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Incapable of Annihilation

Having begun this first day of the 238th year of the independence of the United States of America in the way I have now practiced for forty consecutive Fourths of July, anything to follow will be denouement for the remainder of the day, for the tradition I follow on this anniversary centers upon a reading of the Declaration of Independence. At times I have added the original United States Constitution, including of course the Bill of Rights, the Articles of Confederation, and other documents, but the Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia on this date in 1776, is for me the proper focus of attention today, as it expresses the genius of the Founders with a clarity and fullness unmatched in other merely human literature.

In some cases I have considered every word in the Declaration, reflecting upon each one’s meaning within its phrase or sentence and within the entire document. Today I thought about larger elements, and found myself drawn, several times, to the third through the sixth grievances against George III, and particularly to the sixth, with the utterly fascinating phrase:

“…incapable of Annihilation…”

Without context, this phrase is perfectly meaningless, for nearly everything is, in some sense, annihilable, or at least convertible to a form having a different character, other physical qualities, etc. Having read the Declaration many times, I trust not only its veracity, but its sensibility, implicitly. Furthermore, the Founders were educated men, many of whom had read their Empedocles (“For it is impossible for anything to come to be from what is not, and it cannot be brought about or heard of that what is should be utterly destroyed”) and Epicurus (“[T]he totality of things was always such as it is now, and always will be”), and almost certainly some had encountered Lavoisier’s work in the realm of conservation of matter and energy. The Founders were not discussing chemical and physical phenomena, though; this thing that is “incapable of Annihilation” was not for them, and is not for us, an object capable of responding to force, or a force capable of exerting influence upon an object.

This thing that can not be annihilated, obliterated, destroyed utterly once and for all time, is, in fact, a combination of many elements concerning natural law, humanity, governance, and justice, all existing for the Founders as realities having a fundamental nature transcending that of mere matter and energy. The realm of discourse of the Declaration of Independence is dual, the object is singular.

Idea, the Formal Basis of the Declaration of Independence

I humbly submit that the Founders would never have approached the heights they achieved apart from their lifetimes spent in struggle with the philosophies, the informing genius, the lofty ideas, of the giants of thought on whose shoulders they most assuredly knew they stood during the late Spring and early Summer of 1776. Their education, whether in schools or otherwise, had rewarded them with foundations in the Ancients, and the Schoolmen, and the Moderns of their age. This is not to say they were all equal geniuses of thought, but rather that the fortuitous combination of their lives at that time, in that place, facing that common enemy and crisis did mold them into a political force such as the world had never before seen, and probably would never see again.

The clear language throughout the Declaration, in the English indicative mood, bespeaks a reasoned civility balanced with a firm strength of character. It is difficult to imagine this harmony occurred by sheer chance, but however it came about, the proof of its existence is in the words of the Declaration itself. The Preamble, which I take to be in two sections, is almost apologetic in its preparation of the reader for that which is to follow: “When…it becomes necessary…to separate…a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires” the kind but firm warning and challenge that will issue in the end.

With the somewhat apologetic language comes one step in the logical progression after another. “Self-evident” truths and “unalienable rights” lead directly to mankind’s place in the universe as a creature of “Nature’s God”, and thus the dependent but inherent value of humans, transcending by means of natural law any encroachment upon that truth, those rights, that value, by any government instituted by mankind; to the contrary, governments rule only “by the consent of the governed”. Because governments tend to hold the governed in low esteem, by depriving them of the means of seeking the happiness attendant upon realizing each person’s fullest potential rather than legislating or commanding that people be happy, the inevitable end of the conflict is either human slavery or human freedom. In order to be fully human, it therefore is always the right of “the people” to examine their government to determine if it is doing their will, and if it is failing in that regard, “the people” then have a duty to throw off even the accustomed and comfortable form of government and establish a “new government” they believe capable and desirous of supporting the ideals of liberty (“happiness”) and security in a perfectly balanced way.

King George III and his government having failed to meet the standard demanded by natural law, the Founders had no recourse but to follow their conscience, and that was a matter of established fact at the time, but they continued upon the path of civility and logic and set forth their grievances against the government then set over and against them. The list is twenty-seven items in length, each more serious and harmful to the common weal than those previously named, and it indeed does detail “a long train of abuses” whose end is the establishment of an “absolute tyranny” over the American Colonies of Great Britain. That list reads much more like a formal set of charges against a criminal than it does anything else, and the details become ever more tyrannical. But there is a breaking point in the list, in my mind’s eye, and that occurs in the third through the sixth grievance, wherein the detail is that the government of Great Britain, with George III at the helm, had arrogated to itself the power to annihilate that which is not annihilable: the right, under the Law of Nature and of Nature’s God, for humans to pursue happiness as they choose, and not as it is thrust upon them.

In simple terms, the 27 grievances are an indictment. The American Colonial citizens of Great Britain, acting corporately as a kind of grand jury, had produced a “true bill” of indictment against the government and King of Great Britain. In particular, since the King had illegally nullified their natural law right to self-government, they had understood correctly that the legislative power, intended to be representative, had in fact become directly the province of “the people”.

Furthermore, they had decided that their cause was anything but “light and transient”, the British crown and government were unfit to rule “a free people”, natural law and God the Lawmaker and Judge was the true source of their liberty and security, and on July 4 did declare, that they would take the matter to trial, not least on the battlefield and the high seas. In other words, they would take action commensurate with their findings and their judgment, having taken all possible steps to explain their judgment and findings to “a candid world”, and to effect that action did pledge, each and corporately, their “Lives, … Fortunes and … sacred Honor.”

Action, the Functional and Immediate Outcome of the Declaration of Independence

“The British Colonials in North America declared war against the British Empire on July 4, 1776.”

That is the popular view. It is also false. In point of fact, the war had been engaged more than a year earlier, particularly on April 19, 1775, in the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and on June 17, 1775, in the Battles of Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. These were respectively the beginning and end of significant military action during the Boston Campaign of September 1, 1774, the date of the “Powder Alarm”, through March 17, 1776, when British Troops abandoned their occupation of Boston following George III’s royal assent to the Massachusetts Government Act vacating the royal charter of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.

Patrick Henry delivered his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech to the Virginia Convention at St. John’s Church in Richmond on March 23, 1775. Here is the final paragraph of that speech, which leaves no doubt that a state of war existed long before July 4, 1776:

It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace–but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

Another commonly repeated idea is as follows:

“By proclaiming the independence of the United States of America, the Colonists became rebellious Subjects of the Crown.”

That is a similarly popular view, and it is likewise false. On August 23, 1775, George issued A Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition in response to British losses in the Battles of Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. In the text of that proclamation King George charged the colonists with “traitorously preparing, ordering and levying war against” the Crown. The official stance of the British Empire at the time the Declaration of Independence was adopted was that the Colonies had already been in a state of rebellion for more than ten months.

If war and rebellion were not the functional, structural outcomes of the Declaration, then what was it the Founders started on July 4, 1776? The answer is strikingly simple. The Founders began the long struggle to ensure that human liberty would always be framed within the lattice of Law, Reason, and Civility based upon worth naturally inherent to mankind; that human endeavor would gain benefits forever precisely because it would be forever protected from tyranny, either of an aristocracy, an oligarchy, or a bureaucracy; that the paradigm of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” would forever remain the sole pursuit of human governance.

Liberty, the Ultimate Object of the Declaration of Independence

The ultimate objective of the Founders was the continuance of liberty. Before a thing may continue in fact, it must exist in reality, and when opposition arises to this end, war is the inevitable result. During the long history of humanity, the war has raged without interruption, in one way or another, because, as the Founders knew fully well, mankind will forever partition itself into two groups: those who desire to live within a framework of respect, and righteousness, of growth and advancement, of maximal effort for maximal good; and those who desire to control and own other people. There is no other way to divide the thing.

If the Founders had left us nothing else, the Declaration of Independence would stand forever as the finest achievement of human governance. But they left us something else, of at least equal importance, and that is the legacy of their common resolve and good-will in the face of daunting and overwhelming force. That common purpose was not then, 237 years ago, a common thing, and it is likely not nearly as common today as it was then.

But there are Sons and Daughters of the Revolution, of Patrick Henry, of Thomas Jefferson, and all the others among us in these degraded times. We desire nothing more than the promise of Micah 4:4, “…but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid…” But we must remember and cherish and practice the words of our Founders in order to reach that estate in this life:

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

…with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Finally, we must remember and cherish and study the words of President Abraham Lincoln following the Battle of Gettysburg, paraphrased as follows:

We here highly resolve that [what has been is not] in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

When we have met that challenge, we will indeed have become

Incapable of Annihilation