By Jonathan Lange, guest columnist
The Declaration of Independence was not an exercise of raw political power. It was, rather, an assertion of principles. It had no legal standing in a British court. Nor was there any standing army to enforce it. Its only power was the power of persuasion. Its authority depended entirely on whether its words were, in fact, true.
The American colonists could have taken up arms against Britain without a single word, as Japan infamously attacked Pearl Harbor. But that would have been wrong. It is not that some international law requires insurrectionists to justify themselves in writing. It is, rather, an internal law—written on the heart. They were motivated by “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”
There is a common and universal sense of justice shared by every human being. This common sense reflects the judgment of “the Supreme Judge of the world.” The founders appealed to him to judge their actions. As Abraham Lincoln would put it decades later, “my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”
Universal truth, justice before the Supreme Judge, and respect for a common sense of these things—these are the fundamental principles of the American Republic. On this foundation America was built.
Our founders’ “respect to the opinions of mankind” was not only for foreign countries. It was primarily about American citizens. After a brief introduction, the opening words of the Declaration assert three “self-evident” truths: 1) “that all men are created equal;” 2) “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights;” 3) that “Governments… [derive] their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.”
There are two kinds of right and wrong. The first is that which is self-evident. These are universal principles that known by all through our shared humanity. The second are laws and customs that are necessary to the functioning of society but are neither universally true nor perceived by some common sense.
“Thou shalt not kill” is a principle of the first sort. “Drive on the right side of the road” is a law of the second sort. The consent of the governed bridges the gap between these two kinds of laws.
This universal principle is necessary because “all men are created equal,” and no single person, or class of persons, has an inherent right to dictate laws of the second sort. Rather, equal citizens give consent to certain representatives to negotiate such necessary but variable rules.
Power exercised without the consent of the governed is tyranny. It doesn’t matter whether that person was duly elected, fraudulently elected, or seized power by force. Elections are the usual way to determine the consent of the governed. But an election is not a substitute for that consent.
If those governed no longer consent—or never did—there may be laws that allow for a recall petition. Such is the case with Governor Newsom in California. In Wyoming there are no such laws. Is that the end of the story? Not in principle.
Principled representatives do not need to be coerced into the right thing. The right thing is to maintain the consent of the governed. This principle precedes elections and outweighs any subsequent question of policy.
Last Saturday, the GOP’s state central committee voted overwhelmingly to censure Representative Cheney and to petition her to resign. This unprecedented action seriously calls into question whether our duly elected representative still has the consent of the governed.
If the question were answered purely by the power of man-made laws, and divorced from the principles of the Republic, Cheney would simply ignore the voters of Wyoming and continue to exercise the power of her congressional seat for two more years.
But if the question is about principle, Cheney should then want to do everything in her power to ensure that Wyoming’s lone representative in Washington regains the consent of the governed. That, and only that, would constitute “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” This should be true of any representative of the people’s will—from the president on down to the precinct committeeman.
How can this principle be upheld? First, Cheney should come home and stand before her constituents. If the rightness of her stance is solid, she can confidently expect to regain the consent of her constituency. If not, resignation would be the only honorable thing to do.
Resignation would allow her to stand by her own principles while also upholding an even higher principle. By it, she could reaffirm that the consent of the governed is a principle more fundamental to the Republic than any subsequent person or policy.
Without the consent of the governed, the Republic itself will cease to exist.