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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. 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. 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 future security.–Declaration of Independence

For the American Republic was the above paragraph vitiated by the U.S. Constitution and the Amendment process? What if there is a failure of Constitutional government? If we still believe it possible to reach the point where it is a duty to “throw off such Government”, what should be the criteria for recognizing we have reached the critical moment in time?

I had the privilege to witness my son take his oath as an officer in the U.S. Army (see below the full oath) and two points of the oath stood out. One, officers swear to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic…”. I wonder what constitutes a proper understanding of domestic enemies which an Army officer should defend the Constitution against? Secondly, in these times, how long can officers be allowed to swear “So help me God.”

Perhaps we can begin a conversation about these somewhat perplexing questions.

“I, _____ , having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of _____ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; So help me God.” (DA Form 71, 1 August 1959, for officers.)

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6 replies to this post
  1. For the sake of getting discussion started, I am going to take an ahistorical, textual approach to a response. Supposing that the principle of abolishing/altering the government in the Declaration overrides the Constitution, the Declaration provides the criteria for determining when it is appropriate to abolish/alter the government; namely, when the government becomes destructive of “these ends.” “These ends” refers to “these rights”, which, in turn, refers to the inalienable rights referenced in the sentence immediately preceding what’s quoted here from the Declaration. Because the Declaration says that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are among these rights, presumably there are others that the Declaration does not expressly mention. In any case, the Declaration provides the criteria for determining when it is appropriate to abolish/alter the government: when the government becomes “destructive” of our inalienable rights.

    Given this, one could argue that in order to determine whether circumstances are such that it is appropriate to abolish/alter the government (again, assuming the principle expressed in the Declaration trumps the Constitution) we must ask whether the government has become “destructive” of our inalienable rights. Note that the Declaration does say that we can abolish/alter government if it merely diminishes these rights a little or temporarily, but appears to require government to destroy these rights entirely, or, at least, through “a long train of abuses” demonstrate that it’s hell-bent on doing so.

    Now if we think that government has not reached the point of being destructive of our inalienable rights, and I’m not convinced that it has (not yet, anyway), then the criteria for abolishing/altering the government, as provided by the Declaration, has not been satisfied. If that’s so, then we’ve not yet reached the point, except for purposes of theoretical discussion, that we need to decide whether the principle for overthrowing government overrides the Constitution.

    Two additional observations: First, although the Declaration provides the criteria for determining when we can alter/abolish our government, we could question whether this criteria is correct. For instance, if the true end of government is merely to provide conditions of peace and stability, then things would certainly have to get much worse before we would be justified in abolishing the government. If, however, the true end of government is the promotion of virtue in its citizens, then the abolition of the government has been a long time coming. Second, on a different note, it would appear that even though the Constitution allows for a change in government through voting, this is not what the principle expressed in the Declaration contemplates. For the Declaration speaks of altering/abolishing the “Form of Government.” Arguably, this suggests an abolition or alteration, not just in the people in government, but the very design and/or type of government. Thus, a question to consider is whether the amendment process constitutes an alteration/abolition of the “form” of government.

  2. If the Constitution provides mechanisms (as it does) for its own substantial change or even complete revision, then overthrowing the system of governance implies doing so extra-legally and outside the process of amending the Constitution. Yes? If one supports rule of law, what usurpation of rights stipulated in the Declaration could not be overturned democratically by using the mechanisms for change that the Constitution provides? I may be missing something here, but I suppose that the discussion leads to whether and when the rule of law can or should be ignored by minorities because majorities refuse to protect rights enshrined in the Declaration. An example could be, for some, the 50+ million slain by abortion (since 1972) in a country lacking the resolve to stop it. In other words, can there be a morally justifiable case for abandoning democracy as well as rule of law? An upsetting thing to consider. If I am missing the bus, someone please set me straight.

    Stephen Masty

  3. Thanks, Winston. I need to give these excellent questions some thought. I do, though, think it's worth remembering that ALL (without exception) republics will eventually fall. At what point do we continue to defend the forms of a republic when in fact the soul or essence of a republic has become corrupt, lost, or mortally damaged? God bless, Winston IV, to be sure–his involvement as well as the actions of the armed forces over the last decade reveal much about true virtue and republicanism. The question, then, is whether those who claim to "lead" such good men and women in politics and bureaucracies are worthy, especially when compared to those doing the actual fighting and defending.

  4. A few thoughts: James Otis' oration against the Writs of Assistances (Feb. 1761) was credited by John Adams as *the* moment in American history when the idea of colonial independence was born in the minds of the pre-patriots. Furthermore, Otis’ first pamphlet, Rights of the British Colonies, Asserted and Proved (published 1764, in response to the impending passage of the Stamp Act in 1765) cemented the sentiment of no parliamentary taxation in the minds of the people.

    But Otis' later responses to what was happening in the colonies caused confusion over which side he supported, because he was more concerned with staying consistent to the British constitution and upholding its common law. In his pamphlet, he wrote than an act against the Constitution is void. This always struck me. The reason I cite Otis is because he wanted change but he wanted to do it without the bounds of his government, which acknowledges the law which gives the people power in the first place to make changes. He was a lawyer, and thus had a high esteem of the system in which he worked, even if he did not always agree with the decisions the men within that government made.

    From what I've been reading lately, it seems like a lot of politicians think it is their job to not only uphold the law, but make new ones. President Obama just issued his 74th Executive Order on improving regulation and a regulatory review on Tuesday (Jan 18). My favorite lines read: "It must promote predictability and reduce uncertainty. It must identify and use the best, most innovative, and least burdensome tools for achieving regulatory ends." Is it just me, or is the irony dripping?

    I don't think what we are experiencing is a failure of Constitutional government. I think we are seeing the effects of powerful men and women, fallen and seeking to build a type of utopia, which is not synonmous with a republic. My favorite part of 'Antigone' is when she is scolding her uncle: "Nor did I think you edict such force/ that you, a mere mortal, could override the gods,/ the great unwritten, unshakable traditions./ They are alive, not just today or yesterday:/ they live forever, from the first time,/ and no one knows when they first saw the first light." (lines in the early 500s)

    I love the classics because they remind me that men's motives have not changed, even if their style and fashion sense and rhetoric has. I agree with John- our government is not at the stage where it is completely corrupt and thus needing to be overthrown. I do, however, think we have a duty to throw off government's curtain, so to speak (i.e. when you're little and you're hiding behind the curtain and thus think you're invisible to everyone). They're in DC and seem to think, just because the election is over, that they don't have to listen anymore and they can do whatever they want. Wrong. Taxpayers should never forget that they are the ones who pay and, ergo, employ the politicians, and vice-versa. We have a duty to keep them accountable and demand a Constitutional government, for which we stand on as a country.

    (p.s. Winston- my brother's in ROTC for the Army now… he's only a freshman, but I'm excited for the day he'll say that pledge too! Having a family member in the military certainly changes how a person views the defense of it, inside and out.)

  5. Julie,
    Thanks so much for your allusion to the classical Antigone–those authors often capture the essense of humanity in such transparent and emboldening words.

    I agree with both you and John–I do not think the time has come (and I hope it never does) to separate from our current government and I will suggest a few reasons why:

    1) I fear that if we did attempt to change the government it would simultaneously nullify the Constitution. Since the US government is still technically ruled by the Constitution, would it be possible to throw off the government without throwing off the Constitution? If the Constitution was thrown out, I would not only grive for the dismissal of the law and order that is the lifeblood of liberty, but I would also fear that any subsequent constitution would be inferior and perhaps even more liberal.

    2) I also think chaos would ensue if we eliminated some of the federal agencies immediately. As much as I don't agree with many of the buerocracies, like the Department of Agreiculture, Education, Social Security, etc., because people have become so acustomed to them, it is probably more humane to ween them off of government management then to simply sever any relationship between the two entitites.

    3) Like John Dickinson, I think we have a duty to hold onto tradition until every last attempt at peaceful reconciliation has been tried. Dickinson did not sign the Declaration because he still held onto the dying hope that petitions could restore their common law rights. In that case, I think he might have misjudged Britain's stubburness, but I still admire his undying spirit to uphold tradition and common law and peace until it becomes absoultely necessary to revolt.

    4) I think we do still enjoy many of the rights listed in the Bill of Rights, especially freedom of religion and freedom of speech and press, and while even in these areas, rights are threatened indirectly and sometimes directly, especially from the angle of the Supreme Court, most Americans do have the freedom to beleive and worship in the way they please and to protest and write about thier conerns.

    5) I think our economic freedom, or right to property, is the right that has been slowly reduced since FDR. The taxes, government subsidies and redistribution, enourmous dept, overspending and micromanaging take away our fundamental right to property on numerous levels. The people, however, have consented to many of these policies time and time again. Though the recent election reprensents an admonition for such economic tyranny, I think we need to continue to educate the people in free-market principles and also let them experiance the effects of government overspending and overtaxing.

    6) much contemplation and deliberation owuld need to ensue before a group of people decide to separate themselves–this process took the Founders years, roughly from 1760-1776, and no action should be taken without first disscussion, writing, petitioning, and much reflection.

  6. "Reaction is a necessary term in the intellectual context we inhabit in the late twentieth century because merely to conserve is sometimes to perpetuate what is outrageous."–M.E. Bradford

    Has our Constitutional sensibility become so twisted that it is necessary to become a reactionary in the sense that Dr. Bradford implies? Would it be such a radical transformation of our republic's political sensibilities to return to the Founders' understanding of the Constitution that it would constitute "throwing off" our current government and establishing a new one proper to ordered liberty?

    In other words, would the modern "revolution" be to reestablish our government with the intent to truly follow the Constitution? In these times to return to our Republic's first principles would be truly revolutionary (or reactionary in Bradford's term).

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