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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Government as servant

Government as servant

By Kirk Wood

For this Fourth of July, let us recall the language of the Declaration of Independence and its original, limited purpose which is announced in the first three lines: To proclaim the independence of the colonies united in the Continental Congress by dissolving "the political bands" that had connected them to Great Britain for more than 200 years and "to assume among the powers of the earth that separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature's God entitle them . . ."

Repeated again in the second and longer paragraph, this "right of revolution" and its origins have taken a back seat to five words ("all men are created equal") that have come to define the meaning of 1776, together with the myths of the Declaration as the charter of a "national" government and a proclamation of universal rights not as "unalienable" but more as entitlements from government.

For John Locke, however, the essential political and theological problems to be overcome in 17th century England were those of absolute monarchy inspired by Divine Right.

If God Almighty sanctioned unlimited rule by one -- usually for the worse -- and from Him through Adam (as the first sovereign parent and patriarch) uninterrupted, what could limited monarchists and republicans do to change government for more beneficent purposes?

In a nutshell, they had to look anew at humankind and challenge the long-accepted view that they were born always to be subjects to one authority or another. By distinguishing among different relationships and compacts of government, parental versus political and authoritarian versus voluntary, for example, Locke concluded that humans were born naturally free and equal at least in a state of nature.
As Locke and other contract theorists realized, humans may have been equal in a state of nature (since all, literally, were unrestrained and lawless), but that condition was also one of warfare with the strong oppressing the weak, the rich, the poor and the more genetically endowed doing the same to those less so. After all, God created humans in His own image uniquely rather than equally. He also intended that they not always be alone but "under strong, obligations of necessity, convenience, and inclination" to be a part of society!

For the better safety of all and greater security for property, a compact of government was made by those willing to give up some of their "unalienable" rights to life, liberty and property and to be restrained by laws of their own choosing. Of course, those who formed a government could also agree to dissolve it should it become "destructive" of the ends for which it was instituted.

How interesting it is that the compact theory associated with Natural Rights (not to be confused with Natural Law) is too often ignored in favor of equal rights and Nature's God.

Although God endowed humans with unalienable rights, government itself proceeded from free men alone. Otherwise, there would be no government at all (anarchy) or only Divine Right monarchy (or what is the same -- a theocracy).
Without the compact, in other words, government would not be limited. As the creators of government for limited purposes, the people (or those who were citizens) became the sovereign power over government and rulers at least in America.
While our founders and framers of the 18th century proceeded to construct a more perfect government between 1776 and 1787-1788, according to republican and federal principles, the real revolution was government itself being made the servant of the people and not its master.

This is the lesson of the past that we seem to have forgotten. The principles of 1776 and 1787-88 were indeed liberal in their time and our founders and framers should once again be praised for their legacy of liberty understood in context as freedom from government, notwithstanding slavery (but this subject is altogether another debate).

Dr. Kirk Wood is a history professor at Alabama State University and the author of "Nullification, A Constitutional History, 1776-1833."

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