By Howard Hills

Every Fourth of July we honor Thomas Jefferson as author of the Declaration of Independence ratified in 1776 at Philadelphia.  Emanating from that document was the history-shaping idea there can be no justice without consent of the people to the form of government and law we live under.

The idea of consent by the governed was institutionalized thirteen years later in 1789, through the U.S. Constitution’s allocation of power to consent among states of the union.  Consent comes by representation in Congress, Electoral College that chooses Presidents, and Supreme Court appointed by the elected President and Congress to decide what the law means.

Combining equal votes allocated to each state with additional votes apportioned by population formed a “more perfect” union that remained imperfect.   Government by consent is not a promise of perfect justice, but a calculation government by consent enables the work of making the union more perfect to go on.  Injustice has always been with us, but so has the ever more exacting demand by the people to correct injustice.

Many Americans don’t realize Thomas Jefferson didn’t return to Philadelphia for the 1887 constitutional convention.  Still, as U.S. Ambassador in Paris, Jefferson wrote to Madison in 1789 that consent of the governed was not just a mandate for populist governance, but also a call to stewardship.  Jefferson wrote “The earth belongs always to the living generation,” not merely as license to exploit resources, but also to ensure through conservation of resources and rights each succeeding generation’s freedom.

This intergenerational adaptive stewardship tradition has been at work for over a year as we adjusted to clear and present danger impacting our way of life.  We learned new ways of working, playing, being part of a community.  But that is the American way, we always are at our best not just protecting ourselves, but others as well.

The generation coming of age in the last two years will be shaped by that experience.  Just like the generation that survived the war triggered by the Declaration of Independence, the American Civil War that ended the British institution of slavery, and made Lincoln’s union more just than Jefferson’s, but the promise of justice still not fully redeemed.

Now the work of making the union more perfect must continue, and falls on the young people we mentored.  If we did our job well, they will too.

Howard Hills is former lead counsel on political status negotiations in the Executive Office of the President and Department of Defense Advisor in the National Security Council on territorial status law.   He also served as General Counsel of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, now Development Finance Corporation.  He is author of “Citizens Without A State” with foreword by former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, a new second edition of which is available at  All opinions expressed by Mr. Hills are his personal views and not those of any other person or entity, public or private.



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