‘Necessary for the public good’

E.J. Dionne’s Fourth of July column takes an insightful look at the Declaration of Independence — 235 years old today — and notes that those who had the courage to sign it weren’t exactly anti-government, anti-tax crusaders. Indeed, reviewing the list of “abuses and usurpations” the Declaration documents points in the other direction.

The very first item on their list condemned the king because he “refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” Note that the signers wanted to pass laws, not repeal them, and they began by speaking of “the public good,” not about individuals or “the private sector.” They knew that it takes public action — including effective and responsive government — to secure “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Their second grievance reinforced the first, accusing the king of having “forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance.” Again, our forebears wanted to enact laws; they were not anti-government zealots.

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 harrass our people, and eat out their substance”) until grievance No. 10.

These kinds of sentiments — a vision in which government provided for its citizens and sought to make a material difference — were echoed in the Constitution, which speaks of promoting “a more perfect Union,” “Justice,” “the common defense,” “the general Welfare,” and “the Blessings of Liberty.”

Yes, the word “welfare” is right there in the preamble. Here’s hoping conservatives don’t feel the need to grumble every time they pass the National Archives.

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. […]

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.

Slowly but surely, activists on the right have seemed to try to appropriate the colonial era as their own, as if they — and they alone — are the direct descendents of the Founding Fathers, and they deserve ownership of the revolutionary principles. We’re supposed to believe the leaders of the era were states-rights libertarians, embracing the attitudes of Ayn Rand and Grover Norquist generations before their birth.

Today seems like a good time to remember that a more accurate look at history tells a very different story.