The fabulous Randy Barnett has a great post up at the Volokh Conspiracy today in which he annotates the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence. While Barnett credits the Declaration as being “powerful stuff”–which it is–his post on the topic itself inspired a few goosebumps when I read it this morning.
The one part of Barnett’s post I find lacking (or maybe stunted) is where he writes of the Declaration’s
famous reference to ‘a long train of abuses and usurpations’ and the list that follows. In some cases, these specific complaints account for provisions eventually included in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
He’s right, but by only alluding to the list that follows (and stopping his annotation short of that) he leaves readers hanging a bit. OK, maybe not all readers. But I’m the most captive of audiences when it comes to looking at the meaning and origins of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. In fact, my own ongoing research in this area looks at the many ways in which British violations of American colonists rights in food led Thomas Jefferson and his fellow signers to list the “long train of abuses and usurpations” by the British, and James Madison later to enshrine in the Bill of Rights protections of individual rights meant to stem future abuses and usurpations by the new American government.
What’s that mean, exactly? Well, in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s “long train” includes the fact the King has caused British troops to be quartered in colonial taverns and homes “to harass our people, and eat out their substance”—a direct reference to two quartering acts enacted by the British in the 1760s and 1770s. (And so yes–if you were paying attention you noted that the word “eat” appears in the Declaration of Independence.) These abominable quartering laws required colonists not just to house British troops but to provide them with certain enumerated food and drink. When James Madison later authored the Bill of Rights, he needed look back no further than the aforementioned “long train of abuses and usurpations” to be reminded that the quartering of British troops (very much including the compelled provisioning of food and drink) was one of the American colonists’ greatest grievances against the British in the period leading up to the American Revolution. Hence, the Third Amendment.
Another good example of the vital relationship between food and drink and the rights we enjoy today as Americans–also part of my research–also ties in nicely with today’s holiday. That link is the essential one between the Revolutionary- and pre-Revolutionary-era gatherings that took place in colonial American taverns and the language and spirit of the Assembly Clause. If you’d like to read my recent Hastings Constitutional Law Journal article on that topic–Tavern Talk & the Origins of the Assembly Clause–check it out here. If you’d rather crack a beer and skip to the good parts, then crack said beer and hit play to check out this new video clip in which I raise a glass to the Assembly Clause, colonial American taverns and their modern iterations, our Founding Fathers, and Independence.
Happy Independence Day, America!