By Dr. Richard Ebeling
The Declaration of Independence, proclaimed by members of the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, is the founding document of the American experiment in free government. What is too often forgotten is that what the Founding Fathers argued against in the Declaration was the heavy and intrusive hand of big government.
Most Americans easily recall those eloquent words with which the Founding Fathers expressed the basis of their claim for independence from Great Britain in 1776:
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 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 Grievances Against Intrusive Government
But what is usually not recalled is the long list of enumerated grievances that make up most of the text of the Declaration of Independence. The Founding Fathers explained how intolerable an absolutist and highly centralized government in faraway London had become. This distant government violated the personal and civil liberties of the people living in the 13 colonies on the eastern seaboard of North America.
In addition, the king’s ministers imposed rigid and oppressive economic regulations and controls on the colonists that was part of the 18th-century system of government central planning known as mercantilism.
“The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States,” the signers declared.
Concentration of Power and Arbitrary Rule
At every turn, the British Crown had concentrated political power and decision-making in its own hands, leaving the American colonists with little ability to manage their own affairs through local and state governments. Laws and rules were imposed without the consent of the governed; local laws and procedures meant to limit abusive or arbitrary government were abrogated or ignored.
The king also had attempted to manipulate the legal system by arbitrarily appointing judges that shared his power-lusting purposes or were open to being influenced to serve the monarch’s policy goals. The king’s officials unjustly placed colonists under arrest in violation of writ of habeas corpus, and sentenced them to prison without trial by jury. Colonists often were violently conscripted to serve in the king’s armed forces and made to fight in foreign wars.
A financially burdensome standing army was imposed on the colonists without the consent of the local legislatures. Soldiers often were quartered in the homes of the colonists without their approval or permission.
In addition, the authors of the Declaration stated, the king fostered civil unrest by creating tensions and conflicts among the different ethnic groups in his colonial domain. (The English settlers and the Native American Indian tribes.)
Government Violation of Economic Liberty
But what was at the heart of many of their complaints and grievances against King George III were the economic controls that limited their freedom and the taxes imposed that confiscated their wealth and honestly earned income.
The fundamental premise behind the mercantilist planning system was the idea that it was the duty and responsibility of the government to manage and direct the economic affairs of society. The British Crown shackled the commercial activities of the colonists with a spider’s web of regulations and restrictions. The British government told them what they could produce, and dictated the resources and the technologies that could be employed.
The government prevented the free market from setting prices and wages, and manipulated what goods would be available to the colonial consumers. It dictated what goods might be imported or exported between the 13 colonies and the rest of the world, thus preventing the colonists from benefiting from the gains that could have been theirs under free trade.
Everywhere, the king appointed various “czars” who were to control and command much of the people’s daily affairs of earning a living. Layer after layer of new bureaucracies were imposed over every facet of life. “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance,” the Founding Fathers explain.
In addition, the king and his government imposed taxes upon the colonists without their consent. Their income was taxed to finance expensive and growing projects that the king wanted and that he thought were good for the people, whether the people themselves wanted them or not.
Burdensome Taxes, Tax Evasion, and Violent Government
The 1760s and early 1770s saw a series of royal taxes that burdened the American colonists and aroused their ire: the Sugar Act of 1764, the Stamp Act of 1765, the Townsend Acts of 1767, the Tea Act of 1773 (which resulted in the Boston Tea Party), and a wide variety of other fiscal impositions.
The American colonists often were extremely creative at avoiding and evading the Crown’s regulations and taxes through smuggling and bribery (Paul Revere smuggled Boston pewter into the West Indies in exchange for contraband molasses.)
The British government’s response to the American colonists’ “civil disobedience” against its regulations and taxes was harsh. The king’s army and navy killed civilians and wantonly ruined people’s private property. “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people,” the Declaration laments.
Opposing Oppressive Government to be Free
After enumerating these and other complaints, the Founding Fathers said in the Declaration:
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Thus, the momentous step was taken to declare their independence from the British Crown. The signers of the Declaration then did “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor,” in their common cause of establishing a free government and the individual liberty of the, then, three million occupants of those original 13 colonies.
Never before in history had a people declared and then established a government based on the principles of the individual’s right to his life, liberty, and property.
Never before was a society founded on the ideal of economic freedom, under which free men were declared to have the right to live for themselves in their own individual interest, and peacefully produce and exchange with each other on the terms they find mutually beneficial without the stranglehold of regulating and planning government.
Never before had a people made clear that self-government meant not only the right of electing those who would hold political office and pass the laws of the land, but also meant that each human being had the right to be self-governing over his own life.
Indeed, in those inspiring words in the Declaration, the Founding Fathers were insisting that each man should be considered as owning himself, and not be viewed as the property of the state to be manipulated by either king or Parliament.
It is worth remembering, therefore, that what we are celebrating every July 4 is the idea and the ideal of each human being’s right to his life and liberty, and his freedom to pursue happiness in his own way, without paternalistic and plundering government getting in his way.
Overcoming the Chains of Political Tyranny Today
We should turn to the words of Thomas Jefferson, written to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1826, the very day, in fact, that Jefferson died at the age of eighty-three:
“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government.
“That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man … The palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”
The “monkish ignorance and superstition” of today is the misplaced belief that the individual is to be sacrificed to the group, the collective, to the nation – as long as the banner under which it is done is called “democracy” or “social justice.”
Instead of the divine right of kings, America’s modern-day “progressives” speak of the secular divine right to “entitlements.” They call for an even greater fiscal and regulatory servitude of the productive and creative for the redistributive advantage of the less productive and more politically connected members in society.
Those who today believe that some have been “born with saddles on their back” to be ridden by “a favored few booted and spurred” are the ones who want to reinforce and extend a system of political favors and privileges for corrupt and corrupted businessmen – the “crony capitalists” – who are unwilling or unable to honestly acquire the income and wealth they want through the peaceful and voluntary trades of the free marketplace.
And it is we, who believe in the liberty for which the Founding Fathers pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor in that war of independence, who must do all in our power to restore that crucial understanding and appreciation of individual freedom and individual rights among our fellow citizens, without which that great American “experiment” in political and economic individualism may be lost beyond recovery.
Dr. Richard Ebling is a professor of Economics at Northwood University, additional insights may be found on his blog, In Defense of Capitalism and Human Progress, located at: https://blogs.northwood.edu/indefenseofcapitalism/
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