Becoming a Nation

What sort of government did the Declaration of Independence envisage?

Examining the flaws of the Articles of Confederation helps us to understand many of the key principles and provisions of the Constitution, but the Declaration of Independence also identifies some aspects of government that Americans felt were important. The Declaration did not create a government for the states, but it did set forth certain standards of legitimacy for any government that would be created. The best-known of these standards are in the second paragraph, where the equality of men, the consent of the governed, and the proper ends of government (the protection of the people’s rights) are declared. But added to these positive declarations—broad goals of government based upon the natural rights of men—were more narrow prescriptions for the proper structure and arrangement of political power. Looking at the Declaration’s recitation of the King’s abuses, which are spelled out in the second half of the document, a clearer picture emerges of what the American people regarded as the appropriate arrangement of three powers of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. 

The Declaration of Independence on Executive Power

Consider these accusations laid out in the Declaration about the abuse of Executive Power with regards to the laws and the legislature: The King had “refused his Assent” to some laws and “utterly neglected to attend to” others. Jefferson was suggesting that no executive should have an absolute veto over legislation and that the Executive’s duty is to execute the laws that have been duly passed. 

Furthermore, the Declaration also denounces the King’s behavior because he has “dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly.” This accusation suggests that the powers of the Legislature and the Executive under the British Constitution have not been properly separated and balanced.

How did the U.S. Constitution later address these issues?

Veto Power:

The United States Constitution qualifies the executive veto; it specifies that any veto may be overturned when a bill has been “repassed by two thirds of the Senate and House of Representatives” (Art. I, Sec. 7). also obligates the executive to attend to the laws that are passed; the President “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed” (Art. II, Sec. 3).

Adjourning Congress:

By contrast, the United States Constitution gives the President the power to “adjourn [the two Houses of the Legislature] to such Time as he shall think proper” only “in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment” (Art. II, Sec. 3). In this way, the Constitution moderates executive power and makes its abuse more difficult. 

The Declaration of Independence on Legislative Power

The Declaration of Independence also specifies certain abuses of Legislative Power and implies how it should be properly structured. For instance, it accuses the King of bullying the American people into “relinquish[ing] the right of Representation in the Legislature.” Here, Jefferson was suggesting that under a good government, the legislature – or at least some part of it – should be representative.

The Declaration also accuses Britain of imposing “Taxes on us without our Consent.” All laws, it suggests, but especially laws levying taxes, should be passed only with the consent of the people.

How did the U.S. Constitution later address these issues?

Representation:

The Constitution ensures representation in Art. I, Sec. 2, which dictates that the members of the House of Representatives be “chosen every second Year by the People of the several States.”

Revenue:

The Constitution dictates that all ordinary legislation be passed by both Houses of Congress; but it further stipulates that “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives,” which is the House that is more closely tied to the consent of the people. Once again, the United States Constitution was meant to remedy the abuses experienced by colonies under the rule of Great Britain.

The Declaration of Independence on Judicial Power

Finally, the Declaration has a few things to say about the proper formation of the Judiciary. It criticizes the King for making “Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.” Furthermore, he is also accused of “depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury.” Jefferson makes plain that judges should be made independent, especially of the capricious will of the executive, and that trials should be by jury.

How did the U.S. Constitution later address these issues?

Art. III, Sec. 1 ensures that judges “shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour,” and also that they shall receive “a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.” Art. III, Sec. 2 further stipulates that “The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury” (and this precept is reiterated in the Sixth Amendment). Many Antifederalists had been incensed that the Constitution did not similarly guarantee a jury trial in civil cases as well, and that perceived defect was addressed in the Seventh Amendment: “In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved.”

The Declaration and the Articles, and the Origins of the Constitution

Ultimately, the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation were important, but by themselves inadequate, steps toward forming a Union. Recognizing both their importance and their inadequacies provides a good basis for thinking about the challenges that faced the Framers of the Constitution.

The Framers had to consider how to knit together a group of independent states with various interests into a federation or nation that could take its place on the world stage.