To Alter or Abolish – Article by Jack M. Balkin & Sanford Levinson

From Volume 89, Number 3 (March 2016)

Perhaps the most famous sentence in the Declaration of Independence, for twenty-first century readers, is its statement of the “self-evident” truth that “all Men are created equal,” and that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” which include “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Equally famous is the Declaration’s explanation that the very purpose of organized government is “to secure these [unalienable] Rights” through political forms that “deriv[e] their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” But that is not the end of the sentence. Jefferson goes on to assert that it is equally “self-evident” “[t]hat whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends”—that is, of securing unalienable rights—“it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

The notion that governments have a responsibility to protect fundamental human rights seems as self-evident to many today as it was to Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues. Around the world, people have been socialized to believe in universal human rights; Jefferson’s famous language resonates far more broadly and deeply now, in the twenty-first century, than it ever did in 1776.

But what about the rest of this famous sentence? Is it equally clear that any group that designates itself as a “People” has a self-evident right “to alter or to abolish” “any Form of Government” that it believes has become “destructive” of its rights or the rights of its members? Is it a self-evident truth that members of the public, both around the world and in the United States, have the right to overthrow their government if they feel it is not sufficiently protecting their rights? The Declaration’s use of the word “any” suggests that no government is immune from the right to alter or abolish.

The right of a people to throw off their government is not confined to a single sentence in the Declaration. The idea pervades the entire document, especially its first and last paragraphs. The first paragraph asserts that “it [has] become[] necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” The last paragraph “[d]eclare[s], [t]hat these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political Connection between them and the State of Great-Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved.”



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