Two hundred and forty years ago this July 4, the world was gifted with one of the most significant political documents ever written. It began with these words:
“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…”
Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence to set out the reasons for the American people to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them” with Great Britain.
The Declaration also boldly stated:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Before the Declaration, individuals accepted that Kings would run their lives. Afterward, they realized that they could run their own lives. As more people around the world discover this fact, thank Jefferson for inspiring mankind with the ideas and ideals they can use to take their lives back from Kings.
This year, for example, the people of Great Britain have just voted to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them” with the European Union in what became known as the Brexit election. While that vote is causing political and economic uncertainty in Europe and beyond, Jefferson and America’s founders would likely understand the “causes which impel them to the separation.”
Jefferson also realized that government and society are not synonymous. He argued that government’s purpose is to protect the inalienable rights of the individuals that make up society. He understood that such rights are not granted by government; and that any rights government does claim to grant are really claims on someone else’s right to life, liberty, or property. What would he think of today’s politicians—and aspiring politicians—in Washington, D.C. and Salem, Oregon who propose law after law ordaining right after right?
Jefferson also understood that he wasn’t elected President in 1801 to “run the country.” He was elected President to run the executive branch of a limited, constitutional government that coincidently he helped to create.
As we consider candidates for state and federal executive offices this year, remember that Jefferson might tell us we aren’t voting for any of these men or women to “run the state of Oregon” or to “run the country.” We are voting for individuals to run the executive branches of limited, constitutional governments. Outside those governments’ limited responsibilities, we should be free to run our own lives.
To reinforce these concepts, why not read the Declaration again this Independence Day and consider the power it had—and still has—to change our world for the better.
Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He was named the 2016 recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Award by the Taxpayer Association of Oregon and the Oregon Executive Club.