The Declaration of Independence

by Thomas Jefferson

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According to the Declaration of Independence, where does the government's power originate?

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According to the Declaration of Independence, the government derives its power from the consent of the people it governs.

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The Declaration of Independence says that the power of the government comes from the consent of the people.  This is one of the main ideas of John Locke’s thought, which strongly influenced Thomas Jefferson as he wrote the Declaration.

John Locke was a major political philosopher of the Enlightenment.  He believed that monarchy was an illegitimate form of government.  He believed that governments could only have legitimate power if the people agreed to be governed by those governments.  Power was not legitimate if rulers held it just because the people were afraid to disobey them.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson echoes this idea.  He writes that, in order to protect people’s rights,

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

This tells us quite clearly that government’s power comes from the consent of the people that it governs.  This is one of the basic ideas of modern democracies.  In order for a government to be legitimate, it has to hold power because the people agree that it should, not simply because it can frighten them into submission.

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According to the Declaration of Independence, from what source does the government get its power?

The Declaration of Independence is a living embodiment of what's called social contract theory. This is a political philosophy that purports to explain the genesis of civil society. Most varieties of social contract theory attempt to place limits on the power of government, arguing that governments were originally established by the people for the protection of liberty.

It's just such an argument that forms the basis of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration makes it clear that ultimate sovereignty derives from the just consent of the governed. It was the people who originally established government to protect their liberties, and it's the people whose ongoing consent is required if that government is to continue governing. The implications of this section of the Declaration are radical indeed. If the government doesn't do what it's supposed to—if it doesn't protect life, liberty, and property—then the people have the right to get rid of it and put a new one in its place that will fulfill the terms of the original contract.

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According to the Declaration of Independence, from what source does the government get its power?

According to the Declaration of Independence, governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed." This principle, known to political theorists as "popular sovereignty," is what separates a legitimate government from one that is not. Indeed, the goal of the revolutionaries who issued the Declaration was to establish a government that was so established. The purpose of such a government would be to protect the rights of the people, including life, liberty, and property. If the government failed to do this (as, they argued, the British government had) or actually became "destructive" of the rights of the people, it was their right to get rid of it through revolution. Then, the Declaration says, they could establish a new government based on these principles that would be responsive to the will of the people. These ideas are usually traced to the English political philosopher John Locke, whose "social contract" theory suggested that only governments founded upon the consent of the governed were legitimate or likely to survive.

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According to both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, where does the government get its power?

Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were heavily influenced by the Enlightenment and especially by the theories of John Locke concerning the source of power or legitimacy for governments. 

Hereditary monarchies had drawn their authority from legitimacy of descent, in which monarchs passed their power down to their children. A second theory, popular in theocracies such as Egypt or ancient Mesopotamia and revived in early modern Europe, was the "divine right of kings," which argued that kings drew their authority from God. Another notion was that raw power itself constituted a form of authority or legitimacy ("might makes right"). 

The radical Enlightenment notion found in these two documents was that a government draws its power and legitimacy from the people and governs with the consent of the governed. Thus the Constitution begins with the phrase "we the people," who are seen collectively as the holders of power. Public servants such as presidents, congressmen, and civil servants do not have power themselves but are chosen by the people to do certain necessary administrative tasks.

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According to both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, where does the government get its power?

Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States proclaim the power of the government comes from the people. In the preamble to the Constitution, the opening words indicate that this is where the power originates:

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." 

The Declaration of Independence makes the same claim. In fact, it also makes it within the opening words:

"The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

The two documents present the idea of democracy in different ways. The Constitution directly states that the people have the power to create the governing rules, while the Declaration states the people have the power to pull away from an existing governing body in the face of tyranny and injustice.

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

The Declaration of Independence lays out the philosophical basis for the new republic very clearly, in what may be the most famous political statement in the English language:

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, 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 very familiarity of these words may now detract from the radical nature of the ideas they express. The government derives its power from the consent of those it governs, not from God, right of conquest, or the innate superiority of the governing class. Not only that, but the people have given their consent to be governed for specific purposes, as one might delegate certain business affairs to a subordinate.

The American government does not merely rule, like a king. It has specific tasks to perform for the people: it must ensure that they are safe, free, and able to do what they believe will make them happy. As soon as the government ceases to do its job, whether through tyranny or incompetence, the people can fire it and employ a new government which will do the job better.

Although the Founding Fathers were drawn from the ranks of upper-class landowners, they profess in the Declaration of Independence to be the servants of the people rather than the masters, a radically new idea about government, which is the product of Enlightenment philosophy.

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