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Steve Pincus: In moments of political bewilderment like these, it is best to return to first principles

The Declaration of Independence was Congress' first contract with America, writes Pincus

Editor’s Note: Steve Pincus is Bradford Durfee Professor of History at Yale University. He is the author of the award-winning “1688: The First Modern Revolution” (2009) and most recently “The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ case for activist government.” (2016) The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

CNN —  

At moments of bewilderment over seismic political realignments it is best to return to first principles. In the context of an earlier “seismic” moment in American history, Abraham Lincoln declared, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” But what exactly were these ideas on which the Founders constructed our new republic?

The Founders were deeply committed internationalists. “We must declare ourselves a free people” so that America could secure trade with France, insisted Benjamin Harrison of Virginia, one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. Samuel Adams of Massachusetts agreed that France would only support the American cause “if America would declare herself free and independent.”

The Founders knew that to make America great required that the new republic engage with – rather than turn away from – the Old World.

The Founders declared their commitment to the free flow of goods and people in our founding document. Far from wishing to abrogate trade agreements with foreign states, the Founders lambasted the British King George III in the Declaration of Independence for “cutting off our trade with all parts of the world.”

Benjamin Franklin was typical of those who drew up and signed the declaration in demanding a “free commerce with all the rest of the world.” Tariffs might become necessary, but only as a last resort. That is why the members of the Second Continental Congress who signed the declaration also drew up the Model Treaty to establish bilateral free trade agreements.

The patriots who founded the United States also announced their fundamental commitment to easy immigration into the new republic. In the Declaration of Independence the Founders castigated George III for endeavoring “to prevent the population of these states.”

Since 1760, they complained in our founding document, the British monarch had made immigration to America more difficult and less lucrative by “obstructing the Laws for Naturalizing Foreigners.” George III had reversed longstanding British imperial policy by “refusing to pass” laws “to encourage … migrations hither.” Arthur Lee of Virginia thought it “madness in the extreme” to try to radically restrict immigration into North America. “New settlers to America,” agreed Franklin, increased the country’s “strength.”

America’s Founders believed passionately that the government had a special role to play to secure “the unalienable rights” to equality and the “pursuit of happiness.” Statesmen – maintained the authors of “Cato’s Letters,” an oft-cited authority in colonial America – were responsible for the “wealth, security and happiness of kingdoms.”

The Connecticut patriot Levi Watson made the same point when he said “all governments must tend to promote the general welfare.” “The happiness of society is the end of government,” said John Adams, who played a significant role in drawing up the Declaration of Independence.

“The form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or in one word happiness to the greatest number of persons and in the greatest degree” was, in Adams’ view, “the best.” It was because he believed in an activist government that Adams thought Congress should “encourage arts, manufactures, and agriculture by all means in their power.” “No expense” should be spared by the state, wrote Adams in 1776, to support “the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people.”

The Declaration of Independence was Congress’ first contract with America. It established the minimal principles by which all American governments must be judged. Though there is much in our founding document that may seem irrelevant today, and there are many things that modern Americans might wish were discussed in this document that are not, our Founders did establish clear principles upon which to create a new republic.

Above all, they insisted that our newly independent republic not look inward, but that we instead reach out to foreign governments to establish a free exchange of goods and signal to potential immigrants that they would be welcome here. This internationalist outlook, our Founders believed, would make it possible to create a government that would actively promote the welfare of all its inhabitants. These principles are what made America great in the first place.

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