In his second inaugural address, Barack Obama challenged us to live out the meaning of our creed as stated in the Declaration of Independence. But he then redefined those ideals to suit his political aims. Change is necessary, he said, because “when times change, so must we.”
Yet our founding principles need no modification. As Abraham Lincoln once wrote, these principles are “applicable to all men and all times” and serve as “a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.”
To preserve liberty, we must defend our principles, not change them. And doing so requires an understanding of their origin. To truly live out the meaning of our creed, we must first recognize what defined our founding as a nation. So let us objectively look at that beginning.
Colonial America was never home to a single race, language, or religion, yet a distinct American identity formed early in our history—the diverse American people were united in society by a common idea, a shared political philosophy based in Natural Law. Thomas Paine described this unique, but unexpected, American bond as follows:
If there is a country in the world where concord, according to common calculation, would be least expected, it is America. Made up as it is of people from different nations, accustomed to different forms and habits of government, speaking different languages, and more different in their modes of worship, it would appear that the union of such a people was impracticable; but by the simple operation of constructing government on the principles of society and the rights of man, every difficulty retires, and all the parts are brought into cordial unison.
The American people were united by the conviction that their natural rights to life, liberty, and property are gifts from God; that individuals join in society by their reciprocal interests; and that government must be formed by consent and organized to preserve their cherished rights.
The American people lived by this philosophy even before their independence from Great Britain. Although the colonies were subject to British rule since their formation, the Parliament practiced a policy of “salutary neglect” until the 1760s and rarely enforced its laws in America. Robert Walpole, who was Britain’s first de facto Prime Minister from 1721–1742, explained the purpose for this policy, saying, “If no restrictions were placed on the colonies, they would flourish.” (In essence, economic liberty would lead to prosperity — what a concept!) As a consequence of this policy, the American people were largely left alone to govern themselves, and they did so through their locally elected colonial assemblies.
This arrangement soon changed, however, after the Seven Years War ended in 1763 and the British government found itself deep in debt with a large military force to maintain in America. Eager to obtain a larger monetary contribution from the American colonies, the British Parliament in the next decade passed a series of taxes on goods imported to and traded in America.
To be sure, the taxes themselves were not all that onerous. In fact, the tax burden for the average American remained very light compared to the average British subject at the time. But the American people decried the taxes for two major reasons. They considered it unjust for the British government to tax the colonies while they lacked representation in Parliament, and they feared that the taxes were just the beginning of greater British intervention in American affairs. So the American people ultimately resisted these taxes — through boycotts and by trading in smuggled goods — as a matter of principle, not because they were actually oppressed by them.