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Posted by on Jul 4, 2011 in Politics | 6 comments

What Our Declaration Really Means

WASHINGTON — Our nation confronts a challenge this Fourth of July that we face but rarely: We are at odds over the meaning of our history and why, to quote our Declaration of Independence, “governments are instituted.”

Only divisions this deep can explain why we are taking risks with our country’s future we’re usually wise enough to avoid. Arguments over how much government should tax and spend are the very stuff of democracy’s give-and-take. Now, the debate is shadowed by worries that if a willful faction does not get what it wants, it might bring the nation to default.

This is, well, crazy. It makes sense only if politicians believe — or have convinced themselves — that they are fighting over matters of principle so profound that any means to defeat their opponents is defensible.

We are closer to that point than we think, and our friends in the tea party have offered a helpful clue by naming their movement in honor of the 1773 revolt against tea taxes on that momentous night in Boston Harbor.

Whether they intend it or not, their name suggests they believe that the current elected government in Washington is as illegitimate as was a distant, unelected monarchy. It implies something fundamentally wrong with taxes themselves or, at the least, that current levels of taxation (the lowest in decades) are dangerously oppressive. And it hints that methods outside the normal political channels are justified in confronting such oppression.

We need to recognize the deep flaws in this vision of our present and our past. A reading of the Declaration of Independence makes clear that our forebears were not revolting against taxes as such — and most certainly not against government as such.

In the long list of “abuses and usurpations” the Declaration documents, taxes don’t come up until the 17th item, and that item is neither a complaint about tax rates nor an objection to the idea of taxation. Our Founders remonstrated against the British crown “for imposing taxes on us without our consent.” They were concerned about “consent,” i.e. popular rule, not taxes.

The very first item on their list condemned the king because he “refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” Note that the signers wanted to pass laws, not repeal them, and they began by speaking of “the public good,” not about individuals or “the private sector.” They knew that it takes public action — including effective and responsive government — to secure “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Their second grievance reinforced the first, accusing the king of having “forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance.” Again, our forebears wanted to enact laws; they were not anti-government zealots.

Abuses three through nine also referred in some way to how laws were passed or justice was administered. The document doesn’t really get to anything that looks like Big Government oppression (“He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance”) until grievance number 10.

This misunderstanding of our founding document is paralleled by a misunderstanding of our Constitution. “The federal government was created by the states to be an agent for the states, not the other way around,” Gov. Rick Perry of Texas said recently.

No, our Constitution begins with the words “We the People” not “We the States.” The Constitution’s Preamble speaks of promoting “a more perfect Union,” “Justice,” “the common defense,” “the general Welfare” and “the Blessings of Liberty.” These were national goals.

I know states’ rights advocates revere the 10th Amendment. But when the word “states” appears in the Constitution, it typically is part of a compound word, “United States,” or refers to how the states and their people will be represented in the national government. We learned it in elementary school: The Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation to create a stronger federal government, not a weak confederate government. Perry’s view was rejected in 1787, and again in 1865.

We praise our Founders annually for revolting against royal rule and for creating an exceptionally durable system of self-government. We can wreck that system if we forget our Founders’ purpose of creating a representative form of national authority robust enough to secure the public good. It is still perfectly capable of doing that. But if we pretend we are living in Boston in 1773, we will draw all the wrong conclusions and make some remarkably foolish choices.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne(at) (c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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Copyright 2011 The Moderate Voice
  • RP

    Mr. Dionne
    It is hard to relate to the taxation issue that faced the colonist compared to the taxation issue today. The issue that faced the colonist was based on representation, or the lack thereof.

    Today the issue with taxation is based on the views of many that too few Americans pay taxes and those that do are paying too much to support those that pay nothing. I have read up to 48% of Americans do not pay federal taxes due to one deduction or credit. This is in addition to the large corporation that find loopholes to avoid paying taxes also. When you live in America and you enjoy the rights and priviliages that come with that life, then many more individuals should be supporting that cause and not living off those that do pay.

    There are many that can’t or should not be expected to pay taxes. Those are ones with disabilities or some other reason they are physicially or mentally unable to work to help support themselves, but there is no reason why Americans should be expected to pay for those that can work, but do not wish to work.

    Years ago, the family structure of the black community and poor white communities were much stronger than today. Even with the crumbling of the family structure in America today amoung all races, the decline in the black community has exceeded that of the other races. Could that have anything to do with the fact that the Aid to Families With Dependant Children program designed to help the WW2 widows with children has been misused to allow people to have children, not marry, not work, and live off those that pay taxes? I believe there is a fix to this problem to give families the structure needed to support themselves and to allow them to help support the country like the other 52% that pay taxes. However, no liberal politician is willing to give on any fix as they are supported at the polls by this same group.

    Everyone knows that promises to future retirees is driving this country into a fiscal mess along with the social programs we can not afford. The constitution was not written to support social programs like we see today. It was written for the country to follow and base laws that governed the land. What we have seen is federal government officials that have developed programs to promote their legacy that has resulted in our country becoming divided.Was the constitution really written to promote a strong central government, or was it written to promote a strong state structure where the rights of the federal goovernment could not exceed that not given to it by the states? No longer do you find many willing to work together to solve the problems we face today. Just look at the results from the deficit reduction committee and the acceptance by the President on down to see that doing the right thing is not the right thing for the parties to do.

    America is the best place on earth today to live, but given the leadership that is promoting class warfare within the population, we may find that not to be the case in the future and no matter what the constitution has written within its context, living in America will not mean the same as it does today.

  • It was clear to the diplomats that visited England that we had no desire for representation. “Taxation without representation” was a rallying cry (like a modern-day talking point), not a call.

    What they were really protesting was an out-of-touch government that was more concerned about its own needs than that of the colonists.

    It’s not that different.

  • Hemmann


    To say “No taxation without representation was just just a rallying cry with no real meaning for the colonists is absurd on its face. The colonists lived well under British rule for years without any conflict. It was only when George III and the Parliament started taxing British citizens in the colonies without their assent that things got out of hand.

    Reread your history, sir.

  • Hemmann: I have read my history. Franklin, in particular, was very clear in his diplomatic role, that he was wanting lower taxes, not better representation.

  • Hemmann


    don’t be foolish

    “”No taxation without representation” is a slogan originating during the 1750s and 1760s that summarized a primary grievance of the British colonists in the Thirteen Colonies, which was one of the major causes of the American Revolution. In short, many in those colonies believed the lack of direct representation in the distant British Parliament was an illegal denial of their rights as Englishmen, and therefore laws taxing the colonists (one of the types of laws that affects the majority of individuals directly), and other laws applying only to the colonies, were unconstitutional.

    Where do you get your post-modern history?

  • DLS


    What they were really protesting was an out-of-touch government that was more concerned about its own needs than that of the colonists.

    What would they have done if they saw Washington, DC today?

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