Independence Day (part 3 of 4)

Declaration of Independence

Header of the Declaration of Independence

 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 to 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.

~Declaration of Independence, third sentence

In this third sentence to the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson expressed a key concept of the Enlightenment thinkers–the consent of the governed. Long throughout history, kings governed according to the concept of divine right of kings. The monarchs claimed authority was granted by God alone; they did not answer to the will of the people. Jefferson and the Founding Fathers proposed that the authority of a ruler is legitimate only when it comes by the consent of the governed.

The consent of the governed stems from Enlightenment thinking that the individual is the sovereign–not the state. When the individual is sovereign, the basic rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are retained by the people. The government only exists because the people agree to its existence. Because the people are sovereign, they have the legal and moral right to dispose of the government when it “becomes destructive of these ends.”

The Founding Fathers realized their rights as English citizens were essentially non-existent. Most of their grievances were spelled out in the latter half of the Declaration, but a couple of significant transgressions included taxation without representation and the denial of a trial by jury. Because the British government denied the colonists their due rights as English citizens, the Founding Fathers declared that the old government was abolished and a new government would take its place.

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