Friday, September 18, 2015

The Declaration of Independence & The Constitution of the United States

     The Declaration of Independence & The Constitution of the United States (1776 &1784) Published by Penguin Books as part of it 60th anniversary series of reprints.
     Every time I read these documents, I notice things I don’t think I noticed before, or I find some hazy memory corrected or confirmed. This time it was the following, from the Declaration:
     But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Objective evinces a design to reduce [the people] 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.
    “It is their duty”. Indeed it is. Of course, anyone who takes that seriously these days, and decides to foment revolution on these grounds, will find that most people will consider him an extremely dangerous person. To put it mildly.
     The text has been modernised in spelling, but not in punctuation. 18th century punctuation was somewhat haphazard, and writers were fond of the absolute adverbial phrase, which causes modern readers some trouble in discerning intent. Several articles were clearly responses to political issues of the time, which history has rendered irrelevant. There is entirely too much blaming of the King in the Declaration. By that time, Parliament was already the actual government, with the monarchy only a couple of steps away from a purely symbolic role with no actual power.
     It’s also clear that the Framers were worried that a strong President might take over the Government, much as a strong monarch might. They weren’t very aware of the political developments in England, and so opted for a Republican legislature instead of a Parliamentary one.  The long term result is a weak President, who must rely on both personal qualities and alliances with lawmakers to get his agenda accepted. Ironically, the Framers in effect created an elective monarchy with mid-18th century powers, which don’t amount to much.
     Nevertheless, worth rereading every year or two, if only to remind oneself that a liberal democracy is still an unrealised ideal, but always worth striving and if necessary fighting for. ****

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