Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.
Boyd Matheson: Abuses of federal power, including federal overreach and over-regulation, balance of power between the legislative and executive branches, along with the issues within the judicial system are rampant. All the issues appear rooted in the neglect of the Declaration of Independence. Could rediscovering the Declaration renew the nation and restore power to the people? Utah's senior senator, Sen. Mike Lee, explores the issue on this edition of "Therefore, What?"
New York Times best-selling author, Utah's senior senator, Sen. Mike Lee, joins us to talk about his new book and many of the little-known stories behind the founders takedown of the tyrannical king and the forgotten document that created America. Senator, thanks for joining us today. So your previous book was about the lost Constitution — an area where you've spent a lot of time, spent a lot of your career defending and working through the the issues of the Constitution. And now you're taking on the Declaration of Independence Why that?
Sen. Mike Lee: The Declaration of Independence is the substance. It's the picture, if you will, if you imagine the constitution being the picture frame, the content of the picture is the Declaration of Independence. It's what we're protecting. You know, I got into this practice of writing books, telling stories about the founding era when my wife Sharon told me a few years ago, people will listen more when you talk about the Constitution if you tell it in the form of a story. So I started collecting these stories and in the process of doing this for the Constitution, I realized we're neglecting, to a very significant degree, the Declaration of Independence, which gives meaning and life to the Constitution itself. If we better understand the Declaration of Independence we'll be in a better position to protect the Constitution.
BM: You know, I think that's so fascinating because I don't think a lot of people think about the Declaration other than on the Fourth of July, and they really think of it just as this launching document as opposed to really the heart and soul of the picture kind of document.
ML: Yeah, that's right. As I pointed out in "Our Lost Declaration," there are a few parts to this Declaration that are independent. The first section of it talks about the rights of human beings, that there are certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If they exist, they're granted to us by God, they exist without regard to any government's recognition of them. And it points out that human beings have a fundamental right to alter or abolish any form of government that doesn't respect those things. And so that by itself tells us something about the nature of government, and about the risk of abuse of government, a topic then discussed in the next section of the Declaration, which is what I call the indictment against King George III. Listing the abuses of government power that he had visited on the American people.
BM: So as you look at that, I think a lot of people — to me, it's just stunning that here the bulk of the document really is kind of the list of grievances that we'll talk about in a minute. But I do find it just remarkable that in a document that is really declaring that independence, that is listing all the reasons why, it's really a grievance document, and yet, there is housed in there that critical sentence that "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." That really wasn't an accident by (Thomas) Jefferson, was it? It really is the heart of the document.
ML: Yep, it was not an accident at all. It was the heart of the document. It's part of what helped set up and make meaningful that list of grievances against King George III. If people really didn't have those freestanding rights, if they hadn't been granted those by Almighty God, if those didn't exist in a state of nature without any government recognizing them, then the bad things King George had done wouldn't be as meaningful. They wouldn't necessarily justify the extraordinary remedy that was undertaken there, whereby we became our own country, and we severed all political bonds and ties with the mother country.
BM: So as you talk about some of these stories, that connect us to the Declaration of Independence, share with us one of those that maybe caught you first, what was one of those genesis stories as you began this project?
ML: The story of Thomas Paine is one that I find especially compelling. Thomas Paine was raised in England, and he immigrated to the United States as an adult with the encouragement of Benjamin Franklin. And he endured this awful journey, that I describe in the book, across the Atlantic. At times I imagine how he must have wondered what on earth have I gotten myself into? But as a child, he had seen the abuses of the government in England by the king and his ministers. He remembered a place near his home where routine public executions were carried out, where men were hanged, where women were often stoned to death. And where enemies of the crown were routinely punished. Thomas Paine learned to hate this kind of oppression. And it's one of the things that prompted him not only to move to America, but later after moving here, to author what was at its time, the best-selling book basically ever, on any topic even remotely related to government. When he published "Common Sense," he was giving voice to what Americans were already feeling, and these thoughts that had been the natural outgrowth of the Scottish Enlightenment. But he did so in plain-spoken terms that caused people to feel very deeply and eminently the needs to separate from Great Britain.
BM: So in many ways he really was the original populist.
ML: He was, he was the original populist. He was also someone who popularized the idea of liberty and the idea that we should declare ourselves independent. The idea that it was silly to give unfettered, limitless discretion to a king who acquired his title not by the choosing of the people, but by his own ancestry over which he had no control. This was an idea that was regarded by many as radical at the time and yet it caught fire. This was like striking a match and dropping it on a vast field of dry tinder. It caught fire and it's part of what gave rise to the American Revolution.
BM: So can you compare for us the populism of a Thomas Paine, compared to — we seem to have lost this authentic populism. And a lot of what we see today seems to be just more light the match but don't be responsible for anything else. It's a populism against as opposed to this transitional of against this but for that. What did you see in your study on that?
ML: Well, I think one of the things that Thomas Paine recognized that was so compelling to the American people, and that people have found compelling since then, is the fact that we don't really need a government to define us. We shouldn't be dependent upon any king, or any king-like power for our own happiness. And in fact, bad things happen when people regard themselves as subjects rather than citizens. Bad things happen when those controlling the levers of government power have no accountability to the people, and will simply state, as was the case with the English monarchs, that they were divinely appointed, that they had some sort of divine authority from God to rule and reign at their discretion. That kind of thinking is disruptive. Now, we don't face that today. We don't have a monarchy today. We don't have a government that overtly claims to be acting in every instance on behalf of God. But there are growing elements within our society that would have us believe that the expansion of government power, especially at the federal level, is more or less an unmitigated good. That's a dangerous notion, one that usually leads to a lot of people getting hurt, or worse. And those people tend not to be the wealthy and well-connected. They tend normally to be the poor and middle class of any society. It's one of the reasons why Thomas Paine's message is still very relevant in our time.
BM: I know one of the things that you have talked about a great deal during your time in office is a Lincoln quote in terms of, what is the role of government? And it seems that Thomas Paine was sort of tapping into that same feeling of there is a role, but it's really just that fair chance and equal start for everybody.
ML: Yeah, that's right. Lincoln referred to the fact that the job of government to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for mankind to afford all, an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life. That's consistent with the message of Thomas Paine in "Common Sense" and consistent with the message of hope and of trust in the dignity of the individual human soul that was embodied in the Declaration of Independence.
BM: So I want to shift now to Edmund Randolph, a lesser-known for a lot of citizens around the country in terms of his role, where he came from. Tell us a little bit of his story.
ML: Yeah, Edmond Randolph certainly played an important role in the American Revolution. And he's someone whose story is largely been forgotten. He was someone who really helped to propel the American Revolution forward by defying his own family, a loyalist family, and by serving in the Virginia Convention that voted to declare independence from Great Britain. This was not without risk to Mr. Randolph or to his family, but it was something that he did for a greater cause, for a greater good, and we should be grateful for him.
BM: Really, as you look at a lot of those founders, when they said they were willing to pledge their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honors, that was not a lip service statement by any stretch of the imagination.
ML: No, no, it wasn't. In fact, if anything, it was an understatement. They knew they were putting their own lives at risk. This was not simply a matter of what would today be analogous to opposing someone's election. This was treason. And treason then, as now, is punishable with the death penalty. And it was likely to occur swiftly and mercilessly, not only for the individuals involved, but in many cases, for their family members. It would likely result in the confiscation of property and the end of their own lives and that of beloved family members. So this was hardly a lighthearted thing they were doing. Some of them would joke to each other about who would die first in a hanging. And it's a reminder of the fact that there's a pretty big sacrifice they were taking on.
BM: So let's talk for a minute about Thomas Jefferson. Obviously, he's a better known of the founders and obviously a critical player. But you spend some time in the book talking about his own kind of health crisis and some of the things that may have ultimately prevented him from playing a signature role in the Revolution.
ML: Yeah, he struggled with a lot of things, having lost his wife at a fairly young age and he also had some health challenges, including severe headaches that plagued him for much of his life. And, you know, for a man with such an encyclopedic knowledge of history and of law and of architecture, and of so many things, he was a renaissance man, in every sense of the word, Thomas Jefferson struggled because of some of these health challenges. And it's really quite amazing that he was able to accomplish what he accomplished, notwithstanding those ailments and those trials.
BM: So let's look at some of the application portions of this now. You start with a little bit of this premise in terms of these abuses of federal power, overreach, over-regulation, all kinds of issues between the balance of power, between Congress abdicating power to the executive branch, the executive branch doing things by decree, and then heading to the courts for them to solve the problems. How does the Declaration help us get back to a more healthy space in terms of the federal government?
ML: The Declaration of Independence reminds us of the fact that the government works for us, not the other way around. That the government is there to protect our inherent rights and to respect our inherent dignity as human beings. That each and every human soul matters, and that our rights and our dignity have nothing to do with the benevolence of any government or any government official. And when we see government that way, it has the ability to change what we use government for. When it changes in that way, we can help ourselves avoid the risk associated with the accumulation of power in the hands of the few. There's a lot less of a danger of people getting killed by government, having their property taken, having their liberty restrained by government when there is a widespread societal understanding and acceptance of the fact that people have inherent rights. Those rights exist separate and apart from any government structure. The government's there to protect those rights, not erode them.
BM: You've been a long proponent proponent of federalism. I think you are the owner of the original "make federalism sexy" again T-shirt brand. But for the average person, who when they hear federalism, they're not quite sure if it's legal, or what it means, or if it means more government or less government. How do we get to that federalism? What does it really mean? What's the application of federalism today?
ML: The best way to describe it is it reminds us to govern locally, govern at the most local level possible and appropriate for the circumstances. There are some things that are distinctively and unavoidably national. National defense is one of them, laws governing immigration and naturalization are another. Laws governing trade policy, trade or commerce between the states and with foreign nations. Those by their very nature are national issues. It's one of the reasons why the Constitution renders them national. But there are a lot of other areas, and by operation of the 10th Amendment, every other prerogative of government, if not made federal by the Constitution, is supposed to be handled at the state level. That's really what federalism means. And even though there's not an easy, simple way of explaining it, the concept itself is pretty simple. Keep it local, keep it close to you. If you're a liberal Democrat, that may well mean that if most of the people in your state and your community want a single-payer, government-run, government funded health care system, respecting and honoring federalism might actually help you get to that point. If you want more of a free market system, more people are more likely to have access to that sort of thing, when they desire it, through a system that doesn't federalize every power. That's what we need to return to. And that really is the natural outgrowth of the American Revolution and the natural message of the Declaration of Independence.
BM: Senator, you've become known in the senate as one of the great policy minds and one of the great policy thinkers. I think one of the underappreciated gifts that you take to the senate is that you are a voracious learner, that you are constantly challenging your own assumptions, learning new things, which I think has led you to a lot of bipartisan work, because you're always open to that learning, whether it's tag teaming with Dick Durbin and Cory Booker on criminal justice reform, or working with Bernie Sanders on a Yemen resolution. You have that ability to learn. So as you went through this process, as you looked at the Declaration, as you looked at these lost stories from the Declaration, what did you learn?
ML: I learned a lot about the fact that the sacrifices made by these Americans that made this document possible, really were significant. Always been taught that, instinctively I always knew it growing up, but I think I've failed to appreciate the extent to which these people really were putting it all on the line. And the extent to which the threat from George III and those close to him was something that these signers of the Declaration of Independence felt at every moment while they were going through this process. This was a long bomb, Hail Mary pass that they know would result in the end of their lives if they weren't careful. And my heart goes out to them, even 2 1/2 centuries later we should be grateful to them.
BM: As you went through that whole process again, you're a longtime study and student of history. Did anything surprise you about the founders or about the Declaration as you took this deep dive?
ML: Yeah, I was somewhat surprised to discover the extent to which Jefferson had fought to abolish slavery throughout his lifetime. As I researched this, I learned not only did he try to get rid of slavery in his initial drafts of the Declaration of Independence, drafts that were later edited out and watered down, drafts that ultimately culminated in a document that itself sowed the seeds for the elimination of slavery. But also that early in his legislative career back in his 1820s, while he was serving in the Colonial Legislature of Virginia, he tried even then to get rid of slavery. Now this is full of paradoxes and contradictions. And I understand the fact that he still, through his actions, sent a very different signal. He didn't get rid of his own slaves, he didn't even make arrangements for them to be freed after his death, as Washington did, after Washington and his wife had died. But there's still something quite significant and admirable in its own way about the fact that Jefferson acknowledged that slavery was wrong. Now, I wish he had done more. I wish he had freed his slaves in his lifetime, I think that would have propelled the cause that much more. But I was somewhat surprised to learn the extent to which he had quite aggressively advocated from an early age for the abolition of slavery.
BM: Fantastic. We have just a few moments left here, and I want to ask you two questions. The first has to do with the one of the chapters in your book, it's called "A Revolution in the Minds of the People." So often when we think of the revolution, we think of the the military battles, and the Minutemen, and all of those things, but you're talking about something a little different when you talk about the revolution in the minds of the people.
ML: Yeah, remember that at the time at the Revolution, it's often said that about a third of Americans were supportive of independence. About a third were loyal to the crown, and didn't really want anything to do with independence. And about a third were somewhat undecided. As Thomas Paine came along and published his masterpiece, "Common Sense," initially without his own name attached to it, and with great urging by Paine to his publisher for them to do it. The publisher, by the way, required all kinds of concessions on the part of Paine before publishing that pamphlet, because the publisher understood that there were great risks even to the publisher for doing it. This helped bring about a change in the way the American people thought about their government, by asking a series of questions about why they should continue to defer to a king whose only qualification was that of an inherited title. He helped bring about a massive change in the way the American people thought, and in the process he helped allow them to think of themselves not just as British subjects, but as Americans. That made the revolution possible, and it allowed the Declaration of Independence to stick.
BM: Fantastic. All right, senator, it is the portion of the program, it is called "Therefore, What?" and so it's time for "Therefore, What?" People have been listening for 20 minutes now, they're going to read your book, "The Lost Declaration." What's the "Therefore, What?" What do you hope people think different? What do you hope they do different as a result of this work?
ML: What I hope they will do is help to inject the language of liberty into their political conversations. I want it to affect not only the way they vote, but the way they communicate with friends, family members and co-workers about the purpose of government, about the limitations inherent in government itself. And yes, the risks associated with government. Sometimes when we view government, especially when we see a national problem, our impulse is to look for what kinds of solutions could be brought about legislatively at a national level. I'd encourage people to remember that Congress has an institutional approval rating that hovers between 9 and 11 percent. It doesn't bode well for why it is that we should continue to trust Washington, D.C., with solving many of our most vexing problems. I want them to ask the question why? We no longer have to ask the question, why do we have a king, because we don't have a king. But we have to ask the question of why do we give this much power to a government that is itself this unpopular? To a government that itself is so flawed it has acquired $22 trillion in debt, and imposes $2 trillion in regulatory compliance costs on the American people every year? If we start asking the question why in our conversations about government and about politics, that'll change the way people vote. You do that, you can change America.24 comments on this story
BM: All right, Sen. Mike Lee. The book is "Our Lost Declaration: America's Fight Against Tyranny from King George to the Deep State." It's a great read. By rediscovering the declaration, is the premise, that we can remind our leaders in Washington, D.C., that they serve us and not the other way around. Sen. Lee, thanks so much for joining us today. Remember after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate have been had the question for all of us is "Therefore, What?" Don't miss an episode, subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you're listening today. And be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on Deseretnews.com/Tw and subscribe to our newsletter. This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News. Thanks for engaging with us on "Therefore, What?"