One of the most amazing thoughts in that most amazing of documents, the Declaration of Independence, comes in the second half of the second paragraph. The lines directly follow the more famous ones about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They address the question of (for lack of a better term) revolution. The case is stated thusly: “That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to 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.”
In essence, it argues that the American people have a right to make up a new form of government, of whatever sort they like, any time the old forms of government seem like they aren’t working. Needless to say, this is an incredibly bold and incredibly dangerous proposition to put forth. Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the document, was — along with his colleagues — perfectly aware that he was opening a massive can of worms with this principle of revolution and self-rule.
That’s why the next sentence in the Declaration comes right in to qualify the situation, to dampen down the radical impact of these thoughts. Jefferson writes, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” We have a right to abolish any government and to establish a new one under any principles we fancy, but it is a right that only a fool would actually exercise.
It is an almost impossibly tricky line to establish, the one between revolution and prudence. In establishing it, Jefferson not only formulates a new approach to government, he inaugurates a new prose style, an American prose. Its central principle is the following: When addressing matters difficult and august, it is best to be chatty. There is a danger in this approach. It is the danger of shallowness. Many Americans since Jefferson have fallen victim to that danger. But in the hands of a master this style has the virtue of honesty and confidence in the face of the profound.
No manner of artful prose writing was going to obscure the central dilemma anyway. The fact is, it’s a tricky business deciding when to call it quits with a government and set up something new. Sometimes, it has to be done. Most of the time, prudence would dictate sticking with what you’ve got instead of unleashing the chaos of revolution. Instead of twisting his rhetoric to untangle that Gordian knot, Jefferson simply states his case. We have certain rights and we expect government to respect those rights. We all have a limit as to how far any government can trample on those rights and we know, more or less and collectively, when that limit has been reached. When it has, we scrap the old system and start again. That’s what Jefferson says and he says it outright in four sentences. Adjusting for age and historical style, he says it in plain English with no attempt to gloss over the hard problems. It is pragmatism and idealism perfectly blended and today, nearly 250 years later, it is still a pleasure to read. • 29 June 2010