Monthly Archives: July 2015

Assent to Laws

Now we’re into the actual reasons the colonists felt they needed to “sever the bonds” with England. It’s a pretty big list, and while it’s not rare for a document of this type (like a request for divorce) to list some frivolous or minor complaints, it’s important to note that most of the specific complaints were addressed in the Constitution, either in the body or the first ten amendments.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

So, by the time of the Intolerable Acts, the process of passing laws in the colonies had become somewhat ponderous. The colonial legislatures would pass a law they considered very reasonable, say, “Orphans may not be used as fuel.” Then they would send it up to the colonial governor, usually a position appointed by the King. He would pass it with his signature—sort of—then he would send it across the Atlantic for approval. There it would go through Parliament (or at least the Foreign Office) to decide if the law was even worthy of being presented to the King. If it was worthy, it would go, along with any Parliamentary amendments or notes (“Orphans may not be used as fuel. Unless it is very cold.*  *This law does not apply to gingers or the Irish.”) The king would then use the law to line his birdcage, because Lord Chirpy-chirp wouldn’t go on common newspaper.

I've seen things man...

I’ve seen things, man…

Originally, the Founding fathers fixed this by making the individual states supreme in the new nation, with a national government so laughably weak that the Marvel Cinematic Universe panel at SDCC has more legislative power than Congress under the Articles did. The President under the Articles was such a meaningless figurehead that more people remember Millard Fillmore’s Vice President.

That worked out as well as you’d expect, so they made a Federal government with slightly more teeth, but they still addressed the root causes above. Under the Constitution, states have the right to make their own laws without asking the Fed’s permission, to begin with. More so, the President can’t just sit on a law forever—he has to sign or veto it within a certain time period. If he does veto the law, Congress can overturn that veto (by getting 387 lawyers and hacks to agree on something that may not directly line their pockets). Further, the ninth and tenth amendments clearly state that the Federal Government only has those powers specifically granted by the Constitution, reserving any other powers and rights to the states or the people.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole Purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the People.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative Powers incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise, the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without and convulsions within.

This sounds a little nitpicky, on the face of it. “Whah, Whah, the King won’t let State representatives earn a stipend for helping to decide if the state bird should be the Blue Jay or the Prothonotary Warbler.”

Yes, that's my real name. I wanted Asskick McAwesombird, but no one listens to a five ounce bird.

Yes, that’s my real name. I wanted Asskick McAwesomebird, but no one listens to a five ounce bird.

Except that’s not the whole thing. Believe it or not, almost every meaningful law that regulates your life is a state law, and federal laws are usually meaningless to everyday living. Also, it helps to remember that, before the rise of the automobile, any trip over thirty miles was at least an over-nighter. I also gather that this meeting-place resetting would happen without notice, so representatives would go to the colonial capital only to learn that they needed to be in West Stinkville, twenty miles up the road.

Of course, moving the legislature was generally less the action of the King himself, and more a thing the appointed colonial governors did, mostly for the reasons stated.

That last paragraph is the kicker, however. Laws are how we humans prevent the worst of us from making hay from the best of us, and they need to be periodically adjusted as they become pointless, or as truly inventive douchebags develop a workaround. Without a recognized government passing and enforcing laws, large-scale societies tend to fall into chaos, and, contrary to what the activities in Boston might lead one to believe, chaos is what they were trying to avoid.

Prudence, Indeed

Okay, I went a little off on the responsibility of free people to maintain a free society in the last bit, but now we’re getting into the colonists’ specific complaints against the King.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Oh. Hmm… So it turns out that they weren’t the hot-headed firebrands they might, at first, appear to be. This sentence basically says, “We admit that it’s stupid to knock it all down and start over if it can be fixed.”

And that sentiment is valid today. More and more I read about petitions and calls for a variety of new constitutional amendments from those seeking to counter the ridiculous conclusions of the Citizens United decision to the recurrent calls for a “balanced budget” amendment. The thing is, Supreme court decisions are mere interpretations of law and are often overturned, Plessy v Ferguson being the one that springs first to mind.

The 18th and 21st amendments should both stand together as solid examples of why it is a dumb idea to use the Constitution as an instrument to create rules too specific to circumstance. And why any change to the foundation of our country must be one of necessity and not momentary whim.

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their further security.

And we’re back to what we were talking about yesterday.

Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

The colonists’ real beef was with Parliament, not the King. You will find nobody on the planet who will tell you that George III was in any way a tyrannical monarch or even a particularly active one. However, it was easier to publicize and cement public support against the Evil Dictator King than Parliament Trying to Pay Off the Seven Years War Debt While Expressing their Right to Govern the Colonies. Sound familiar?

I’m not saying they were making shit up. The specific complaints (which I’ll get into tomorrow) were real and valid. I am saying that it was neither as simple, nor as black and white as they made it sound, or as we Americans like to believe.

The trouble started with the French and Indian (7 Years) War. Depending on who you ask, that war was the direct result of the French encroaching on Colonial lands, Colonial speculators seeking new profitability from the recently-opened Cumberland gap, or British Imperialists seeking to expand British territorial claims in the New World. Whatever it was (my vote goes to all three in an amusing international cocktail I like to call a Murderita because it always starts with a bunch of festive nationalist songs and ends with someone burying half their family while facing a Mastercard charge they can’t quite remember accruing), the war was expensive, and the homeland felt that the colonies should shoulder some of the expense since much of it was incurred on their behalf.

This led to a number of new taxes, mostly aimed at the North American colonies. Mind you, most of the colonists, while not in love with the new taxes, just shrugged and started paying them. The New England colonies, however, who depended on trade for their livelihood, protested against the taxes. I should point out that when I say “protested,” I mean a drunken mob marched violently through town threatening and bullying anyone who didn’t agree with them. These protests often ended with a crudely-made effigy of the King (or, more likely, some local official) being hung and/or burned.

The most famous of these, the Boston Tea Party, was less a protest than a frat prank. Contrary to impressions, they didn’t sneak onto the ships, they were allowed on by the guards who saw right through the clever “Indian” disguises worn by the Sons of Liberty and may have greeted some of the members by name. It took them all night, by which time, they were almost certainly sober, but, by then it had become a macho thing, and they continued dumping the taxed tea into the harbor, grimly scooping it up and re-dumping it when the dump pile overwhelmed the ship’s gunwales. Later, the richer sponsors of the act paid for the tea (tax and all).

Parliament repealed most of the more obnoxious taxes, but because you can’t get five humans together without at least a little dick-waving, they passed other acts to show the Colonists that they were still in control. Then they passed the Stamp Act, which, besides being a dumbass tax on all paper products, including newspapers and spittle-emitting screeds, was extremely annoying to the Colonists because the collectors of the new tax were all so obviously selected by nature of their willingness to climb under the Royal Governors’ desks.

Boston, long known as the seat of calm, intellectual discourse*, of course, expressed their displeasure through calm, intellectual drunken riots. As a means of debate, this worked about as well as it does now, and Parliament responded with the Punitive Acts (better known in America as the Intolerable Acts). They rescinded the Massachusetts Colonial Charter and followed that up with a number of other laws limiting mobility and trade in all of the colonies.

The response was the First Continental Congress. Delegates from all 13 colonies got together and came up with the revolutionary notion of writing a letter asking Parliament (and the King) not to be so mean all of the time. This was passed around the House of Lords, getting a good laugh like a LoLcat meme, and they doubled down by essentially announcing that the colonists, who had thought themselves full citizens of the British Empire, had exactly as many rights as meatloaf.

This angered the colonists so much that, as the 2nd Continental Congress convened, they decided to write another letter, which was quickly returned to them folded up like a used Kleenex. And that’s how we ended up on July 4th, outlining just what a douche King George was, and why we weren’t going to be his friend any more.

*My wife and I were once eating in a Boston MacDonald’s when some guy walked in and started screaming at the manager, who started screaming back, both spewing more expletives than actual words in their incomprehensible accent. This went on for five minutes until the guy left and the manager went back about his business.

Consent of the Governed

So the next few bits of the Declaration are ultimately a rehash of Humanist philosophy from Locke’s Rights of Man to Rousseau’s Social Contract.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed.

In that one sentence, the Signers completely disavowed any concept of divine government. There was to be no Noblesse Oblige, no Divine Right. The existence of government relies entirely on the People’s need to secure the rights that are native to the human spirit, and may exist only as long as the People, who created it, allow it to exist.

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or 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.

Humans have two attributes that propelled a plainsland ape from being lion kibble to becoming the single most successful species in the 4 billion year history of the world. We like to associate with other humans, and we can think—and communicate—in abstract symbols. We engage both of these attributes when we create a government, because we have created a small, abstract group that has authority over the individuals of a larger group.

But the abstract group is owned and controlled by the larger group, and all of the individuals therein, have the right and the responsibility of ensuring that government obeys the laws and ethics of the larger group. This is a basic foundation of American life; it’s something that we are taught in subtle, iconic ways from the cradle to the grave.

It is the single key to the American mindset, because we make no distinction between a government and its people. Why? Because the government is the tool and the responsibility of the people. If a government is evil or destructive, then it is the responsibility of every man, woman and child in that nation to change it.

The saddest, most aggravating part of that is the surprising number of Americans who seem to forget this one basic truth. Every person who refuses to vote, every person who closes their mind and ears to political discussion and debate, everyone who doesn’t scream in outrage when a person in power commits an outrage, is complicit in the creation of a dictatorship.

Look at America as a farm. Everyone needs to help pull the weeds; it doesn’t matter if those weeds are dandelions or daisies, they’re choking out the life of the crops and that means they’re destroying the farm. That means your destroying the farm. Enjoying the way the parachute-seeds from dandelion puffballs fly is no excuse; neither is loving the simple beauty of a field of daisies. Every puffball is about a hundred new dandelions, and every field of daisies is a field that’s not feeding the farm.

Anything wrong in government, especially those things that come close to what we want, has to be inspected and discussed, objectively, dispassionately, and with an open mind. The USAPatriot Act addressed fears that a lot of Americans had, but it opened unbelievable and nearly overpowering doors to government power that should never even exist. The ACA addressed the growing crisis of medical treatment in the country, but it did so by handing out corporate favors and intruding on personal rights in ways never before seen. Both laws have their proponents and detractors. Both laws are broken and need to be fixed or repealed. Turning a blind eye to that fact just lets the weeds grow.

When someone complains about NSA phone-tapping or unlimited interment in Club Gitmo, it is everyone’s responsibility to ask the hard questions. “Can we do the same thing without such extreme measures? If not, is our safety worth our liberty? Is a nation where boarding an airplane is like a border crossing in Occupied Europe, and having a common name can relegate you to the bus station even really free?”

Same thing with the ACA. It’s not a matter of how many people were driven to bankruptcy before its passage. You have to ask the questions that trouble you, even if you support the overall idea of the act. “Why has nothing been done to regulate hospital billing, or the cost of medications and supplies? Why are prescription drugs advertised on national TV? It’s one thing to say that everyone should have access to health insurance but why does that mean everyone must be insured? Does a Right to Life presuppose a Right not to Die? Should it? Ever?” Ask and keep asking until the answers are the ones you like.

Because governments are instituted among men to protect those rights, but it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it. The rights are all of ours.

So is the responsibility.

When, in the Course….

I’m going to indulge my arrogance and pretend I know better than others. It’s a thing I do, sometimes, because my head is full of thoughts and I have to shove them out like a hoarder needs to shove the debris out of his home, if only to make room for more. So, what I’m going to do is, I’m going to parse the Declaration of Independence. Saturday is Independence Day, so it’s a good time to remind people why we felt we needed to be our own country, and some of the ideals we hoped the new one would espouse.

Actual size.

Actual size.

A lot of people forget that, while the Declaration is definitely one of the founding documents of our nation, nothing in it, except the Declaration of Independence from the British Empire has the force of law. All of the lofty phrases and brilliant ideas are statements of philosophy only. Ways for the drafters to lay down, on paper, the driving principles they hoped the new nation would embrace and embody. So, let’s get started:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds 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.

In these days of no-fault divorces and lifelong relations dissolved over Facebook comments, it’s hard to remember that, once upon a time, it was considered unthinkably rude to close the door on a relationship without explaining why it had to end. The Signers of the Declaration were mindful of this, and drew up this outline of grievances to show the world that they were not merely petulant children using the threat of independence to get special treatment for their colony.

This was the Second Continental Congress, and both this one and its predecessor had sent letters of redress to the Crown and to Parliament. Shots had already been fired in anger before this Congress met, and, even though they agreed to organize a defensive force under George Washington, they still hoped, at first, that there might be some sort of reparation.

This was a Dear John letter. “Dear England, We’re sorry. We tried, we really did, but it’s just not working out. This is why we have to leave. If the reasons sound familiar, it’s because they’re the same things we’ve been saying for five years.”

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,

Let’s take a moment, here to snuff out a stupid debate I’ve heard from time to time. All of these men, with the possible—possible—exception of Benjamin Franklin, were Christians. They were not modern evangelicals, but they did believe in, and at least give lip service to, the Christian God. Most of them held a Deist version of the faith, that is they believed that God was out there, somewhere, probably, but didn’t consider God to be concerned with individual lives, or even the current state of the world.

There were a few reasons for this. The Calvinists among them believed that God had set everything in motion on an imperturbable path and every choice, every decision was already written down and accounted for. For the most part, others believed that, in order to be worthy of God’s Great Kingdom, they had to show that they could handle man’s little kingdom well enough. They all thought about God, but in an abstract, the way people who live in Eastern Colorado think of the mountains that loom ever on the western horizon.

And they were from a number of different denominations. Most were Anglican (or Episcopal, if you prefer), some were Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, or Presbyterian. A few were Catholic. Franklin was raised a Friend (Quaker), but his writings at the time suggest that he was agnostic, at best.

I was also a nudist, a polyamorist, and the inventor of hipsterism.

I was also a nudist, a polyamorist, and the inventor of pimp shirts.

Excepting the Anglicans, most of them (or their ancestors) came—or were sent—to the Colonies because they were either persecuted or disenfranchised at home. That is why God is mentioned exactly twice in the entire document, and in vague, general terms.

Each man had his own belief, but however deeply he felt it, he felt that his needs, and the needs of his neighbors and country, were better served by his allowing that others might see the world differently. Even if he thought they were wrong in their faith.

that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Earlier drafts replace “pursuit of happiness” with “security of property.” It’s open for debate whether Jefferson changed it on his own, or whether the other drafters thought mentioning property so directly was crass. In any case, the vague, but lofty, phrase is the one we have.

The first two seem simple enough by comparison. Human life is marked as sacrosanct from the first book of the Bible. The first Sin may have been Disobedience, but the first Crime was Murder. These men firmly and deeply believed that it was morally and religiously wrong for one man to kill another, without cause, And even more so for a government to do the same.

But these men weren’t naïve, either. They knew they were entangled in a bloody war with potentially disastrous consequences. Several battles had already been fought, most notably at Breed’s Hill and at Lexington and Concorde. Even as they argued over the placement of commas, Washington was beginning preparations to meet a massive landing at Manhattan. They knew that all men die. They also knew that sometimes, men’s lives had to be taken.

What they meant by a right to Life was that no government had the right to round up “instigators” and hang them without a trial, that assassination of political or philosophical enemies—whether with a sniper’s bullet or an explosive-laden drone—didn’t hold water no matter how many times you shouted “clear and present danger.”



You have the Right to Life. Every person has the right to expect that, as long as they obey the rules that allow humans to live together, they will not have their life taken from them by their government or their countrymen.

By the same token, Liberty is also not as easy as it seems. The Feudal system was not that far gone in England, and it thrived, in one form or another, in Ireland, France, and Central and Eastern Europe. Liberty, for these men didn’t mean Licentiousness. It didn’t even mean the amazing array of rights and privileges we modern westerners take for granted every day.

For them, Liberty was a simple thing. It was the right to move about and establish a family, or a business. It was the right to speak your mind about the state of things, and to meet with others who agreed or disagreed with you. It was the right to know you couldn’t be imprisoned for your faith, or your family’s name, or because you fell on hard luck. Liberty, for the drafters of the Declaration, was freedom from literal, unbending chains.

“But what about slavery?” you ask. That’s a tough and troubling question, and it was one many members of the Congress wrestled with at the time and for years to come, most notably Jefferson. He was caught between the mill and the millstone. He hated slavery, had written against it many times, but he owned slaves, because his wealth and livelihood, and that of his children, depended on a system where slavery was not only widespread, but necessary for success.

Others, especially those delegates who were Friends, had similar morally and ethically shattering concerns. How could they speak so blithely about the “unalienable right to liberty” when thousands of men were deprived of that very liberty every day.

Sadly, sometimes morality has to bow to reality. Jefferson never freed his slaves in his lifetime for the same reason that the parts of the Declaration that mention slavery were excised. All of the money, and most of the population, at the time of the Signing, was in the South. New York was staunchly Loyalist, and no one believed that setting the seat of government there was going to change more than a few, easily swayed, minds. They needed the South if they were going to succeed in their rebellion, and the South came with baggage. Baggage that would eventually nearly destroy us.

Like marrying a K--you know what, you get the drift.

Like marrying a K–you know what, you get the drift.

Finally, we have “the pursuit of happiness”. It’s a phrase, not a word. As I mentioned, above, the original phrase was “security of property.” Like the other two unalienable rights, the original term is reinforced in the Bill of Rights, and given the force of Law, but the final term?

And it’s the pursuit of happiness. Odd that the drafters don’t say that everyone has a right to be happy, only the right to pursue happiness. Like Liberty, this one needs to looked at with a sideways eye.

It may just be that they knew that some people aren’t going to be happy, and raising the idea of universal happiness to the status of unalienable right was a little too hippy trippy even for avid students of the Enlightenment. Maybe it comes down to the fact that bad luck is going to happen, but you have the right to take your chances.

Maybe it was code. Speaking of property as a desirable thing is crass, but all of these men were either self-made or only one or two generations from those who were. Maybe “pursuit of happiness” means the right to invest, to own property and know it is secure, to pass your wealth on to your progeny. Maybe “pursuit of happiness” really means freedom from imposed misery.

More tomorrow.