Morgan on the Declaration of Independence, over at the Smart Set:
One of the most amazing thoughts in that most amazing of documents, the Declaration of Independence, comes in the second half of the second paragraph. The lines directly follow the more famous ones about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They address the question of (for lack of a better term) revolution. The case is stated thusly: “That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, 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.”
In essence, it argues that the American people have a right to make up a new form of government, of whatever sort they like, any time the old forms of government seem like they aren't working. Needless to say, this is an incredibly bold and incredibly dangerous proposition to put forth. Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the document, was — along with his colleagues — perfectly aware that he was opening a massive can of worms with this principle of revolution and self-rule.
That's why the next sentence in the Declaration comes right in to qualify the situation, to dampen down the radical impact of these thoughts. Jefferson writes, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” We have a right to abolish any government and to establish a new one under any principles we fancy, but it is a right that only a fool would actually exercise.
It is an almost impossibly tricky line to establish, the one between revolution and prudence.