The Founding Fathers were an amazing group of individuals. In the decade prior to signing the Declaration of Independence, many of them wrote extensively. Each author focused on his particular concerns about life in the colonies. Many of these documents were both passionate and persuasive, but it is unlikely that you have read a single one of them. It is especially unlikely that you were required to read them in school. The Declaration, however, is different. As one of our Founding Documents, it is included in state standards and content lesson plans all across our country.
Before they came together in Independence Hall, many of the Founders expressed their objections to King George III’s sanctions and taxes, and attempted to rouse their fellow colonists to action, through a variety of written documents including letters and pamphlets. The following are a few examples. John Adams vehemently argued for the natural rights of each individual, as well as the colonists’ rights as British citizens, in a series of essays using the pseudonym of Novanglus. As I discussed in a prior article, Benjamin Franklin’s Wise Words for the 2012 Election, many of the grievances against the King listed in the Declaration of Independence were also enumerated in Franklin’s satirical piece “Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One.” Thomas Jefferson also objected to the King’s tyrannical acts in his “Summary View of the Rights of British America.” All of these writings were detailed, passionate, and persuasive, but the wide spread knowledge of each one has faded over time.
It was only when the Founders spoke collectively that their voices became powerful, and their words were forever etched into the fabric of history. As time progressed through the 1770’s, the participants of the Continental Congresses became increasingly fervent in their complaints about the unfair burdens placed on the Colonies by the King, Parliament, and other representatives of the Crown. Ultimately, their anger coalesced into one document: the Declaration of Independence. It was a clear indictment of the King’s despotism, and it justified the Colonies’ absolution of allegiance to the British Crown. In his May 8, 1825 letter to Henry Lee, Jefferson stated that the Declaration’s “authority rests on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, [etc.]…This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”
As the election draws near, it is clear that our government no longer functions as the Founders intended. Many of us have ardently spoken out about this issue in texts, tweets, blogs, and other written forms, but each of us can only speak as an individual. Like Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin, we may speak with passion, but our words carry little power. We do, however, have power when we exercise our right to vote. Adams and Jefferson both wrote about the power of the electorate. Adams commented on the citizenries’ check on elected officials: “We electors have an important constitutional power placed in our hands: we have a check upon two branches of the legislature, as each branch has upon the other two; the power I mean of electing at stated periods, one branch, which branch has the power of electing another. It becomes necessary to every subject then, to be in some degree a statesman: and to examine and judge for himself of the tendencies of political principles and measures.” Jefferson viewed the exercise of voting as the peoples’ means to protect the Constitution: “The elective franchise, if guarded as the ark of our safety, will peaceably dissipate all combinations to subvert a Constitution, dictated by the wisdom, and resting on the will of the people.” He also made a statement regarding the power of the electorate which seems particularly applicable to this election: “Should things go wrong at any time, the people will set them to rights by the peaceable exercise of their elective rights.”
Our collective power is enormous, but our opinions regarding particular issues or candidates are, by no means, unanimous. How, then, can we proceed as a united body? I suggest we heed the sage advice of Benjamin Franklin. On September 17, 1787, Franklin articulated his thoughts concerning the document which was about to be signed by the participants of the Constitutional Convention. The statement, read by James Wilson because of Franklin’s frail physical condition, made clear that he had reservations about the Constitution which had been hammered out through a series of compromises. Yet, he urged each of the delegates to put aside concerns and differences so that the Constitution would more likely be ratified by the states. “Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die. If every one of us in returning to our Constituents were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partizans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects & great advantages resulting naturally in our favor among foreign Nations as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent unanimity. Much of the strength & efficiency of any Government in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends, on opinion, on the general opinion of the goodness of the Government, as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its Governors. I hope therefore that for our own sakes as a part of the people, and for the sake of posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution (if approved by Congress & confirmed by the Conventions) wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts & endeavors to the means of having it well administered. On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”
When we speak as individuals, our expressions are akin to a voice in the wilderness. When we speak as a member of a group, we may still be drowned out by those who disagree with us. However, when WE THE PEOPLE rise up and emphatically speak en mass, the thunder of our voice will resound across the nation. When we act as WE THE PEOPLE, our will cannot be ignored. When we vote as WE THE PEOPLE, we can change the course of this nation. When we continue to engage as WE THE PEOPLE, we can compel our elected officials to restore this amazing country to the constitutional republic which was crafted by the Founding Fathers. The steps toward the goal may meet resistance, but if we continue to unite as WE THE PEOPLE, the restoration will be unstoppable.
I encourage each and every like-minded citizen of the United States of America to seize this opportunity to begin the process of restoring our republic. We the People….We can change the direction of this country. This process begins by casting a ballot in the 2012 election. Then, continue on as an actively engaged citizen who promotes his or her elected officials’ adherence to the Constitution, fiscally responsible decisions, and continued compliance with the principles on which this great nation was founded.