Sunday Pages: Declaration of Independence

It's 1776 all over again.

Dear Reader,

“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us!”

Those words were not uttered by Liz Cheney at the first meeting of the January 6 House Select Committee, but penned by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. And the “he” in question is King George III, not former president and aspiring autocrat Donald John Trump. But one can be forgiven for getting mixed up.

Five years from today will be the 250th anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence, our seminal founding document. The “united States of America” will have been around a full quarter millennium—you know, assuming we manage to hold on another half-decade. Which, between the rise of despotic forces within the government and the fall of the delicate ecosystem due to climate change, is no sure thing.

The document, essentially a Dear John letter to the king, was primarily composed by Thomas Jefferson. The Oscar clip of the Declaration is this:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: 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.

Heady ideas, those, and in 1776, relatively novel. But they must have moved the king and his ministers to wild guffaws. Where did Thomas Jefferson of all people—slaveholder extraordinaire, a man who, we now know, raped his slaves on the regular—get off waxing self-righteously about equality?

“There were almost 700 thousand slaves in the U.S. in 1790,” the historical researcher Aaron O’Neill points out, “which equated to approximately 18 percent of the total population, or roughly one in every six people.” So much for all men being created equal. And Jefferson and his bewigged colleagues didn’t even pretend to include women in the Declaration. Indeed, when we factor in women, slaves, indentured servants, recent immigrants, and poor white men—not to mention the Native Americans—a mere third of the population of the Colonies, at most, could take advantage of the vaunted “unalienable” right to liberty. In practice, when Jefferson wrote that line, “the pursuit of happiness” was basically a euphemism for “serving the white patriarchy.”

Despite the Karen-like hypocrisy of a congress of wealthy slaveholders grousing about their freedoms being infringed upon, the Declaration does helpfully explain what a despotic ruler looks like—a lesson we seem to have forgotten, these last 245 years. The Founders charge that the British king established “an absolute tyranny over these States,” and then presents a litany of grievances and abuses that illustrate the point. It is remarkable how many of these grievances and abuses apply to the Former Guy and his Republican collaborators:

He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

Indeed, Trump, a creature of organized crime, has spent his entire life doing just that, to deleterious effect on our society.

He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

Trump’s sabotage and delay in the coronavirus response qualifies. Remember when we begged him to invoke the Defense Production Act and that iniquitous eunuch Jared Kushner said the federal government would leave it to the states to bid against each other for ventilators and PPE?

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

Some of the GOP voting restriction laws do something quite similar—by placing ballot boxes in just one location in a vast county in Texas, for example.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise; the state remaining in the meantime exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

Here, the Founders seem to cite the politics of obstruction, practiced with dastardly relish by Mitch McConnell and the GOP-controlled Senate for decades now, to all of our peril.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

The second part of the Mueller Report outlines the myriad ways Trump obstructed justice.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

Pretty much, yeah. Have you seen the unqualified dipshits he’s named to the courts?

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.

I would argue that honeycombing the federal agencies with his loyalists, while gutting State, Treasury, and Defense, achieves much the same effect.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

Ask Bill Barr about the weird, ragtag Bureau of Prisons army that marauded around the District last year.

He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us…

The “foreign mercenaries” are Russian operatives, chums of his campaign manager and close friend Paul Manafort, who waged cyberwarfare against us. The “domestic insurrectionists” are, of course, the January 6 besiegers of the Capitol.

In every stage of these oppressions, we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Also, absolutely true of the Former Guy: blower-off of subpoenas, kicker of legal cans down the road, scofflaw ne plus ultra.

Twelve score and five years after the founding of this country, we find ourselves once again facing absolute tyranny. This time, the despotic forces are not across the ocean, but within our own government, and lustily supported by a sizable percentage of our population. And we cannot simply show them the door, like the Founders did. We have to appeal to hearts and minds—hearts that have been poisoned, minds that have been brainwashed—and root out this cancer on our republic. We must not let the authoritarians win. We must prevail!

Maybe the first step is to have the MAGA horde actually, you know, read the Declaration of Independence, which predates the Constitution they won’t stop talking about, and point out how Jefferson may as well have been writing about Trump. Although if we are relying on reading comprehension to save us, the republic is already doomed.

In a perverse sort of way, Lauren Boebert was right—this is 1776. But it’s not the redcoats who are coming; it’s the red hats. And they’re already here.

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Photo credit: The author in front of the Jasper Johns painting, “Flag,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, yesterday afternoon.