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HICKS: Founding document holds lessons for today

July 2, 2011

When I graduated from college, I was handed two documents–a diploma and a commission as a second lieutenant in the Army.

This is a common enough experience, but interestingly enough, both documents contained two dates. The first was the common day and year. The second was the quaint inscription “. . . and of the Independence of the United States of America the 208th.”

This dates your columnist. It also reminds us that our independence represented a break in history that was so mightily pregnant with hope and the promise of liberty that it was widely viewed as an event from which later generations should begin their accounting of time.

In many ways, the U.S. Constitution has replaced the Declaration of Independence as our prime source of intellectual support for nationhood. That is appropriate, of course, but some key tenets of the declaration bear mentioning in these times.

It is unsurprising that of particular interest to me are the parts that bear directly on economic policy of our nation. These are embodied in that distinguished part of the declaration that explained why the colonies sought freedom. It was an invective against the policies of King George III that Mr. Jefferson ”submitted to a candid world.”

The first of the complaints was the king’s refusal to acknowledge laws that were “wholesome and necessary for the public good.” The long lapse in acknowledging local power by the king and his parliament bred into the American psyche a thirst for local government control. This idea continues to animate our federal system.

The signers of the declaration also listed the imposition of taxes without consent and for cutting off of free trade from other parts of the world. This is the material of a good public policy discussion today.

Most astonishingly, though, before Mr. Jefferson turned his pen to a discussion of taxes and the forced quartering of soldiers in private homes, and before he complained of the king’s forces plundering and burning towns, the muse of our democracy wrote about immigration policy.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence deplored King George for having “endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.”

This phrase requires a bit of explanation. Here the word ‘population’ is rendered as verb. Today, we would say that the king had prevented the states from recruiting new colonists and making them citizens. These words of our declaration provide a cold bath to my fellow citizens who oppose immigration or laws that fail to encourage “their migrations hither.”

It is well that patriots who recall the founding principles of the republic keep this one in mind, for it would be ironic if the Tea Party were to ignore so fully the words of our Declaration of Independence and so place themselves on the wrong side of history while firmly aligning their policies with those of King George III.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.
 

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