President Trump has added military flourishes to the July 4th celebrations in Washington, DC. Critics have questioned the militarization of a holiday that has traditionally foregrounded the non-martial courage of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. A group of lawyers, farmers, and merchants defied the most powerful empire in the world by producing a single sheet of paper containing a list of political grievances and a declaration of abstract philosophical principles. That document was powerful enough to channel a revolution, turn colonists into Americans, and inspire democratic movements around the world long after it was written. It has not lost that radical charge today.
But if you take the time before tomorrow’s “Bonfires and Illuminations” to read through the Declaration of Independence’s long list of abuses committed by King George III and British officials in 1776, it is impossible not to hear in those same words a ringing indictment of the Trump administration in 2019.
Here are a few of the most biting passages for modern ears:
"He [King George] has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good."
“He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.”
The complaint in 1776 was that colonial legislatures, which had become used to a relatively laissez-faire Britain regime in the mid-18th century, were increasingly frustrated by Parliament and the King overturning colonial legislation, including various currency controls as well as taxes to discourage the slave trade and the importation of convicts. The colonists saw this as a sweeping and tyrannical expansion of royal authority over against legislative authority. The King’s refusal to recognize the validity of these laws was a tacit veto, a way of bending legislatures to the King’s will on other, unrelated issues.
In the winter of 2018, Donald Trump used the threat of a veto to hold up the passage of a budget for the federal government that had initially received overwhelming bipartisan support. While Presidential vetos of appropriations bills are not novel—the first was from John Tyler in the 1840s—they have become much more frequent since the 1960s, raising questions about a growing imbalance between the legislative power of the purse and the executive obligation to enforce laws it does not like while also respecting a legislature’s decision not to pass a law. In any case, Trump turned the 2018 spending bill into a tool for bending Congress to the executive will on an unrelated issue, building a southern border wall.
"He has 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, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands."
The southern and middle colonies wanted to attract immigrants because of the shortage of labor and the desire to expand west. King George, however, worried that more migrants from other countries would weaken colonial dependence on Great Britain, further shifting the balance of political power to the colonial legislatures. As a result, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 prohibited settlement west of the Appalachian mountains (though it was often honored in the breach).
Furthermore, the colonies wanted rapid naturalization of immigrants through a process that often took less than a year with the goal of enabling immigrants to more quickly and legally hold title to land. The British naturalization system took longer, as much as seven years, and all but prohibited naturalization of foreign Catholics. Bear in mind that many recent immigrants to the colonies had come from the predominantly Catholic southern Germany. Traditional Protestant suspicion of Catholics as dangerous, unassimilable ‘others’ played an important role in the new British restrictions on colonial efforts to extend citizenship to immigrants.
One of the reasons why the Trump administration opposes immigration is the fear that migrants will support Democratic politicians rather than Republicans. Although it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, migration from Central America has indeed played an important role in turning formerly red states into blue or purple states, shifting the balance of partisan power. The GOP’s own retrospective report after the 2012 election called for the party to embrace comprehensive immigration reform or else risk political suicide as the declining party of white resentment in a majority-minority future.
Trump’s attempts to seal off the border—while they may ultimately be as futile as the Royal Proclamation of 1763—have outraged those states that have benefited the most from immigration. Indeed, the naturalization process in those states—measured by, for example, the ability to acquire legal documents like drivers’ licenses—is much quicker and more certain than the federal naturalization process.
"He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers."
As the North Carolina colony expanded, it needed to establish formal courts of law, but King George saw this as a violation of his sovereign prerogative to decide when and where courts should be established and so denied the validity of the new courts. Without courts, basic law and order suffered as a result.
President Trump has undermined the rule of law in states like Arizona by pardoning political ally and disgraced former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had been convicted of contempt of court for defying a court order prohibiting racial profiling. Trump may have tampered with witnesses including Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, and Paul Manafort by publicly hinting at the possibility of pardons in exchange for loyalty. He has used the pardon power to undermine courts that threaten him or his allies and in so doing has created a moral hazard by signaling that lawbreaking will be forgiven as long as it is in the best interests of the administration.
"He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power."
"For protecting [soldiers], by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States."
British troops stationed in the colonies were not under the control of colonial legislatures. When General Thomas Gage was appointed the military governor of the restless Massachusetts colony in 1774, he dissolved the colonial legislature entirely. Informed by that experience, civilian control of the military would be written into the US Constitution, which gave the power to declare war to Congress while making the President, an elected civilian, the commander-in-chief of wartime military forces.
Also in 1774, Parliament enacted a law requiring that soldiers or law enforcement officers accused of committing crimes be sent back for trial to England. Given the natural advantages of holding a trial in Britain for the defendants, and the difficulty of having witnesses cross the Atlantic to testify, the law made it harder to hold British officials to account. Doing so saved the British the embarrassment of having colonial courts convict British officials of crimes, but it enraged the colonists.
Today, civilian control of the military has been weakened by Trump’s appointment of four former military generals to prominent White House cabinet positions, including naming General Jim Mattis as Secretary of Defense. It is not entirely unprecedented—President Truman appointed former general George Marshall as the Secretary of Defense in 1950—but both the number of generals and the recency of their service is unusual. Making generalship a stepping stone to high, unelected civilian office could undermine the tradition of non-partisan professionalism in the officer corps and further politicize military service and policy.
Additionally, Trump recently pardoned former Lt. Michael Behenna for murdering a prisoner of war and Trump has, reportedly, considered pardons for several other alleged war criminals. Doing so signals that military service people are held to a lower legal standard than civilians and that murder will be tolerated by the commander-in-chief in order to avoid national embarassment.
"For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world."
"For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent."
After a period of salutary neglect and relative free trade in the mid-18th century, Britain began enforcing trade restrictions between the colonies and geopolitical competitors like Spain and France. The British needed tariff revenue to pay off the large national debt accrued during the Seven Years War and the economic recession that followed. Parliament had enacted several protectionist regulations in the decade and a half before 1776, placing tariffs on goods including paper, lead, paint, glass, and china as well as, eventually, granting a tax-free trade monopoly for tea to the British East India Company. Angry colonists started boycotts, famously dumped tea in Boston Harbor, and formed the Stamp Act Congress to formally protest the trade restrictions.
Trump has brought protectionist tariffs back into the political mainstream to a degree not seen since the Smoot-Hawley tariffs of 1930. In less than two years in office, Trump has unilaterally enacted new tariffs on steel, aluminum, solar panels, washing machines, video game consoles, and hundreds of other products with particular attention paid to those coming from China and the European Union, the next two largest global economies after the United States.
Tariffs are taxes that are ultimately paid by consumers. And when other countries pass retaliatory tariffs, it hurts American producers as well, like the Iowa soybean farmers who used to sell a majority of their crop to China. Furthermore, Trump raised the tariffs on steel and aluminum by abusing an old rule giving the President power to adjust tariffs on products that affect national security interests, thus allowing him to bypass Congressional consent.
"For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury."
In response to British trade restrictions, some colonial merchants began smuggling goods or finding other ways to avoid the tariffs. Those caught for such violations had previously been tried in common law criminal courts, but the British gave jurisdiction over such cases to admiralty courts, which were run by Crown-appointed judges, did not provide trial by jury, and shifted the burden of proof onto the defendant.
The Trump administration’s single-minded focus on immigration law enforcement has led to US citizens being swept up by ICE, unlawfully detained, and deported to foreign countries without due process. Despite being called “courts,” immigration courts are actually administrative hearings and are not part of the judicial system. The judges are attorneys from the Department of Justice, there are no juries, and defendants are not entitled to an attorney.
That is just a sampling of the twenty-eight specific grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence, but the Trump administration seems determined to violate the general spirit of the document as well. The Trump administration’s policies, including its Muslim ban and family separation policy, as well as Trump’s own nativist, racist, and sexist statements, stand in opposition to the preamble’s assertion that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Our founding fathers were an optimistic bunch. They thought that abstract ideas mattered, that fact-based political discourse was not only possible but persuasive, and that a nation could be founded on the not yet fully realized ideal of human liberty. Thus, it is less a reflection on them than it is on us that the final line from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence sounds so radical, so naive, and so impossible today.
"To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world."
Sydney Fisher’s article, “The Twenty-Eight Charges Against the King in the Declaration of Independence,” is old but still useful for discerning the specific motivations behind each of the charges.
If you want a history that emphasizes the transformative, radical aspects of the American Revolution, then run, don’t walk, to pick up a copy of Gordon Wood’s classic book The Radicalism of the American Revolution.