What Americans Used To Know About the Declaration of Independence

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“During the weeks following the [1860] election, [Northern newspaper] editors of all parties 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.”

~ Howard Cecil Perkins, editor, Northern Editorials on Secession, p. 10

The first several generations of Americans understood that the Declaration of Independence was the ultimate states’ rights document. The citizens of the states would delegate certain powers to a central government in their Constitution, and these powers (mostly for national defense and foreign policy purposes) would hopefully be exercised for the benefit of the citizens of the “free and independent” states, as they are called in the Declaration.

The understanding was that if American citizens were in fact to be the masters rather than the servants of government, they themselves would have to police the national government that was created by them for their mutual benefit. If the day ever came that the national government became the sole arbiter of the limits of its own powers, then Americans would live under a tyranny as bad or worse than the one the colonists fought a revolution against. As the above quotation denotes, the ultimate natural law principle behind this thinking was Jefferson’s famous dictum in the Declaration of Independence that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and that whenever that consent is withdrawn the people of the free and independent states, as sovereigns, have a duty to abolish that government and replace it with a new one if they wish.

This was the fundamental understanding of the meaning of the Declaration of Independence – that it was a Declaration of Secession from the British empire – of the first several generations of Americans. As the 1, 107-page book, Northern Editorials on Secession shows, this view was held just as widely in the Northern states as in the Southern states in 1860-1861. Among the lone dissenters was Abe Lincoln, a corporate lawyer/lobbyist/politician with less than a year of formal education who probably never even read The Federalist Papers.

The following are some illustrations of how various Northern-state newspaper editors thought of the meaning of the Declaration of Independence in 1860-1861:

On November 21, 1860, he Cincinnati Daily Press wrote that:

We believe that the right of any member of this Confederacy [the United States] to dissolve its political relations with the others and assume an independent position is absolute – that, in other words, if South Carolina wants to go out of the Union, she has the right to do so, and no party or power may justly say her nay. This we suppose to be the doctrine of the Declaration of Independence when it affirms that governments are instituted for the protection of men in their lives, liberties, and the pursuit of happiness; and 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 . . .’

On December 17, 1860 the New York Daily Tribune editorialized that “We have repeatedly asked those who dissent from our view of this matter [the legality of peaceful secession] to tell us frankly whether they do or do not assent to Mr. Jefferson’s statement in the Declaration of Independence that governments ‘derive their just powers from the consent of the governed . . . . We do heartily accept this doctrine, believing it intrinsically sound, beneficent, and one that , universally accepted, is calculated to prevent the shedding of seas of human blood.” Furthermore, the Tribune wrote, “[I]f it justified the secession from the British Empire of Three Millions of colonists in 1776, we do not see it would not justify the secession of Five Millions of Southrons from the Federal Union in 1861.”

The Kenosha, Wisconsin Democrat editorialized on January 11, 1861, that “The founders of our government were constant secessionists. They not only claimed the right for themselves, but conceded it to others. They were not only secessionists in theory, but in practice.. The old confederation between the states [the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union] was especially declared perpetual by the instrument itself. Yet Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and the hosts of heroes and statesman of that day seceded from it.” And, “The Constitution provides no means of coercing a state in the Union; nor any punishment for secession.”

Again on February 23, 1861, the New York Daily Tribune reiterated its view that “We must not, in behalf of either of the Union of Freedom, trample down the great truth that ‘governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed.’”

The Washington, D.C. States and Union newspaper editorialized on March 21, 1861, that “The people are the ruling judges, the States independent sovereigns. Where the people chose to change their political condition, as our own Declaration of Independence first promulgated, they have a right to do so. If the doctrine was good then, it is good now. Call that right by whatever name you please, secession or revolution, it makes no sort of difference.”

This last sentence was a response to the Republican Party propaganda machine of the day that invented the theory that the Declaration allows for a “right of revolution” but not a right of “secession.” The States and Union recognized immediately that this non-distinction was nothing more than a rhetorical flimflam designed to deceive the public about the meaning of their own Declaration of Independence. It is a piece of lying propaganda that is repeated to this day by apologists for the American welfare/warfare/police state, especially the Lincoln-worshipping neocons at National Review, the Claremont Institute, and other appendages of the Republican Party.

On the eve of the war the Providence, Rhode Island Evening Press warned that “the employment of [military] force” against citizens who no longer consented to being governed by Washington, D.C. , “can have no other result than to make the revolution itself complete and lasting, at the expense of thousands of lives, hundreds of millions of dollars, and amount of wretchedness fearful to contemplate, and the humiliation of the American name.”

The Evening Press then reminded its readers that in the American Revolution the colonists rejected “the Divine right of Kings” to do whatever they wanted to their subjects. “Our forefathers disputed this dictum,” they wrote, and “rose against it, fought against it, and by successful revolution accomplished their independence of it. In its place they substituted the doctrine that ‘to secure human happiness, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .”

On this Fourth of July most Americans will not be celebrating or commemorating these founding, natural law principles. To the extent that they are celebrating anything but a day off work to overeat and overdrink, they will be celebrating the imperial warfare/police state with hundreds of parades featuring marching soldiers in camouflage, flags galore, military vehicles, jet fighter fly-overs, “patriotic”/warmongering musical anthems, etc. The symbol of all of this is King Lincoln himself, who rejected every single principle of the Declaration of Independence. His successors have reinterpreted the document to “justify” endless military interventionism all over the globe in the name of “making all men everywhere equal.” To the neocons, this means perpetual wars for “democracy.” This of course has nothing whatsoever to do with the real meaning of the Declaration of Independence and is in fact the exact opposite. No people in any country that has been invaded and occupied by the U.S. military have ever consented to being governed as such by Washington, D.C. As such, they can all be thought of as Neo-Confederates.

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