Don’t Confuse the Declaration of Independence with the Constitution

Home » July 2016 » Don’t Confuse the Declaration of Independence with the Constitution

by Ryan McMaken

In a video making the rounds in social media last week, conservative author Mark Dice performs a series of man-on-the-street interviews to show how most Americans have no idea what Independence Day commemorates. The punch line comes at the end when Dice finds a young woman who can quote the document that he apparently thinks we commemorate on Independence Day. She says a few lines out loud and then Dice high-fives her.

Among the thousands of comments under the video, viewers left comments such as “let that young blonde woman run for President.” and “she made me cry.”

Unfortunately, the document the woman was quoting was not the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776. She was quoting the Constitution of 1787.

Mark Dice seems to be unaware that these are not the same document, that the two documents express vastly different sentiments, or that they were adopted 11 year apart in entirely different political contexts.

Apparently, for many “patriotic” Americans, any document written by a non-specific group of politicians known as “the Founding Fathers” will do for Independence Day.

They’re Not the Same Thing

Contrary to what many Americans seem to think, the document we now call “the Constitution” and the Declaration of independence are not pretty much the same thing or “connected in spirit,” or “two sides of the same coin.” The two documents were written by two different groups of people at two different times to accomplish two totally different goals. While there was some overlap between the people who adopted the Declaration and those who adopted the Constitution, they were by no means the same group. And, of course, some people who signed the Declaration opposed the new Constitution.

Nor is there similarity in the content of the two documents. The Declaration of Independence is a strongly libertarian document that justifies secession and the military overthrow of government institutions.

The Constitution, on the other hand, was designed to increase the taxing power of government and create a stronger national government overall. Drawing its support from a hysterical overreaction to Shays Rebellion by the some wealthy politicians of the United States (i.e., George Washington and Alexander Hamilton), the Constitution was supported by many who hoped the Constitution would make it easier to arrest and prosecute people who — like the Shays rebels — didn’t make their mortgage payments.

Meanwhile, the Declaration — which is an act of formal treason — lays out the reasons why people should be able to throw off the chains of government. It does so concisely in the second paragraph, outlining how people have certain rights, and government exists for one purpose: to protect those rights. When government fails in this, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish” the government.

The document then goes on to explain why, in their specific situation, the Americans’ act of rebellion is justified with a list of 28 ways the “legitimate” government at the time had violated their rights.

Contrary to what is commonly asserted by modern-day “patriots” who oppose secession, the Declaration does not say that secession is null and void if there is a Congress, or if there are periodic elections, or if the government claims to be “democratic.” Jefferson’s formula is simple: if the government violates your rights, you are entitled to abolish it. Prudence, of course, may dictate that secession is inadvisable in many times and places, but this practical fact does not negate the moral rightness of secession and rebellion.

Moreover, It’s significant that many so-called Founding Fathers opposed the new constitution, including Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, George Mason, Elbridge Gerry, and Richard Henry Lee. Lee and Gerry, of course, had signed the Declaration of Independence a decade earlier. Thomas Jefferson, who was not present at the Constitutional Convention, expressed reservations about the Constitution, wanted a bill of rights added, and viewed it as a work in progress, writing to James Madison that it should be submitted to the people as a draft and then revised according to their wishes:

[A]fter it has been duly weighed & canvassed by the people, after seeing the parts they generally dislike, & those they generally approve, to say to them `We see now what you wish. Send together your deputies again, let them frame a constitution for you omitting what you have condemned, & establishing the powers you approve.’

Jefferson certainly did not assume consent on the part of average Americans, since there was no basis for such an assumption. Defenders of the status quo today often blithely state that “everyone knew” the older Constitution had failed, and that there was widespread agreement a new constitution was necessary. But, such assessments are presumptuous at best.

After all, if there was so much demand for a new constitution, why was the new convention conducted in secret? Why did Patrick Henry conclude “I smell a rat” after assessing the plan behind the new convention? Indeed, seeing that ratification would be a tough sell, backers of the new constitution wanted special ratification committees to sign off on their new document in order to make an end run around the more democratic and more representative state legislatures.

Many, like Jefferson and Patrick Henry, would later assent to ratification if a Bill of Rights was adopted. But later, Jefferson had been forced to conclude that even the Bill of Rights — the only good part of the Constitution — hadn’t been enough. By 1798, Jefferson felt it necessary to vehemently support the idea that states could nullify federal laws they felt violated the rights of Americans. If the federal government overstepped its bounds, Jefferson wrote, states were to declare the federal actions in question to be “void and of no force.”

And yet, this idea was contrary to the very spirit of the Constitution which was primarily designed to abolish this sort of discretion and independence on the part of states. State-level nullification was relatively easy under the old Constitution of 1777. The new Constitution specifically attacked local prerogatives.

All this conflict, of course, has today been swept under the rug, and we’re to suppose that whatever the saintly “Founding Fathers” were involved with must all be pretty much the same wonderful thing. One wonders if the Alien and Sedition Acts — a piece of legislation that abolished freedom of speech and freedom of the press — should also be revered because “the Founding Fathers wanted it.” After all, Founding Father (and signer of the Declaration of Independence) John Adams signed it into law.

Independence Day should not be a generic celebration of American politicians, even if they wore powdered wigs. Nor should it be a general celebration of some vague notion of “America.” On the contrary, it should commemorate what the day’s name and date implies: an act of rebellion and secession for the sake of independence that took place on July 4, 1776. What came later is something else entirely.