The Declaration and Our Civic Conscience

When I was still teaching high school courses in American History, AP US History, Political Parties, and Political Philosophy, I would have my students carefully read and complete this essay assignment. Read it for yourself and reflect upon how you would answer the two questions at the end.



By Charles Burris

One of the major objectives of this course is for each student to engage in a careful and measured, disinterested, reflection upon what it means to be an American citizen.

What better place is there to begin such an examination of our civic conscience than by returning to the roots of our nation’s foundation document, The Declaration of Independence. Its principal author, Thomas Jefferson, intended it as “an expression of the American mind.”

It is indeed fortunate that our City of Tulsa’s Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art possesses a rare, certified copy of the Declaration, signed and attested by Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, Ministers Plenipotentiary for the United States of North America, for examination and display.


On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a resolution in the second Continental Congress declaring:

“Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”

On June 11, 1776, the Congress appointed a committee of five to write a formal document justifying independence from Great Britain. They were Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Jefferson was asked by the others on the committee to do the actual writing.

On July 2, 1776, Lee’s resolution was adopted by the Congress by a vote of twelve to nothing, with one abstention.

QUESTION:  Why then do we celebrate July 4th as a holiday and not July 2nd?

ANSWER:  Jefferson’s edited version of the Declaration was adopted by the Congress on July 4, 1776.


The Declaration of Independence is a carefully crafted essay with a thesis statement (the central idea or contention), reasoning (factually based arguments), and a decisive conclusion.

The Declaration is composed of four parts:

  1. Preamble (thesis statement).
  2. New Theory of Government (discussion of natural rights, the social contract theory of government, and the right of revolution).
  3. Reasons for Separation (27 indictments of King George III of Great Britain for violating the rights of the colonists. These reasons are aimed at the King, and not the British Parliament).
  4. Proclamation of Free, Independent, and United States (the formal declaration of war against Great Britain which contains Richard Henry Lee’s resolution).

Since the Declaration is addressed to all humanity, it is concerned with the universal rights of mankind and not merely those of subjects of Great Britain in 1776.

The main idea or thesis of the Declaration was that King George III of Great Britain was directing a tyrannical plan to enslave the American colonists by violating their inalienable natural rights.   


A ‘right’ is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a person’s freedom of action in a social context.

In the Declaration there are two classifications of rights:  alienable and inalienable (or “unalienable”).

Alienable rights are rights granted by the government that can be given up, transferred, or taken away. Civil rights are alienable rights. An example of an alienable right is title ownership to a car – the right of ownership can be transferred from one person to another.

Inalienable rights are natural rights existing prior to the foundation of government that cannot be given up, transferred, or surrendered. The right to self-ownership of your body is an example of an inalienable right. There cannot be such a thing as voluntary slavery. It is a contradiction of terms.


There are two classes of violations of rights discussed in the Declaration:  usurpations and tyranny.

Usurpations are unjust uses of power by the government violating civil or alienable rights granted by the government.

Tyranny is the absolute power of the government over people violating inalienable natural rights existing prior to the forming of government.


By their nature as human beings created by God, all persons possess inalienable natural rights. They hold these pre-existing rights not as subjects of any government, but prior to the formation of the state.

These rights include:

(A)   THE RIGHT TO LIFE:  Each person has an absolute ownership of his or her own body. The right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action.

(B)   THE RIGHT TO LIBERTY:  The freedom of action so long as the individual does not initiate (start) the use of physical force (aggressive violence) or fraud against another person or person’s justly acquired property.

(C)  THE RIGHT TO PROPERTY:  The right to property defines an inviolable space around the individual and thus protects him or her from the invasion of others.  Each person has an absolute ownership of his or her own body and of those objects with which he or she mixes their labor. If an individual goes into an unowned wilderness area and picks an apple from a tree, the apple now belongs to him or her by the action of mixing his or her labor with the object of the apple. This is John Locke’s Labor Theory of Property. Ultimately, all human rights are property rights.

Jefferson’s celebrated “right” to the “pursuit of happiness” harkens back to the ancient Greek notion of eudemonism (personal well-being governed by reason or the life of virtue) outlined by Aristotle.  Government could not guarantee happiness; there is no “right” to happiness. Each person was left free to seek his or her own vision of self-expression and fulfillment.


In John Locke’s Social Contract Theory of Government, individuals come together out of the state of nature for a common purpose:  to protect their natural inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property.  This is the sole purpose of government. Thomas Jefferson and the signers of the Declaration of Independence believed King George III of Great Britain was directing a tyrannical plan to enslave the American colonists by violating their inalienable natural rights.  They believed the King had broken the “Social Contract.”


The sole purpose of government is to protect inalienable human rights. The colonists believed the King had failed in this task. The people must therefore make a new arrangement to protect their rights, a new “Social Contract.”

A key element in judging the King’s action was the idea of “design” or conspiracy – a deliberate, systematic plan to deprive or take away one’s rights and liberties.

(This idea of conspiracy as crucial to the ideology (belief-system) of the Founders is forcefully developed by the distinguished Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn in his books, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, and The Origins of American Politics, praised by scholars as brilliant landmarks in American historiography. One cannot understand the deeply, profound distrust of power that lies at the heart of the American Revolution and that has remained with us as a permanent legacy without having read these masterful books.)

As Jefferson stated:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.


In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson discusses the True or Radical Whig philosophy of natural rights, the social contact, and the right of revolution the colonists had developed from writers such as John Locke, Algernon Sidney, and John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon.

He applied these ideas to the conditions existing in colonial America in the Summer of 1776.

Jefferson listed mankind’s inalienable rights that if violated, would, by definition, constitute tyranny.

There was no possible excuse for the King to violate these rights.

The King was guilty of tyranny, therefore all allegiance to him and all political connection of the American colonies to the State of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved. The Declaration of Independence is a formal declaration of secession (or independence) from the British Crown and the authority of Parliament.


There is much divisiveness and clamoring against government at all levels throughout America. In the midst of such division, persons cutting across all barriers of gender, class, race, or political party are united in their belief that there is something substantially wrong in their country.

This populist upsurge against governing elites (both elected and non-elected) and the establishment mainstream news media (who are often seen as an enabling co-conspirator) is reflected in the outcry on public-policy issues such as government spending and the national debt, health care, abortion, gun control and confiscation, America’s military role abroad and the wars in which we are engaged, the USA PATRIOT ACT and its effect on civil liberties, TSA “gate rape” abuse of passengers at airports, affirmative action, 10th Amendment sovereignty issues, civil asset forfeiture, financial privacy violations, protection of the environment, and the right to self-medication with vitamins, nutrients, medical Marijuana, or “recreational substances.”

In the immediate years preceding our Revolution, the great American colonial patriot James Otis argued against general warrants and writs of assistance that were issued by British soldiers without judicial review and that did not name the subject or items to be searched.

He condemned these general warrants as “the worst instrument[s] of arbitrary power, the most destructive of English liberty and the fundamental principles of law, that ever w[ere] found in an English law book.” Otis objected to these writs of assistance because they “placed the liberty of every man in the hands of every petty officer.” As a reaction to these infringements and violations of rights, the Framers created the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. It was intended to guarantee that only judges — not soldiers or policemen — would issue warrants.

Today’s constitutionalists’ primary objection to the USA PATRIOT ACT is that searches that should require a judge’s warrant are performed with a letter from an FBI agent — a National Security Letter (“NSL”).

They object to these warrantless searches being performed on United States citizens, and specifically object to the 200,000 NSL searches that have been performed without a judge’s warrant, and the over 2 million searches of bank records, called Suspicious Activity Reports, performed on U.S. citizens without a judge’s warrant.

These include the use and abuse by the FBI of so-called National Security Letters. These secret demand letters, which allow the government to obtain financial records and other sensitive information held by Internet Service Providers, banks, credit companies, and telephone carriers — all without appropriate judicial oversight — also impose a gag order on recipients.

NSL abuse has been and likely continues to be rampant. The widely-circulated 2007 report issued by the Inspector General from the Department of Justice documents “widespread and serious misuse of the FBI’s national security letter authorities. In many instances, the FBI’s misuse of national security letters violated NSL statutes, Attorney General Guidelines, or the FBI’s own internal policies.” Another audit released in 2008 revealed similar abuses, including the fact that the FBI had issued inappropriate “blanket NSLs” that did not comply with FBI policy, and which allowed the FBI to obtain data on 3,860 telephone numbers by issuing only eleven “blanket NSLs.” The 2008 audit also confirmed that the FBI increasingly used NSLs to seek information on U.S. citizens. From 2003 to 2006, almost 200,000 NSL requests were issued. In 2006 alone, almost 60% of the 49,425 requests were issued specifically for investigations of U.S. citizens or legal aliens.

In addition, First Amendment advocates have been concerned about an especially troubling aspect of the 2008 audit, which documented a situation in which the FBI applied to the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to obtain a section 215 order. The Court denied the order on First Amendment grounds. Not to be deterred, the FBI simply used an NSL to obtain the same information.

A recent report released by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (“EFF”) entitled, “Patterns of Misconduct: FBI Intelligence Violations from 2001-2008,” documents further NSL abuse. EFF estimates that, based on the proportion of violations reported to the Intelligence Oversight Board and the FBI’s own statements regarding NSL violations, the actual number of violations that may have occurred since 2001 could approach 40,000 violations of law, Executive Order, and other regulations.

Yet another troublesome (and now permanent) provision of the USA PATRIOT ACT is the expansion of Suspicious Activity Reports. Sections 356 and 359 expanded the types of financial institutions required to file reports under the Bank Secrecy Act. The personal and account information required by the reports is turned over to the Treasury Department and the FBI. In 2000, there were only 163,184 reports filed. By 2007, this had increased to 1,250,439. Again, as with NSLs, there is a complete lack of judicial oversight for SARs.

The previous examples based upon facts and those which follow will help clarify some of the more general concepts.

The U. S. Government has implemented a worldwide regime of assassination, torture, renditions, lawless detention, and other grave abuses.

Additionally, governments, both federal and state, are using our U. S. military forces — not against foreign enemies – but against ordinary citizens.

This is regarding the War on Drugs. It is no longer unusual to see news reports showing fleets of black helicopter gunships flying over areas of the United States, manned by DEA agents and active-duty army troops, looking for Marijuana plants.

The Pentagon spends billions for such troops, helicopter gunships, and weapons to use against American citizens. For the first time since the Civil War, large numbers of military troops are being used as an elite, internal police force, in clear violation of the Posse Comitatus Act prohibiting the armed forces or National Guard to be used for such purposes.

Navy Seals and Army Rangers are now regularly deployed in such missions throughout the country. The National Guard has stationed troops at 56 housing projects in Puerto Rico, while at the other end of the continent in Anchorage, Alaska, machine gun-armed National Guard troops accompanied state police on door-to-door, warrantless gun sweeps.

In fact, door-to-door gun sweeps without search warrants were conducted in Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland (and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina). In Chicago, under Operation Clean Sweep, police raided hundreds of low-income apartments. Any guns they found – legal or illegal – were seized. Gun owners were arrested as suspected drug dealers or gang members. Mere ownership was viewed as criminal.

The president can send in BATF, DEA, and FBI agents with military support to take over any “State or part of a State,” he unilaterally declares a “violent crime or drug emergency area.”

A quick Google search on your computer for “National Emergency” will surprise most readers. Our country presently exists under multiple declared “National Emergencies,” proclaimed by presidential Executive Order fiat. These declarations give the executive branch very broad and far-reaching powers and authority over virtually every aspect of your life.

Under Civil Asset Forfeiture statutes, once sent in, federal agents can confiscate anyone’s home, car, or business, based solely upon their suspicion of the most minor illegal activity. You can forget about trials or hearings. None are required to confiscate your property or hold you without trial for up to six months.

The new federal confiscation squads are being trained at our military bases. The government calls it “urban pacification.” Outraged citizens call it wholesale looting. Officials have every incentive to steal as much as possible. Section 180102 of the crime law says they can keep what they seize for their “agency.” There is no outside oversight or constitutional check and balance for such rank thievery.

“Law enforcement is the United States is reverting back toward the conditions existing in England before the Magna Carta, when rulers automatically seized all property of any person convicted of a felony,” observed award-winning journalist and policy analyst James Bovard in his incisive and provocative book, Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty. “Asset forfeiture provisions presume that government officials should have the power to inflict economic capital punishment on private citizens for breaking of scores of laws.”

Countless Americans are stunned by how such government property confiscations are truly killing people. For example, the eighteen elderly senior citizens who died after the IRS seized their Ohio nursing home in the dead of winter and forcibly evicted all residents. When Senator Howard Metzenbaum demanded an explanation, the IRS responded: it was an “extremely routine” operation.

Actions have consequences.

To a significant number of Americans, the 1992 Waco Massacre of besieging then shooting and gassing ninety six men, women, and children were “the shots heard ‘round the world,” and have prompted their arming in new citizen “militias” similar to those who fought at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 – exactly 220 years prior to the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh on April 19, 1995, who witnessed what the Feds had done at Waco, Texas on April 19 and responded with his terrorist reprisal.

(Equally ominous, the terrorist assault on the federal armory compound at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859 by John Brown and his armed zealots was the catalyst for the revitalization of the southern militias which emerged as the nucleus of the Army of the Confederacy.)

Many Americans are united today by a common belief (similar to that repeatedly expressed by Jefferson, Henry, Washington, Adams, etc.) that their government is actively conspiring against their rights and liberties. As in the days before the American Revolution, they are organizing in Tea Party protests showing their solidarity and anger at perceived government abuses and usurpations.

What does this all mean for America? Are the United States of America fast becoming disunited?

Have conditions for a significant portion of citizens reached the critical boiling point of 1776 (or 1861) where open, widespread rebellion will become more commonplace? Are we in the opening stages of a new American Revolution?

President Abraham Lincoln, on the eve of the greatest calamity to strike America, stated in his Inaugural Address:

This country, with its inhabitants, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember and overthrow it.

Are we at such a crossroads today?

Attached are two documents. The first is the original Declaration of Independence of 1776.  The second is a New Declaration-of-Independence for today prepared by one Timothy O’Brien of Troy, Michigan.


1)  If you were a British colonist living on the eastern seaboard in 1776, would you have signed the original Declaration? Why or why not?

2)  As an American living today, would you sign the contemporary, updated version? Why or why not?

These crucial questions strike at the root of what it means to be an American, then as now.




12:17 am on December 7, 2021