DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE: REBELLION, OR INTERPOSITION?
July 1, 2023 | View PDF
Those who think of something more than hotdogs or fireworks on the 4th of July, generally honor the day as a patriotic holiday, the birth of American independence.
But if we believe the Bible to be the Word of God, we must ask whether the Declaration and the War for Independence which followed were consistent with the Bible. If not, can we truly celebrate Independence Day?
Romans 13:1 commands, "Let every soul be subject to the higher powers," and I Peter 2:13 enjoins us to "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether to the king, as supreme; Or to governors, as to them that are sent by him for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the praise of them that do well."
But in writing these words, Paul and Peter assumed that government commanded what was right and forbade what was wrong. What do we do when government commands what is wrong or forbids what is right? Paul and Peter were both executed by the Romans for preaching the Gospel, and when the authorities forbade the preaching of the Gospel, the apostles responded in Acts 5:29 "We ought to obey God rather than men." We see other acts of civil disobedience by the Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1 and by Daniel and his companions in Daniel 1, 3, and 6.
The Declaration of Independence, however, does not constitute civil disobedience. Rather, it fits a Biblical, legal, and constitutional doctrine known as interposition, also called the doctrine of the lesser magistrates. This doctrine holds that when a higher magistrate, such as a king or the federal government, acts in an illegal and tyrannical way, lower government officials such as nobles or members of parliament in England, or state and local governments in the United States, have a duty to oppose the higher magistrate, call upon him to change his tyrannical ways, or if that fails, remove him from office.
An example of interposition is found in II Chronicles 10. After 400 years of decentralized government under the judges, Israel demanded a king and was given a flawed but limited monarch in Saul. The power of the monarchy grew under David and grew still further under Solomon. After Solomon's death, a delegation from the ten northern tribes spoke with Solomon's son Rehoboam and promised to serve him forever if he would lower their taxes and reduce their forced labor. Rehoboam refused, and the northern tribes seceded, declaring "What portion have we in David? And we have none inheritance in the son of Jesse: every man to your tents, O Israel: and now, David, see to thine own house." (10:16) Rehoboam tried to raise an army to subdue the northern tribes, but a prophet of God named Shemaiah commanded Rehoboam to return to his land, because, the Lord said, the secession of the northern tribes "is done of me." (11:4)
Another act of interposition is found in England in AD 1215. Faced with the tyranny of the Norman King John, Archbishop Stephen Langton gathered the barons and the bishops and instructed them in the doctrine of interposition. They then drafted the Magna Charta, met King John at Runnymede, and forced him to sign this Great Charter of rights with the threat that if he did not, they would remove him from the throne. Other examples include the English Parliament's trial of King Charles I in 1649, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which led to the English Bill of Rights of 1689.
The Declaration and War of Independence were similar acts of interposition against England. The colonists believed the English king and parliament had acted toward them in a tyrannical manner by usurping the autonomy guaranteed them by their colonial charters. They argued that Parliament had no authority to tax the colonies because the colonies had no representatives in Parliament; hence their slogan, "Taxation without representation is tyranny." They tried more moderate means of redressing their grievances, such as sending the Olive Branch Petition, but England rebuffed their entreaties. So they responded with the Declaration.
One of the true masterpieces of literature, the Declaration does more than declare independence; it states the legal and philosophical case for doing so. It begins by saying we are entitled to independence by "the laws of nature and of nature's God," and then adds that "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."
The Declaration then sets forth "self-evident" truths: "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." Note that the Framers based their belief in equality on God's creation, and they believed rights come from God, not from the State. If rights come from the State, they are not unalienable rights but rather negotiable privileges, because if the State gives, the State can take away. Governments are instituted among men, not to grant rights, but to "secure" them; and "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation in such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
But has the Government of Great Britain become tyrannical? The Declaration answers, "The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world."
Then comes the next section of the Declaration: A statement of the colonists' grievances against the English government. These include violations of the colonial charters, violations of English common law, and violations of the English Bill of Rights. Some of these grievances later form the basis for some of the rights in the American Bill of Rights.
After listing these grievances, the Declaration states the colonists' efforts to redress them:
"In every stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms. Our repeated Petitions have answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people."
The Declaration then reaches its climax: "these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States." And having invoked the "laws of nature and of nature's God" and having appealed to the doctrine of Divine creation and God-given unalienable rights, the Signers appeal "to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions," affirm their "firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence," and pledge "our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."
This was not rebellion. It was an act of interposition by which the thirteen colonies seceded from England. George Washington had no intention of overthrowing King George III and enthroning himself as King George IV of England.
Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard described the War for Independence as "The Conservative American Revolution," fought "as a defensive movement to maintain the rights and liberties which the English colonists had always enjoyed, and to which they felt they were entitled." As Alexander Hamilton told a French visitor, "There have been no changes in the laws, no one's interests have been interfered with, everyone remains in his place, and all that is altered is that the seat of government is changed."
Eleven years later, delegates gathered in Independence Hall to draft a Constitution for the new nation. As the delegates exited the Hall on September 17, a woman asked Ben Franklin, "What sort of government have you given us." He answered, "A republic -- if you can keep it."
Never, in the 236 years that have followed Franklin's charge to the American people, has the American constitutional republic been in greater danger than today. May we answer Franklin and those who gave us this great heritage: We will keep the republic, and we will restore our Constitution. To this end, like them, we pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor. And we will add, as Washington did when he took the oath of office as President, "so help me God."