In 1776, a semi-unified country signed one of the most important documents in history. Since then the nation has shown signs of how different the country was from 1776 to the present. The Declaration of Independence is based on the social contract theory of government and is focused on equality, freedom, and power. These values have been both supported and contradicted in American history (Jefferson, pg. 443). In the declaration, Jefferson states that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (Jefferson, pg. 443).
This speaks directly to the humanist theory of social contract that was prevalent at the time. One of the greatest political philosophers of the time was a man named John Locke. His ideas on governance were that no government could be effective without the consent of the governed and that should a government ever abuse its power “they break their contract with the people and therefore no longer enjoy the consent of the governed” and it is the right of the people to overthrow it (O’Connor &Sabato, pg. 9).
When Jefferson explained that “these united colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent states” (Jefferson, pg. 46), his intent was to make clear that they would no longer look to another nation for guidance and support; that America would be its own sovereign nation from that moment on. One of the most contradictory aspects of the Declaration of Independence was its stance on the equality of man. Jefferson speaks candidly about it but what he refrains from discussing is the institution of slavery. The inconsistency of the two ideas almost screams off the page. It is not simply a forgotten issue on Jefferson’s part. He knew well that slavery was a problem in a nation he was purporting to be filled with equal men.
Unfortunately the resolution to that issue had not as yet made its presence known and the Founding Fathers simply left it for future generations to figure out. When Jefferson stated that the United States were to be free, it began a period of time where Americans would begin to decide just what it meant to be an American. Values would be adopted; a cultural identity far removed from that of Europe would be founded. America, while separating itself from Britain, still had to wrestle with the fact that the rest of the world thought them nothing more than degenerate barbarians who were bucking the control of their superiors.
However, between the landing at Plymouth Rock and the Revolutionary War, those little colonies had grown apart from Great Britain. Not just in distance but in cultural values as well. Feudal Britain could not understand the democratic America and vice versa. The humanist theories of the autonomy of the human spirit had really taken root in America whereas in Britain and other parts of the world the ideas were little more than words since there were already monarchical governments in place.
While it is true that America based many of its systems on British techniques, there’s no denying that the emphasis of power and control rest far more readily in the rights of the individual rather than the rights of the nation. Of course this is not to say that America doesn’t have a few skeletons in their closet. Americans still to this day value their freedom and the idea of self-governance, but there was a time in history when this was forgotten. Around the turn of the twentieth century America annexed parts of the Philippines.
This imperialist-style aggression towards another sovereign nation seems to fly in the face of everything America was built on especially since the Philippines had just won their own independence from Spain (by practically following the playbook that America had written. ) Another way to look at it would be to observe how America interacts with nations and people that are under a different form of government than their own. In a time where independence is lacking in other countries, the United States government tries to export its qualities to other non-independent countries.
Even though at one point in time the United States became free on its own from higher powers, now America is the higher power trying to enforce independence in other countries. Though the United States has good intentions, it is not difficult to understand how other nations could see America as imperialist. America doesn’t want to expand its territorial boundaries but it has no problem trying to inflict their style of government on other nations. The Declaration discusses how much power the United States will have by stating that the newly independent olonies will have “full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which Independent States may of right do” (Jefferson, pg. 446).
Power is one value that anyone can appreciate. No matter what country a person is from, at one point in time they wanted power. To give a country the qualities that Jefferson has quoted, “levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce” (Jefferson, pg. 446) it gives power to any country. In history, we have encountered when having too much power can leave one person to make bad decisions.
For example, Ex-President Clinton, after two terms in office he was being accused of having extra-marital sexual relations in the White House. Then he continued to publicly lie to the United States about the affair. Later he was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice. This example shows someone who had so much power being the President of the United States that he thought he could get away with having an affair while he was in office. He will always be known for his impeachment. Though he had good qualities as a President, he obviously could not handle all the power that was given to him.
It could be opined that the reason Bill Clinton was impeached, besides lying under oath, is that he went against a core American value that holds fidelity within the confines of a marriage to be nearly sacred. When he broke from that value, he broke the faith the American people had in him. In conclusion, the American values that necessitated the writing of the Declaration of Independence may have changed since it was written, but not by much. America is an autonomous land filled with people who have built a system of values and a cultural identity that is its own. No longer is Great Britain a threat and common wealth can be achieved easier.
America is not perfect but it is unique. Where else on earth can people enjoy the freedoms that this nation affords its citizens? The values of independence and self-governance that brought the Declaration of Independence to life still remain a part of the social fabric. Granted, the people are not fighting against a foreign power anymore, but that same spirit that riled a nation to revolution still maintains its hold on the current system of government and keeps it in check so that this nation “of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth”.
Courtney from Study Moose
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