The Declaration of Independence

by Thomas Jefferson

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Where, according to the Declaration of Independence, does the government get its power?

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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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According to the Declaration of Independence, who gives the goverment power to govern/rule?

According to the Declaration of Independence, we—the people of the nation—give the government the power to govern. The preamble to the Declaration of Independence begins with the extremely famous words,

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.

The declaration continues to say that in order to secure these unalienable rights, people create governments. These governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, the people of the nation must consent to empower the government.

The men who signed the Declaration of Independence were declaring the country’s intention to free itself from the rule of Great Britain and become independent with these words:

That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.

These men, the Founding Fathers of the United States, viewed Great Britain and its actions, specifically those of the king, as tyrannical. They wanted a modern type of government where the people would be safe from the tyranny or despotic behavior of a single ruler who had complete power. Writing of Great Britain, the Declaration says,

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, 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.

The Founding Fathers envisioned a government where people would have a say in the rules that governed their lives. Their input would come through the ability of the governed to elect the leaders who oversee the nation. In this way, a ruler or president, in the case of the United States, does not have the freedom to do anything he or she pleases, because it is the people who put that person in office and because the people could also decide that the ruler should be expelled from office or, at the very least, should not be reelected. In this way, governments are supposed to listen to what the people want.

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According to the Declaration of Independence, who gives the goverment power to govern/rule?

The Declaration of Independence borrows heavily from the ideas of the Enlightenment to explicitly state the source of a government's power. During the 17th and 18th centuries, European philosophers, such as John Locke and Voltaire, wrote treatises on the basis of governmental power. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, the principal drafters of the Declaration of Independence, were very familiar with Enlightenment thought and philosophy.

The Declaration of Independence explicitly states the source of a government's power in its second paragraph. After stating that people all have the God-given rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," it states that it is a government's main responsibility to secure and protect those rights for its citizens. Furthermore, if a government cannot do this, it is the right and the responsibility of the people to abolish the old government and create a new one.

...when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

The Declaration of Independence provides a long list of abuses by the English King and Parliament. This is given as evidence that the rights of the colonists were not being protected. Therefore, according to the framers of the Declaration of Independence, the people are forming a new government to secure those rights.

In short, the Declaration of Independence says that the source of a government's power comes from the citizens. They should have the power to decide who governs them, and it is up to those in government to respect the most fundamental rights of the governed or risk being overthrown and replaced.

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According to the Declaration of Independence, who gives the goverment power to govern/rule?

One of the reasons why the Declaration of Independence was written was that the colonists thought the King was abusing his power. The colonists believed the British government was violating their rights as citizens of Great Britain. For example, the colonists said that the British government was taxing them without their consent.

The Declaration of Independence made it very clear that the government gets its power from the people. Another way to say this is that the government gets its power from the consent of the governed.

The Declaration of Independence went on to say that when a government doesn’t protect the people’s rights and abuses its powers, the people have no choice but to remove that government from power and replace it with a government that will protect their rights. The colonists tried to share their concerns with the King, but they felt that the King and the British government weren’t willing to hear their concerns and resolve them. Therefore, they needed to declare their independence and replace the old government with one that would protect their rights.

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According to the Declaration of Independence, who gives the goverment power to govern/rule?

According to the Declaration of Independence, the power and authority to rule is given to the government by the people that it governs.  This is the only source of legitimate power for a government.  The Declaration tells us that people have certain rights that have been given to them by God and that cannot be legitimately taken away from them.  It tells us that, in order to protect those rights,

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

This is where we see the source of the government’s right to rule.  The government gets its right to rule from the consent of the people.

This was an idea that was central to the thinking of Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke.  Locke, in particular, was a major source for Thomas Jefferson’s thinking as he drafted the Declaration of Independence.  Locke argued that there was no way for a government to be legitimate unless the people that it governed agreed to be governed by it.  He felt that governments that claimed legitimacy from God, for example, were giving justifications that had no basis in logic.

Thus, following Locke, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the right to rule comes from the consent of the governed.

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