The Spirit of 1773 and the Right to Local Self-Government

Thomas Linzey

In 2013, Mora County became the first U.S. county to ban oil and gas development. In January, however, the local ordinance was shot down by a U.S. District judge who ruled that the community ordinance violated oil and gas companies' corporate rights. At right is a copy of the Sheffield Declaration—in many ways a precursor to the Declaration of Independence—as printed in

The Massachusetts Spy

on January 12, 1773.

After much debate by the people of the town, Col. John Ashley, moderator of the Sheffield, Massachusetts, Town Meeting, decided it was time to call for a vote. He then watched as every person in the hall raised their hand. The Sheffield Declaration — declaring control by England over the people of Sheffield null and void — was adopted unanimously.

To the south, Richard Barry watched a similar scene unfold in Charlotte, North Carolina, as his neighbors proceeded to adopt the Charlotte Town Resolves (also known as the Mecklenburg Resolves for the county in which Charlotte sits) by unanimous vote. The Resolves declared that all laws derived from the authority of the King or Parliament are annulled and vacated.”

And so it went, as people in towns, villages and counties — more than 90 in all — collectively realized that the system of government under which they lived (which protected the rights of a few) had to be replaced by a system of government that served a much different purpose.

It was not yet 1776.

Town by town, village by village, the people of the colonies began declaring their independence from England over three years before the lofty words of the U.S. Declaration of Independence were penned by the fledgling Continental Congress. They had decided that they could not wait.

Those local Declarations shared two things in common.

First, they laid out what they believed to be the basic purpose of government and declared that English rule of the colonies failed to measure up.

The Sheffield Declaration, for example, stated that the great end of political society is to secure … those rights and privileges wherewith God and nature have made us free.” Those rights included the right to the undisturbed enjoyment of our lives, liberty and property.” Finding that the system of English rule violated — rather than protected — those rights, the people of Sheffield recognized that only their own homegrown, democratically-elected governments could constitutionally make any laws or regulations.”

The second and perhaps more surprising commonality shared by the Declarations was that they weren’t drafted by those named Adams, Warren or Hancock — but rather by the Bernards, Roots, Fellows, Austins, Alexanders, Harrisons and Smiths.

In other words, it wasn’t the Boston-based patriots who brought them forward — to whom historians tend to ascribe the moving of revolutionary heaven and earth — but rather they were advanced by regular people responding to a crisis by taking matters into their own hands. That collective local lawmaking then forced an emerging nation to choose between the old and the new.

No longer waiting for nothing to happen

Today, political, environmental and labor activists primarily work at the state, national and international levels in attempts to solve the many crises that we face.

Unfortunately, institutions at those levels have failed to take any real steps to solve the big crises because doing so would diminish the power that those institutions hold, as well as stop the largest economic actors from advancing their own interests through the use of those institutions.

And so we wait for the international community to stop global warming. We wait for our state legislatures to stop fracking communities for oil and gas. We wait for Congress to protect employee rights in the workplace and ban assault weapons. We wait for the president to stop Keystone XL. We wait for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop legalizing genetically modified foods.

We wait for someone else to protect nature against an economic engine that demands (indeed, requires) the endless production and consumption of more stuff. We vent through endless editorials, while appealing endless permits and testifying in front of microphones that aren’t even turned on.

We wait. Because that is what we have been carefully trained to do. It is what big environmental labor, and political organizations have trained us to do. It is what the corporations and our culture have trained us to do. Wait for others to come to realizations that we’ve already arrived at, and wait even longer for solutions in the face of a system that cares very little for the rest of us.

Isn’t it time to stop waiting for something that’s never going to come? In the words of Derrick Jensen—author of Endgame and The Culture of Make Believe:

When we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free — truly free — to honestly start working to resolve it. I would say that when hope dies, action begins.

Some have now grown tired of waiting for nothing to happen. And what they’ve begun to do bears a remarkable similarity to the colonial townspeople who finally gave up hoping that England would leave them alone.

Like the colonists, people in communities across the country aren’t waiting for permission from any higher” authority. And, perhaps not surprisingly, their work shares those two other common threads that joined together the ninety-plus villages and towns which adopted those early Declarations.

First, communities are calling out the current governmental system for what it is — a system that only protects the rights of a few — and are organizing to establish a new system, beginning at the local level, which operates differently. Second, those driving this new system are people that you’ve probably never heard of — they’re not the Clintons, Feinsteins or Reids — but rather names like Olivas, Norton and Martin.

Establishing a Community Bill of Rights

In 2013, the people of Mora County, New Mexico, became the first people at the county level in the United States to ban oil and gas extraction through the adoption of a new law — a community bill of rights” — that protects their right to clean air, clean water, and a sustainable energy future.

In adopting their ban, the people of Mora joined close to 200 other communities across the country that are using their cities, towns, counties, and villages to create a new system of government — one that protects the rights of everyone to an economically and environmentally sustainable community. It is one in which the people of a community have more rights than corporations and their managers, where ecosystems have rights of their own, and where local governments possess the power to protect health and safety even in the face of state legislatures whose interests lie in other directions.

And just like their colonial forebears — who didn’t seek independence through special English courts, like boards of trade — today’s communities, while hoping for courts and judges to side with them when challenges to those local laws come, are not counting on it.

Indeed, on January 19, instead of siding with the people of Mora against oil and gas interests, Judge James Browning of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico sided with Royal Dutch Shell PLC and struck down the people of Mora County’s ban on fracking. In his ruling, Judge Browning reaffirmed that state government has the final say on whether communities get fracked, and that corporations have greater rights than the people of the communities in which they do business.

In doing so, the court affirmed what many communities already know: that the existing structure of law denies our authority to decide the fate of our communities.. In doing so, it denies our communities the authority to protect our water and nature. The problem, therefore, isn’t just corporate power, it is a system of government that backs it.

In places where a critical mass of these laws have been adopted, people are now gathering across different issues to launch state organizations focused on creating a new system of law through state constitutions, and eventually, through the federal constitution. A system of law that elevates the rights of communities and nature above those of corporations and the state.

Some have described this as the next big social movement — one which occupies the law” by turning municipal lawmaking into a vehicle of social change. A movement engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience against a governmental system which increasingly cannot be distinguished from our economic system — a system in which most of us lose, and only a very few ever win.

But those who are doing the work see it more simply. Mik Robertson is Chairman of the Licking Township, Clarion County, Pennsylvania Board of Township Supervisors. At the very beginning of this movement, Licking adopted an ordinance — also the first of its kind — directly challenging corporate powers by banning the corporate dumping of sewage sludge within the township. Robertson puts it this way: People have rights and corporations don’t. What we’re looking for is individual liberty and local control.”

Perhaps that’s the Spirit of 73” we hear echoing across the centuries. It’s time we listen. It’s time we act.

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Thomas Linzey, a contributing writer to Rural America In These Times, is the executive director and co-founder of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) and serves as the organization’s chief legal counsel.
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