The Declaration of Independence, signed 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.”
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.
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 among 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.)
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 was good for the people, whether the people themselves wanted them or not.
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 their 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.
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 may 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.
(This article originally appeared on Northwood University’s blog, “In Defense of Capitalism and Human Progress” in July 2010)