Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

"Today, the richest Americans are still standing in the way of the meaningful systemic changes necessary to ensure that life can continue for Americans in times of record wildfires, droughts, flooding and superstorms." (Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Of the Rich, By the Rich, For the Rich

"Our current situation is hardly novel, it is just the continuation of an unjust system built on a document of objective lies. 'All men' should have been replaced by 'some rich white men' and everything would have been a lot clearer."

Simon Whalley

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

These modest words, written by one of the most famous Welshmen of all time, are among the most well known in the English language. If one looks at the Declaration of Independence in a vacuum, it is impossible not to be impressed by its simple, well-crafted eloquence. It is understandable that it is, rightly so, lauded to this present day. Unfortunately, very few Americans seem to be aware of the context in which it was written and of the men who wrote it and, more importantly, why it was written.

The document, written in 1776, by 56 delegates to the Second Continental Congress is hailed as an exemplar of the weak standing up to the strong – a David versus Goliath for the eighteenth century. If this was the case, then the document would prove to be a thing of such rarified beauty as to make it beyond reproach. Unfortunately, as with most things in life, the document is hardly worth the paper it was scribbled on.

Readers may be aghast at such petulance, especially from a Welshmen, but let me explain my disdain for such reverence of one of the most popularized documents of our written history.

The philosophy behind the declaration can be traced back to the great Englishman John Locke who liked to espouse a government of the people aimed at securing life, liberty and happiness. So far, all this sounds extremely warm and fuzzy. Written in 1689, his Second Treatise on Government took aim at the tyrannical rule of kings, but it failed to take into consideration the vast differences in wealth and the effect that had on life, liberty and happiness.

The man himself was heavily involved in the slave trade and even advised the Carolinas to form a government of slaveowners run by wealthy land barons. This doesn’t sound like a man with a keen interest in life, liberty and happiness. Unless his interest was in the life, liberty and happiness of rich white men. This was a man who took umbrage at the fact children of the poor were not available to the workforce until they were twelve years old. He suggested all poor children from the age of three should attend working schools to get them used to a life of servitude. Hardly a man to offer sage advice on life, liberty and happiness.

As the declaration was being penned, riots and strikes were breaking out in England as coalminers, sawmill workers, weavers and sailors showed their displeasure at bread prices and low wages. John Locke would have had us believe that he wished freedom and happiness for all but a British member of parliament was a little more succinct when he explained that these freedoms were for the middling men of England, the manufacturer, the yeoman, the merchant, the country gentlemen, and most definitely, they were not intended for “the mob”, or you and me in today’s parlance.

In essence, these were rich landed gentry with a distaste for the powers that the kings extolled and they wanted a little bit of that power themselves.

This leads us back across the Atlantic Ocean to Boston where the declaration got its first reading. Four days later, the Boston Committee of Correspondence ordered townspeople to show up for a war draft. Much like today, the rich were exempted from the patriotism that is shoved down our throats by people who have but a shred of patriotism in their blood. They were able to pay for a poor substitute to go and risk their life, liberty and happiness in their stead. The poor showed their anger in the streets by shouting “Tyranny is tyranny, let it come from whom it may.”

The intent was never to form a government of the people, by the people, for the people. It was simply a power move by a bunch of rich white landowners unhappy at paying so much in taxes to the British crown. Interestingly, 69% of the signees had held colonial office under the English crown. This would be akin today to ministers disposing of the prime minister or president in order to assume the powers for themselves while extolling the virtues of life, liberty and happiness for all.

Fast forward to the present day and the three richest families in the United States own more wealth than 50% of the population. Many would argue that this is a modern phenomenon but during the war of independence, the richest 10% of whites held almost half the wealth of the country and held 1/7 of the population as slaves. Our current situation is hardly novel, it is just the continuation of an unjust system built on a document of objective lies. “All men” should have been replaced by “some rich white men” and everything would have been a lot clearer.

Fortunately, in the years since, women and people of colour have been offered a chance to vote on their futures, but the words are still as empty and vacuous as they have always been.

Today, the richest Americans are still standing in the way of the meaningful systemic changes necessary to ensure that life can continue for Americans in times of record wildfires, droughts, flooding and superstorms. Liberty is but a joke for 2.2 million Americans incarcerated in the world’s largest prison system. Many of these prisoners are serving time for nonviolent crimes as the richest are free to amass huge fortunes and pay nothing in the way of taxes to support the people who made them rich. As the richest Americans enjoy record tax breaks and an ever more pleasurable life of yachts and underage girls, the “mob” are suffering from record levels of depression and are dependent on drugs produced by the happy folk sitting on their billions. The number of Americans taking anti-depressants has risen 400% since the 1980s with 10% now relying on the billionaire class for a medical up lifter.

Now, this is not to depress Americans any further than the current situation already must. It is simply to offer an insight into the reason for America’s current demise. The war of Independence was not fought for the freedom and happiness of all Americans. It was a power struggle between rich white Brits unwilling to pay their share of taxes to the crown. Today, the descendants of these rich white men are still refusing to pay their share of taxes. Only this time, it isn’t to the crown. It is to the state.

If we are serious about life, liberty and happiness, maybe it’s time we forget about these colonial documents written by racist, misogynistic white men and draft new meaningful documents and create real governments of the people, by the people, for the people.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Simon Whalley

Simon Whalley

Simon Whalley is an educator in Japan, the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion Japan and the author of the upcoming book, Dear Indy: A Heartfelt Plea From a Climate Anxious Father.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

EPA Urged to 'Finish the Job' After Latest Move to Protect Bristol Bay From Pebble Mine

"Local residents, scientists, and the broader public all agree that this is quite simply a bad place for a mine, and it is past time for the EPA to take Pebble off the table permanently," said one activist in Alaska.

Jessica Corbett ·

'Zero Tolerance for Corruption': Grijalva, Porter Demand Answers on Alleged Trump Pardon Bribery Scheme

The Democrats believe a real estate developer donated to a Trump-aligned super PAC in exchange for the pardons of two other men.

Julia Conley ·

Millions of Americans Lack Adequate Health Coverage, But the Pentagon Has a New Nuclear Bomber to Flaunt

"This ominous death machine, with its price tag of $750 million a pop, brings huge profits to Northrop Grumman but takes our society one more step down the road of spiritual death," peace activist Medea Benjamin said of the new B-21 Raider.

Brett Wilkins ·

Betrayal of Railway Workers Ignites Working-Class Fury Toward Biden and Democrats

"Politicians are happy to voice platitudes and heap praise upon us for our heroism throughout the pandemic," said one rail leader. "Yet when the steel hits the rail, they back the powerful and wealthy Class 1 rail carriers every time."

Jessica Corbett ·

With GOP House Control Looming, Pascrell Calls for Swift Release of Trump Tax Records

"Donald Trump tried to hide his tax returns from our oversight but after 1,329 days we have finally obtained the documents," said the New Jersey Democrat. "We should review and release them."

Kenny Stancil ·

Common Dreams Logo