The Divide That Fueled the Declaration of Independence Is Still Alive Today | Opinion

It may be the most important political document ever written. But how the Declaration of Independence came to be is a story worth retelling every Fourth of July. And worth retelling because so many of the arguments surrounding our founding—we are, after all, a nation founded on debate and argument—are still being fought.

Few people know more about the subject than Dr. Larry Arnn, author of The Founders' Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk by Losing It. He's also the President of Hillsdale College in Michigan, a college that cares enough about the nation's founding that its leadership requires students to study it. And debate it.

To understand what happened in July of 1776, one must understand what happened a decade or so before in England. "What happened in 1763 was the British won their great war against the French, and became the greatest power in the world," Arnn told syndicated radio Hugh Hewitt back in 2014.

"And they fought a lot of it in the colonies. It was sort of like the first world war, the first big war around more than one continent. And they decided to run the colonies differently. They were going to tax them, and they were going to get some advantage from them, and they were going to be involved with them more. And the colonies in America were 150 years old, and they weren't used to that. They had developed the freest institutions in the world. It was unprecedented the way they governed themselves."

Arnn drilled down on the that point. "You have to understand about America that it's an unprecedented thing, because it's like in the western movies. On the one hand, they're on the frontier, and it's wild, and there isn't law. And on the other hand, they're connected to a well-developed civilization. And so everybody knew about law, about learning, and about God. But all of the structure was taken away, and they got to start over. And they developed to a much greater state than anyone ever had. There was the doctrine of civil and religious freedom and of consent of the governed, and most colonies were governed by an appointed governor by the king who was not a particularly strong person, and then by legislatures that were popularly elected. And so it was a free society, and their rights were important to them, and they thought government existed to protect them."

America was a nation deeply divided at the time. "Daniel Delaney from Maryland wrote an important pamphlet, and he acknowledged the right of the king to govern them. And that was the king's position. You are my subjects, and you owe me obedience, and I owe you protection. And we are locked in a relationship that neither of us has discretion over," Arnn explained. "And that had been the view in Europe forever."

That was the source of the conflict. From there, things devolved. By the winter of 1775, Arnn explained, King George III was at wits end, and gave a speech to Parliament he hoped would circulate among American troops to diminish morale, and end the rebellion.

"It is now become the part of wisdom," King George III wrote, "and in its effects of clemency, to put a speedy end to these disorders by the most decisive exertions. For this purpose, I have increased my naval establishment, and greatly augmented my land forces."

That explicit military threat, the King hoped, would strike fear in the hearts of the American people. Then came these words: "When the unhappy and deluded multitude, against whom this force will be directed, shall become sensible of their error, I shall be ready to receive the misled with tenderness and mercy."

King George's speech – and his condescension - didn't dampen morale: it strengthened it. But the nation was still divided. Some estimate that only a third of the nation sympathized with the King. Other estimates were as high as 50%.

As King George III got tougher on the colonists, American loyalties further eroded. "What sails into Boston Harbor but ships with soldiers on them," Arnn said. "And the soldiers get off and bring writs that they can look in general, and in places without naming what they're looking for. And they bring orders that led to the quartering troops part of the Bill of Rights, which was that they had the right to take over the barracks of the militia. And the militia was the chief defense of the United States. It's one of the reasons why governors were not powerful. All the grown-up men were the defense of each colony. And now their gathering and drilling place was taken from them. And they also had the authority to take over public houses and what were called unoccupied residences. And the person who would judge whether a residence was unoccupied or not was a justice of the peace appointed by the governor, appointed by the King."

It was the increasing despotism of King George III that turned the tide within the colonies and set the stage for Thomas Jefferson's stirring words in the Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson was not a newcomer when it came to writing on behalf of the American people. In 1774, he wrote A Summary View Of The Rights Of British North America, addressing King George III directly.

That these are our grievances which we have thus laid before his majesty, with that freedom of language and sentiment which becomes a free people claiming their rights, as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate: Let those flatter who fear; it is not an American art. To give praise which is not due might be well from the venal, but would ill beseem those who are asserting the rights of human nature. They know, and will therefore say, that kings are the servants, not the proprietors of the people."

Jefferson ended his brief entreaty with these words: "The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them."

Two years later, Jefferson would pen the words that changed the world. The Declaration of Independence, Arnn explained, has three basic parts.

"The last part is what you would think the document would be about. It's a legal assertion of separation. And then the signers pledge their fortunes, their lives and their sacred honor to it. You'd think that would be first, because these are wanted men. And they're about to go to war, and they know that to lose it is to be hung, and even to fall into the hands of the British on the street is to be deported and probably hung. So you'd think they'd start with that. You've been bad to us, and we're going to fight you."

Arnn described the middle part next, which consisted of the list of grievances catalogued by Jefferson. Because of that list, Arnn explains, the Revolution is justified. And the intellectual groundwork for The Constitution begins.

"Good government would not do those things, and must not do those things," Arnn noted. "And those things are the essential elements of what came to be the American Constitution. You have to have separation of powers, you have to have representation, and you have to have a limited government. Those are the main themes of the American Constitution. You have to respect people's civil liberties, and that structure of government is the way by which you do it."

Arnn saved the first part of the Declaration for last. "It begins so universally with the declaration of the rights that everyone has. And its claim is that in any time, people have certain rights that cannot be violated, and those rights are established in what he calls the laws of nature and of nature's God. It's saying that in your nature is written your rights, and that no one may govern you except by your effective consent, that you own the government, and that it may not do anything to you except what you agree that it may do."

Here are those words, worth reading from time to time:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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.

We are still having similar arguments in America today, only the remote power that conservatives and libertarians worry about is the size, scale and scope of our own federal government. And the power accrued by the administrative state through legislative and judicial default. The unelected bureaucrats that make big and costly decisions for the American people without our consent.

"The question, the political question of the time is, is the government going to overwhelm the people with its strength and size and intrusiveness, because it's half the economy now or more, and it intrudes into institutions previously thought both private and sacred," Arnn concluded.

Ideas to consider on this day, the day of the birth of our nation.

Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of "Our American Stories." He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​