By Bradley Harrington
“What is true of every member of the society, individually, is true of them all collectively; since the rights of the whole can be no more than the sum of the rights of the individuals.” – Thomas Jefferson, “Letter To James Madison,” 1789 –
Last year in this space, I said that July 4, 1776 was the day when “the Second Continental Congress ratified the most radical document ever penned in man’s history: The Declaration of Independence.” (WTE, “Where’s the character of 1776?”, Jul. 4, 2014.)
This year it remains for us to discuss: Just what was it, exactly, that made that document so radical?
Was it that fact that the people, not the rulers, were placed in charge? No, for the democracies of Ancient Greece had attempted that previously, and the results were not improvements on individual liberty.
In point of fact, it could be argued, as James Madison himself did in 1787, that “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” (“The Federalist No. 10.”)
The Founding Fathers were greatly worried about the implications of unlimited majority rule, as they saw it as a vehicle for the rise of “factions” and the suppression of the rights of individuals and minorities through the rule of the vote.
No, the essence of the American Revolution, ideologically, lay in understanding that in order for property rights to be protected, it was just as necessary to limit the ability of society as a whole to infringe upon them as it was to guarantee those protections from other individuals as well.
It was this belief that led to the creation of our republican form of government, and perhaps the philosopher Ayn Rand said it best when she remarked that:
“The most profoundly revolutionary achievement of the United States of America was the subordination of society to moral law. The principle of man’s individual rights represented the extension of morality into the social system – as a limitation on the power of the state, as man’s protection against the brute force of the collective, as the subordination of might to right.” (“Man’s Rights,” italics hers.)
In the American view of government, in other words, the power of “society” to control the lives and property of individuals is just as limited, and just as subject to, the standards controlling personal discourse. That “society,” as such, has no rights, above and beyond the individual rights of all of its members, and that the very purpose of society, indeed, lies in the peaceful organization of individuals and their property.
This was the achievement of July 4, 1776, and the importance of that accomplishment simply cannot be overemphasized in regard to its impact on personal liberty. Your individual rights are yours by right, not by anybody else’s permission – and, in the American view, the very purpose of government lies in the protection of those rights:
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” (“Declaration of Independence.”)
That is what makes the Declaration of Independence so radical and unlike any other social proposal in man’s history. And it is the animating idea, the driving force, that led to all the rest.
Today, however, you are hearing voices tell you that the rights of individuals must be “limited” to take the “needs of society” into account. Indeed, does hardly a day go by when some obtuse politician, from a Cheyenne City Council member on up to the President of the United States, doesn’t tell you so?
Such fools are completely ignorant of the facts of our American history; their voices are the utterances of would-be despots, totalitarians and dictators. And the greatest danger you face is that you will swallow their twaddle, thereby handing them a victory over your remaining liberties they would otherwise have to wrest from you by force.
Don’t do it! No form of exploitation can continue for long without the consent of the exploited, and the greatest weapons in your arsenal are a solid understanding of the proper role of government in your life – as well as a profound refusal to grant any wanna-be authoritarian the “right” to control the peaceful use of your property.
So, while you’re heating up the barbeque this Independence Day, perhaps you should pull out a copy of the Declaration and read it. For, when you have finished it, you will once again appreciate the heritage that created what used to be the greatest country on Earth – and, possibly, just maybe, come to understand the nature of the collectivist forces that have been at work to destroy it ever since.
Bradley Harrington is a computer technician and a writer who lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.