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Tyranny and despotism

In this video, Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson talks to Sal about  the Declaration of Independence. Created by Sal Khan and Aspen Institute.

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Video transcript

Man 1: We've been discussing this amazing second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. We've gotten through what passes for the first two sentences. They use all sorts of weird punctuation here. Now they're going on to say, "That whenever any form "of government becomes destructive of these ends, "it's the right of the people to alter or abolish it "and to institute new government, laying its foundation "on such principles as organizing its powers "in such forms as to them shall seem most likely "to affect their safety and happiness." Man 2: Just to make sure I, because they're writing in a very - Man 1: They get a bit ornate in this (crosstalk) They edit that first sentence a whole lot, so it's very clear, but this sentence is a little bit ornate. Man 2: When they write, "That whenever any form "of government becomes destructive of these ends," they're talking again of the life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Man 1: Right. (crosstalk) In other words, if you have a king who's taken away people's life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is, they're talking about the English government, not just the Parliament, but the king now has become destructive of these unalienable rights that we're supposed to protect. Man 2: Yeah and that we then form a new government to affect their safety and happiness. Man 1: Right, but most importantly, it's the right of the people to alter or abolish it. In other words, they're saying something that has not yet been quite accepted by history, which is if you're a people and you don't like your government, you can overthrow it. We hadn't had that many revolutions in the past 200 years leading up to that and this is the beginning of an age of revolution, where people say, "Oh yeah, we have the right "to abolish our government." Woah, that's a holy cow. Man 2: It's the people doing it, not another king, not another ruler. That's most of history, is other kings. Man 1: Exactly, most of history, for the 100 years leading up to this document, France and England have been fighting each other. The kings of England have been trying to supplant the kings of France and there's been a 100 Years War, it's been ... The American Revolution's sort of a part of that, but something different happens here. It's not one king trying to overthrow another king, it's the right of the people to abolish and institute a new government to protect their own safety and happiness. The next sentence, "Prudence, indeed, will dictate "that governments long established should not "be changed for light and transient causes." That, basically, is saying you shouldn't go around doing this all the time. You have to have a really, really good reason, because it's not as if just because you're kind of annoyed at your government you should overthrow it. This is why they have a pretty long document ahead of them. This is just the first two paragraphs. Man 2: This is important. I guess, from my (unintelligible) of what this whole document is for. This is to communicate with the rest of the world and as you mentioned, also France, that look, we're not crazy folks here. We recognize this is a serious thing we're doing. We don't take this lightly. Man 1: That's what this sentence says exactly, which is you shouldn't do it just for light and transient causes. We're going to have to show you that we've got some real good reasons to do it. That's what it goes on to say. Especially like, "while evils are sufferable "than to right themselves by abolishing the forms "to which they are accustomed." In other words, these are powerful words saying that these are the type of things you really have to raise up arms against. Then, let's go to this sentence. Oh sorry. Man 2: I find this one really interesting. It's kind of a less famous part of it, but it says, "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." It's really saying that, normally, men, even when their rights start to get imposed, they just - Man 1: Go along with it. Man 2: It's kind of like a frog in boiling water. They just live with it, but when it gets too bad ... Man 1: Yeah, that's when you have to take up arms. You're right, the whole point of that is that experience has shown we kind of just go along with bad kings, just like we go along with good kings. This is special, this is different, what they're saying and that's why they start the next sentence with the word "But". It's sort of the, "but this is different," sentence. Why is it different? "But when a long train of abuses and usurpation ..." Usurpation means they're taking away our powers. "... Pursuing invariably the same object evinces a desire "to reduce them under absolute despotism." In other words, what's happened is the king and his parliament have decided to reduce it so that they have all the powers. They're taxing without our consent, they're doing all sorts of things. They're quartering troops in our homes. That's when it goes on to say, "it is their right." In other words, the right of our people. "... it is their duty to throw off such government "and to provide new guards for their future security." Think about that. How often had that been happening before? Man 2: Yeah, especially for the people to do it. Man 1: Right. We very rarely have had a people-led rebellion to say you've usurped. There's usurpation. You've usurped our rights. There's been a long train of abuses and you've reduced us to absolute despotism. Actually, Jefferson, when he writes that phrase, has an even grander phrases (unintelligible) everything else and Franklin says, "I think we're going a bit overboard here. "Let's just 'say reduce them under absolute despotism'," which means you've taken away all our rights. You've become a despot. Man 2: Yeah. Man 1: Then it goes on to say, "Such has been "the patient sufferance of these colonies." In other words, we've been pretty patient up until now. You put on a tea tax, you put on a paper tax, you put on a stamp act, taxation without representation. You haven't allowed us to be part of the Parliament, voting on our own taxes. We've been pretty patient of these things "and such is now the necessity which constrains them," meaning constrains us, the people of the United States, "to alter their former systems of government," and now is when they set up what is going to be the rest of the document. They attack the king. The history of the present king of Great Britain. We have him up there, George III, there he is. Looking kind of nice, like (crosstalk) He looks definitely like a royal person, but the history of this present king of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations. " ... all having in direct object the establishment "of an absolute tyranny over these states." You know what? I think they were overstating it a bit. I'm not trying to be kind to King George here, but what they did is they tax the tea, they tax the stamp, they were using the tax revenues to help support the colonies. I think Parliament felt that you could argue a little bit that we're taxing without getting your consent, but I think they would say, "Hey, wait, absolute tyranny? "Repeated injuries and usurpation?" They're going too far and there was a lot of people, at least half the people in the colonies, that kind of agreed with the English. They were still loyal. So, what they do, Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams, and the people writing this, is they say, "We're going to have to show you why we're using "this strong language." It's a wonderful sentence to me. "To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world." That's what this declaration is. We're going to give you all the facts and try to prove it's been absolute tyranny that we've been suffering and they worked themselves up into convincing themselves and probably the rest of history. Man 2: And to be fair to them, probably in 1774, or even March of 1775, they might have felt like that, but there was bloodshed now. People have been killed and now, of course, people are going to be much more passionate about the situation. Man 1: I guess you could sense it in your own sense of history. Once people start fighting, they get themselves a bit worked up. Man 2: Absolutely and it's British troops on American soil. It's American families, American fathers who are dying. That's how I can imagine they would start to see these things. Man 1: Right. It starts to get out of hand without their intention. The continental congress didn't declare war back in 1775. You have a bunch of militia people in Lexington and Concord getting all riled up by Paul Revere, because the British are coming to take some of the munitions out of the arsenals in Lexington and Concord. He's riding and saying the British are coming and then the militiamen come out and suddenly, up in Massachusetts, this revolution that even most of the people in the continental congress weren't quite ready for, has begun to happen and ... (crosstalk) Man 2: After this, they go on and list. Man 1: That's the rest of the document. The rest of the Declaration is just line after line of the king has done this, the king has done that, and most importantly, as you see in this, the history of the present king of Great Britain, they're revolting now against the king, not just the Parliament that has voted these taxes, but they're saying it's the king himself that we're rebelling against and that's what made it a true revolution, rather than just trying to get rid of the Parliament, which is temporary. Man 2: Fascinating.