Power And The Declaration Ofindependence Essay, Research Paper
Power and The Declaration ofIndependence There are many abstractions in the Declaration ofIndependence. These abstractions such as: rights, freedom,liberty and happiness have become the foundations of Americansociety and have helped to shape the “AmericanIdentity.” Power, another abstraction that reoccurs inall the major parts of the Declaration of Independence playsan equally important role in shaping “Americaidentity.” One forgets the abstraction of power, becauseit appears in relation to other institutions: thelegislature, the King, the earth, and the military. Theabstraction of power sets the tone of the Declaration, andshapes the colonists conception of government and society.Power in the Declaration of Independence flows from distinctbodies within society such as the King, the legislature, themilitary, and the colonists. The Oxford English Dictionary defines power as, “theability to do or effect something or anything, or to act upona person or thing” (OED 2536). Throughout the agesaccording to the dictionary the word power has connotedsimilar meanings. In 1470 the word power meant to havestrength and the ability to do something, “With allthair strang *poweir” (OED 2536) Nearly three hundredyears later in 1785 the word power carried the same meaningof control, strength, and force, “power to produce aneffect, supposes power not to produce it; otherwise it is notpower but necessity” (OED 2536). This definitionexplains how the power government or social institutionsrests in their ability to command people, rocks, colonies todo something they otherwise would not do. To make the peoplepay taxes. To make the rocks form into a fence. To make thecolonists honor the King. The colonialists adopt thisinterpretation of power. They see power as a cruel force thathas wedded them to a King who has “a history of repeatedinjuries and usurptions.” The framers of the Declarationof Independence also believe powers given by God to thepeople must not be usurped. The conflict between thesespheres of power the colonists believe, justifies theirrebellion. The uses of the word power set the tone of theDeclaration of Independence. In the first sentence of theDeclaration colonists condemn the King’s violation of powersgiven by god to all men. When in the Course of human events it becomes necessaryfor one people to dissolve the political bands which haveconnected them with another, and to assume among the powersof the earth, the separate and equal station to which theLaws of Nature and of natures God Entitle them (Wills 375). In this passage the writers of the Declaration ofIndependence are explaining their moral claim to rebel. Thisright finds its foundation on their interpretation of theabstraction of power. Colonists perceive power as bifurcated,a force the King uses to oppress them, and a force given tothem by God allowing them to rebel. In the Declaration ofIndependence the colonists also write about power as anegative force. In the following quote power takes on anegative meaning because power rests in the hands of the Kingand not the people, “to cause others to be elected;whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation,have returned” (Wills 376). Power when mentioned inassociation with the power of the people to make their ownlaws has a positive connotation, “He has affected torender the Military independent of and superior to Civilpower” (Wills 377). These two different uses of the word power transform themeaning and tone of the Declaration of Independence. Themeaning changes from just a Declaration of independence fromBritain because of various violations of tax laws, militaryexpenditures, and colonists’ rights; to a fundamentaldisagreement about power. Whether the King or civilauthorities have a right to power. The colonists believe inthe decentralization of power. The British support acentralized monarchy. The colonists believe power should flowup from the people to the rulers. The British believe powershould flow down from the King to the subjects.
The two different uses of the world power also change thetone of the document. The colonist’s definition of power ascoercive in the hands of the King and good in the hands ofcivil authorities identifies the King as the enemy. He takeson the role of the enemy because he clutches the power inpre-colonial society. The tone of the Declaration ofIndependence becomes more severe; the Declarations vilifyingof the fundamental power imbalances between the colonies andthe King make the break between the two unbridgeable. Thebreak between the colonies and the King became not just a taxor policy difference anymore, but a fundamental philosophicaldifference. The colonists meaning of the word power changes dependingon who possesses the power. In the hands of the King powercorrupts in the hands of the colonists and the people ittakes on divine qualities. The colonist’s analysis of who haspower fascinates. The colonists believe power to be a forcethat emanates from fixed points in society. In contrast moremodern thinkers such as Nietzche and Foucault believe powerflows throughout all of society (Miller 15). The colonistsperceive in England power emanates directly from the King.Because of this interpretation they blame the King for themany wrongs they list in the body of the Declaration ofIndependence. The colonists do not blame the people ofEngland or the English legislature. This allows the tone ofthe Declaration of Independence to soften. Instead, of beingan attack on the institutions of English society theDeclaration only attacks the King, the holder of power.Foucault’s interpretation of power would differ sharply fromthe framers of the Declaration Of Independence. Foucault seespower as coming from the many technologies that society usesto control people: tax systems the law, patriarchy, familysystems, legislatures, and even democracy. These technologiesaccording to Foucault all represent different ways in whichsociety controls its members (Foucault 307). The King underFoucault’s interpretation of power bares littleresponcibilety for the grievances colonists have withEngland. The King in his view plays merely a role in the webof different technologies of control. Foucault would see theKing as being controlled by many of the forces in society.Fulfilling his role is not so much his manifestation of hispower as the power of English society and its ability tocontrol the colonies and their inhabitants. If the colonistswhen writing the Declaration of Independence had thisconception of power in mind the, the tone of the documentwould have been much stronger indicting all of Englishsociety. The colonists interpretation of power has seriousrepercussions on the subsequent formulation of the USgovernment. Because the colonists philosophical break withEngland was over the power of the King the framers of theDeclaration of Independence sought to prevent a monarchy fromarising in the United States. They sought to disperse poweramong the states and set up a system of counterbalancingbranches of government that would prevent any single branchfrom having too much power. The ideas of federalism anddecentralization were a direct outgrowth of the colonistsinterpretation of power. Power, in the Declaration ofIndependence carries more than just grammatical significanceto the document. It shapes the document’s meaning making itphilosophically harsh toward the institution of the King andtempered toward English society.
Wills, Garry. Inventing America. New York: RandomHouse, 1978Miller, James. The Passion of Michel Foucault. NewYork: Anchor Books, 1993Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. New York:Vintage Books, 1975Oxford English Dictionary. London: OxfordUniversity Press, 1994