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What Our Declaration Really Said

By E.J. Dionne - July 4, 2011

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Abuses three through nine also referred in some way to how laws were passed or justice was administered. The document doesn't really get to anything that looks like Big Government oppression ("He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance") until grievance number 10.

This misunderstanding of our founding document is paralleled by a misunderstanding of our Constitution. "The federal government was created by the states to be an agent for the states, not the other way around," Gov. Rick Perry of Texas said recently.

No, our Constitution begins with the words "We the People" not "We the States." The Constitution's Preamble speaks of promoting "a more perfect Union," "Justice," "the common defense," "the general Welfare" and "the Blessings of Liberty." These were national goals.

I know states' rights advocates revere the 10th Amendment. But when the word "states" appears in the Constitution, it typically is part of a compound word, "United States," or refers to how the states and their people will be represented in the national government. We learned it in elementary school: The Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation to create a stronger federal government, not a weak confederate government. Perry's view was rejected in 1787, and again in 1865.

We praise our Founders annually for revolting against royal rule and for creating an exceptionally durable system of self-government. We can wreck that system if we forget our Founders' purpose of creating a representative form of national authority robust enough to secure the public good. It is still perfectly capable of doing that. But if we pretend we are living in Boston in 1773, we will draw all the wrong conclusions and make some remarkably foolish choices.

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Copyright 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

E.J. Dionne

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