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The Course of Human Events
WHEN in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them to 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.
The Political Connections
In the summer of 1776, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman were appointed to a committee to draft a declaration of independence that would provide the justification for the American colonies to break away from Great Britain. The task for drafting the Declaration fell to Jefferson. And what we know today as the Declaration of Independence is largely Jefferson's work, having undergone some revisions by the committee and America's then sitting Congress.
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson begins with the justification for the separation of the American colonies from British rule. What is this "Course of human Events" that required the people to "dissolve the Political Bands" to a nation that they cherished so much? What would drive a people strongly enough that they would willingly jeopardize their lives and livelihood to revolt? What is the "Station" to which people are entitled? What are these "Laws of Nature?" Why would Jefferson, whom experts describe as a deist at best and an atheist at worst, claim that "Nature's God" gave the people that "equal Station" to which they were entitled? Justification was vital to their fellow countrymen and to others who may desire to follow in their footsteps. Thus, as we will see, Jefferson makes the case for separation.
First, the political bands to which Jefferson referred were the ones that tied the colonies to England. Jefferson and the rest of the Founders possessed these bands — namely, the rights they enjoyed as Englishmen and the form of government that guaranteed their rights and their protection under the English constitution. The Founders, indeed all the American colonists, held these rights in high esteem. Despite the officials in office failing to observe the written constitution, the Founders sought to reconcile their many disputes with the mother country by working through the system England provided. In order to understand the "Course of human Events" and why the Founders recognized the need to declare independence, we must first understand what rights the British government failed to observe and where the system failed.
Some of the first rights that England's king recognized came most prominently under the Magna Carta, or the Great Charter. After a variety of King John's abuses toward the common people, the nobles, the clergy, and, in short, all people living under him, his subjects forced him to accept the Great Charter in 1215. Later, the Charter underwent various revisions. This document was the real beginning to defining the rights and liberties of Englishmen living under the crown. However, as I will explain in the next chapter, the crown's recognition of rights as found in the Magna Carta and in any other documents that human beings produce are only a recognition of some of the rights bestowed upon all humanity by their Creator.
Many of the rights and limits on government that the subjects of the king demanded of him are recognizable under America's Constitution today. While listing all of the demands in the Magna Carter is excessive, I will cite some similarities with our Constitution as well as enough to demonstrate some reasons for America's colonists to push for separation from England.
First, the Magna Carta stated, "the English Church shall be free, and shall have her rights entire, and her liberties inviolate." This is similar to our Constitution's first amendment affirming freedom of religion. Furthermore, the Charter informed the king, "We have granted to all freemen of our kingdom, for us and our heirs forever, all the underwritten liberties, to be had and held by them and their heirs, of us and our heirs forever." Of course, the Founders and the rest of the Americans, with few exceptions, would be included as descendants or heirs of "freemen of our kingdom."
The Magna Carta also guaranteed the right to property and freedom against illegal seizure: "Neither we nor our bailiffs will seize any land or rent for any debt, as long as the chattels of the debtor are sufficient to repay the debt." This is similar to the Takings Clause in the US Constitution's Fifth Amendment, which says no citizen can have his property taken for public use without receiving just compensation for it.
The Charter also guaranteed no taxation without representation and taxing within certain limits: "No scutage (tax) ... shall be imposed on our kingdom, unless by common counsel of our kingdom ... and for these there shall not be levied more than a reasonable aid." Until the change under the Sixteenth Amendment, the US Constitution prohibited a direct tax by the federal government, except in proportion to population, thereby keeping taxes more reasonable.
Another right stipulated in the Charter prohibited the king from forcing a change of venue into a court in a different country — country being in another community. Similarly, under the US Constitution under Article III and reinforced under the Sixth Amendment, all trials must be held in the state or district in which the crime is committed, not out of state or country.
In addition, the Charter granted the right to "common counsel," similar to the right to an attorney. It also granted that any summons or appearance in court would be "for a fixed date ... and a fixed place," and all letters must "specify the reason of the summons." This is similar to the Constitution's requirement that citizens can request a writ of habeas corpus so that we might know the reasons for being detained or what alleged crime we committed.
The Charter also specified that "A freeman shall not be amerced (punished) for a slight offense, except in accordance with the degree of the offense ... and none of the aforesaid amercements shall be imposed except by the oath of honest men of the neighborhood." In other words, the Charter prohibited excessive punishments as well as punishments imposed by anyone except a jury of one's peers. The Eighth Amendment of our Constitution also prohibits excessive bail and fines and cruel and unusual punishments.
The Magna Carta also contained provisions against the government seizing property without providing the proper payment: "No constable or other bailiff of ours shall take corn or other provisions from anyone without immediately tendering money therefor." Again, the right to property was preserved. And if and when property was illegally seized, it had to be restored. Here again, the Constitution's Fifth Amendment prohibits seizure of property "for public use, without just compensation."
These are just a few of the rights guaranteed to Englishmen in the Magna Carta. And this occurred about 275 years before Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. It would be another one-hundred-plus years after Columbus, in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia, before England had its first permanent settlement on the American continent. The first document of record regarding any political bands created on the American continent is the Mayflower Compact. It is important to understand how and why William Bradford and the rest of the pilgrims came to America and settled in Massachusetts. It is also vitally important to understand the political bands they created upon their arrival and why those bands evolved into the form they did.
The Magna Carta guaranteed certain rights to all Englishmen, including the lowest citizens. Among these rights, the clergy demanded that the king not incorporate his authority with that of the church. The clergy were to determine what was best for the church and its members in its sphere of influence and authority. Through the Great Charter, the English acquired freedom of religion and a separation of the state from the church. The crown was not to involve itself in the church's affairs.
However, when it came to William Bradford and the Puritans, both the crown under King James I and the church infringed on the rights guaranteed Puritan Englishmen by the Magna Carta. Bradford wrote of the problems they faced while in England in his book History of Plymouth Plantations. He and his fellow Puritans were "hunted and persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them. For they were taken and clapt up in prison, others had their houses beset and watched night and day, and hardly escaped their [the church's] hands."
Because of these ongoing persecutions and violations of guaranteed rights, the Puritans decided they needed to flee to Holland so they could enjoy the liberties and freedom of religion that they sought. Even as they worked toward that goal and planned to board a ship for Holland, the captain betrayed them and sent them back to town where their persons and property were "rifled and ransacked" and many of them were sent to prison for several months. Finally, many of them were able to settle in Holland for a time.
Nevertheless, after a few years in Holland, they realized they would be unable to worship as they chose because of the customs and traditions of the Dutch. So they chose to move once again. They considered New Guinea, India, and several other places but eventually settled on Virginia and ended up in New England.
Once they decided to settle in America, they sought religious freedom from King James I, under whose reign they would once again live. However, just as the king denied them freedom of religion before, he denied them again, though not completely: "Some of the chief of the company doubted not to obtain their suit of the king for liberty in religion, and to have it confirmed under the king's broad seal, according to their desires ... but it proved all in vain. Yet thus far they prevailed, in sounding his majesty's mind, that he would connive at them and not molest them, provided they carried themselves peaceably."
Bradford also recognized the problem of acquiring the king's broad seal. He realized that none could guarantee that the king would not change his mind. The Puritans could do nothing that would truly guarantee their liberties under the king. Nor did they have a guarantee that any future monarch would honor the previous monarch's agreement. As Bradford stated, "There was no security in this promise intimated, there would be no great certainty in a further confirmation of the same; for if afterwards there should be a purpose or desire to wrong them, though they had a seal as broad as the house floor, it would not serve the turn; for there would be means anew found to recall or reverse it." Here we see that the Puritans trusted the king to do what history has shown kings always do — whatever is in their own best interest with little concern for the interests and rights of their subjects. A king's concern is typically not for his subjects but only for himself.
Despite these misgivings, the Puritans were still determined to plant themselves in another place so they could live peaceably and according to the liberty they knew was their right. They trusted in God to assist them in their endeavors and believed that their actions were in line with his will.
Thus, William Bradford and the rest of his company set out to America to pursue an opportunity to worship their God and free themselves, as much as possible, from the oppressions of the crown. God continued to test their faith as they departed from England. While most people know that the Puritans traveled the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Mayflower, the lesser-known ship, Speedwell, departed England with them and carried another half of their congregation. On the journey, the Speedwell began to leak and it could not be stopped. Bradford and his compatriots decided it would be unsafe to continue to press on toward America, so both ships turned back. Despite yet another obstacle, after both ships returned to England, the Puritans split up into two parties with one returning to London and the rest continuing their voyage to the New World.
The charter they received was for Virginia and not for New England. A charter for Massachusetts Bay would eventually be established in 1629. However, divine Providence surely played a role in landing them in New England. It was late enough in the season that when they arrived, they needed to quickly find a place to settle and begin to build out of the wilderness their "shining city on a hill." Having arrived at Cape Cod on November 11, 1620 and knowing that the place was New England rather than Virginia, some "strangers amongst" the party recognized that their charter was for Virginia. These "strangers" were those not of the faith of Bradford and the main portion of the colonists. These "strangers" were determined "that when they came ashore they would use their own liberty; for none had power to command them, the patent they had being for Virginia, and not for New England, which belonged to another government, with which the Virginia Company had nothing to do." Even though this was technically correct, Bradford and the rest of the company feared what the resulting "liberty" would be for those who were neither of their faith nor of the same common desires for the colonists' success, if given the complete liberty to do as they pleased. So William Bradford, John Carver, and the rest of the party established a new charter — one in which all agreed to participate.
This was the beginning of government established by the people rather than one established at the whim of one person, including that of a monarch. It also implied a better way than anarchy or no government at all. These individuals created a document that they called the Mayflower Compact, after the name of the ship on which they sailed for America and on which they signed the document. The Mayflower Compact is word for word as follows:
In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland king, defender of the faith, etc., having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape- Cod the 11 of November, in the year of the reign of our sovereign lord, King James, of England, France, and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.
This was not a constitution or even a creation of government. What this succeeded in accomplishing was to construct an agreement that everyone would work together to form a government that would meet the needs of everyone involved.
Numerous points made in the compact contribute to laying the foundation of good government established by the people. First, by mutual agreement, they combined themselves into "one body politic." They all agreed to form a government.
Next, they declared to what purpose they formed government — for their mutual preservation and to create order. Otherwise, there would be chaos and anarchy. Anarchy is not conducive to prosperity, and these men and women understood the need for an ordered government. The purpose of government, therefore, was for the preservation of each individual as well as the means to that end, namely, their liberty and property.
They concluded the compact with the procedures by which they would accomplish the stated purposes. The people would create the government and order it in such a way that the laws would be equal and just towards all of them. They could alter the offices and laws from time to time, as they saw fit, for the good of all. In addition, they all agreed to submit to the government that they would form.
Finally, they stated that their purpose for colonizing the "Northern parts of Virginia" was "for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith." The reason for their departure from England, Holland, and the rest of the Old World was so they could more freely practice their religion according to the dictates of their own consciences. The Old World did not offer them those opportunities, while the Puritans believed that the New World would, and this despite the adversities they would surely suffer settling in an untamed wilderness.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Founders' Revolution"
Copyright © 2018 Michael S. Law.
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
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Table of Contents
Founders and Foundations ix
Key Events in the Advance toward Independence xii
Chapter 1 The Course of Human Events 1
Chapter 2 Unalienable Rights and the Proper Role of Government 18
Chapter 3 The Charges: Abuses of Executive Power 47
Chapter 4 The Charges: Abuses of Legislative Power 90
Chapter 5 The Charges: Abuses of War Power 121
Chapter 6 Reconciliation Attempts 134
Chapter 7 Separation and the Appeal to Heaven 140
The Magna Carta 157
The English Bill of Rights of 1689 169
The Declaration of Independence 177
About the Author 196
End Notes 197