history, a nation was formed, and a ' government constructed, on the philosophical foundation of self-sovereignty, that is, men ruling themselves. Our Founding Fathers recognized that individuals (the People) had the natural right of self-determination.

The Declaration of Independence was an expression of that natural right; the Constitution merely codified, or created, the government that would be entrusted with securing it.

Recently, I happened to be reading to my children before bedtime, the 1941 classic by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little Town on the Prairie. In the book, Mrs. Wilder wrote about a Fourth of July celebration in De Smet, South Dakota (circa 1881). As I was reading, I was struck by just how well the author captured the essence of the American ideal of self governance.

She wrote about how she and her sister listened to a local man standing above the crowd of celebrants, reciting the Declaration of Independence. Before his recitation, the man said, "'So here we are today... Every man Jack of us a free and independent citizen of God's country, the only country on earth where a man is free and independent...'"

She continued, writing that "Laura and Carrie knew the Declaration by heart, of course, but it gave them a solemn, glorious feeling to hear the words." Laura Ingalls would have been fourteen years old in July of 1881. She wrote, "God is America's king... Americans won't obey any king on earth. Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences. No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself. Why (she thought), when I am a little older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn't anyone else who has a right to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good. Her whole mind seemed to be lighted up by that thought. This is what it means to be free. It means, you have to be good. 'Our father's God, author of liberty—' The laws of Nature and of Nature's God endow you with a right to life and liberty. Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God's law is the only thing that gives you a right to be free."

The Founders were pragmatists; they knew that they would have to provide a moral justification for seceding from Great Britain. They therefore began the Declaration by stating that, "When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation." They further explained that, "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of [the natural rights of the People], 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 Declaration then listed numerous indictments against the King of Great Britain.

There is simply no denying that our Founding Fathers, collectively, understood that what they were doing and what they were creating had a divine quality to it. They knew they would need to appeal to an authority higher than that of earthly kings if they were going to succeed in creating a nation in which self-governance and self-determination could become a reality. And so they did, by concluding, "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..."

Having just defeated one tyrant to secure independence, they did not want to create another. The Founders thus set out to design a new government, one with powers limited only to those given to it by the People, one expected to perform only a limited number functions on behalf of the People. The rest would be left up to the People.

Maybe we should ask ourselves: Do Americans now, some 239 years after declaring our independence from Great Britain, still embrace the gift of self-governance that our Founding Fathers gave us? Did the limited government created by the Constitution stay limited? Do our children know the Declaration of Independence by heart?

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Original Publication Date: September 9, 2015

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