According to the Declaration of Independence, where does the government get the power to govern?

The Declaration of Independence holds that the government receives its power from the governed as part of a social contract. Government is created to safeguard and protect the people's natural rights, with the people voluntarily submitting to its authority. So long as it upholds its obligations and responsibilities to those that it governs, it retains legitimacy. Should it ignore those responsibilities and act tyrannically, the people are within their rights to institute a new government in its place.

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The Declaration of Independence views the source of government and legitimacy as ultimately grounded within God-given natural rights. Jefferson famously states,

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.

As he goes on to write in the very next sentence, governments are created to protect those natural rights, "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." In short, government is created for a purpose (to safeguard the rights and freedoms of its people), and it only retains its legitimacy if it continues to honor that responsibility.

In essence, the American Revolution was founded on a political vision by which sovereignty was founded within the people and by which government should be answerable to the people. Of course, this should not be understood as an invitation to lawlessness on the part of individuals. Rather, real power resides within the people as a collective, who voluntarily submit themselves to the government in order to protect their own well-being.

So long as government continues to act for the benefit and well-being of those that it governs (and with the support of those it governs), then it would continue to hold legitimacy. Should it stray from that path and act tyrannically against its citizens, then the people are within their rights to overthrow it and institute a new government in its place. This is precisely the charge that the Declaration of Independence levies against Great Britain, and the logic that it uses to justify the American Revolution.

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The Declaration of Independence, of course, was intended by its principal author, Thomas Jefferson, to draw a marked contrast between the government it would establish and the one it would replace, with the latter characterized by the near-absolute power of monarchy. Jefferson and the other intellectual architects of American democracy (or republicanism) sought to distance the country they would forge from the distant autocratic one under whose yoke the North American colonies increasingly chafed. Key to establishing a government that would reflect the will of those over whom it governed was to ensure that this new political entity was truly representative of the population that would elect it. In drafting the subsequent Constitution of the United States of America, James Madison would similarly enshrine in this seminal document the principles of representative democracy. It was, though, in the Declaration of Independence where the crucial concept of consent of the governed was best exemplified. It is in the second paragraph that Jefferson spells-out precisely the source of the government's power: the people. In that paragraph, Jefferson wrote:  

"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.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government . . ." [Emphasis added]

This section is the heart of American democracy. The system of representative government being established would be firmly rooted in the will of the people. No chief executive, no senator or congressman, and no justice would sit above the population, exercising unquestioned power. The president and the members of the legislature would serve at the pleasure of the populace -- not the other way around.

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Montesquieu was another political philosopher who influenced the shaping of the United States Constitution. Although he died in 1755, his ideas about the separation of powers were adopted and applied by James Madison, the principal author of the United States Constitution.

The reason behind the separation of powers concept is essentially pessimistic: Left unchecked, one branch of a government will seek to eventually dominate the others. Madison and the other constitutional framers sought to balance the three branches of government (legislative, executive, judicial) in order to “keep them honest”). For example, the president can veto Congress, but Congress can override the president, an the courts can declare a law unconstitutional.

Much of this distrust of governmental power grew out of centuries of monarchial rule in the European countries that populated America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The downside of this system can be seen today with what we refer to as “gridlock” in Washington. Without a dominant party, neither conservatives nor liberals can muster enough power to get much done legislatively. While the system keeps one branch from bullying the others, it also makes it very tough to get anything accomplished when you have different parties in power in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

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According to the Declaration of Independence, the government gets its power to govern from the people that it governs.  As the Declaration says,

Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

This was an idea that derived from Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke.  These thinkers believed that people had natural human rights that they were born with.  These were rights to such things as their life, their liberty, and their property.  The problem was that, without government, other people could take these things away from them.  People could rob, enslave, or kill others. 

Because of this, people needed to have governments.  What people did was to voluntarily give up some of their rights to a government in return for having their most important rights protected.  A government was only legitimate, Enlightenment thinkers argued, when the people agreed to be ruled by it. 

The writers of the Declaration of Independence borrowed their ideas from Locke and others like him.  Therefore, they believed that government only justly held power if the people consented to give it that power.

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The government gets its power from the just consent of the governed. This was quite a radical concept for its time as governments were widely believed to be divinely instituted, answerable to God alone. The consent of the people didn't really enter into the equation.

But what the Declaration of Independence did was to turn that notion on its head. Government was a human institution, created by humans to serve their needs. If a particular government did not serve those needs, as clearly the American colonists felt that the British government did not, then it should be replaced by one that did. Ultimately, it is the people who should get to decide the form of government that prevails. Not kings, not princes, but the people themselves.

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According to the Declaration of Independence, the government gets its power from the people it governs.  The exact language it uses in the second paragraph is "deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed."  This means that the people agree to be governed.  Any powers derived, therefore, that are not consented to by the people, are unjust. In a democracy, all government power is intended to be derived this way.  The people set up the form of government, as the Constitution of the United States does.  The people choose those who will be their representatives in government.  The famous line, "Of the people, by the people, for the people," (Lincoln), sums up the origin of power of American government quite well.  In a dictatorship, the power of the government is derived through military control and fear.  King George used both to try to control the colonies, and certainly, the colonies had not consented to the subjugation to authority demanded by him. 

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