July 4, 1776: the Declaration of Independence — by Wolf Howling
Happy Fourth of July.
On this day, in 1776, our Founders passed The Declaration of Independence, severing ties with Great Britain and announcing the birth of a new nation. The American colonists were then in the midst of a war that would see battles in all thirteen colonies, with the outcome of the war very much in doubt right up until victory came in the aftermath of British General Cornwallis’s Surrender at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781. From the British perspective, the American Revolution ignited aworld war with France, Spain and Holland that would not end until 1782.
The American Revolution began in 1761, when British officials began a corrupt, concerted and heavy handed effort to end smuggling and increase revenues in the colonies, with these efforts falling hardest in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The first overt act of war did not take place until 1774, when Britain, bent on punishing all of Boston for the Boston Tea Party, established a complete naval blockade of Boston’s harbor. The actual shooting war began in April, 1775, when the British tried to disarm the patriots at Concord, Massachusetts. A second battle had taken place in June, 1775 when the colonists pre-empted a British attack by occupying Breeds Hill overlooking Boston, in what would later be called, incorrectly, the Battle of Bunker Hill.
And yet, it was by no means clear, until July 2, 1776 that the colonists would declare themselves independent of Britain. When the Second Continental Congress convened in May, 1775, the colonists still saw themselves as loyal citizens of Britain and their individual colonies. They had no desire to permanently join together the thirteen colonies. The colonies united simply for defense; the clear goal otherwise was not independence, but a return to the pre-1761 relationship that the individual colonies enjoyed with Britain.
In the end, it was not the colonists who declared war on Britain and started a revolution in the lead-up to 4 July, 1776; it was the other way around. For over a decade, Britain had been passing ever more draconian laws and taxes which would have had the effect, if meekly accepted, of stripping from the colonists all of the rights enjoyed by British citizens living in Britain proper. Then, in the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party, it was King George himself who decided that “blows should decide the issue.” It was the King of Britain who declared the colonies to be in a state of rebellion, who sent the largest expeditionary force of the 18th century to the colonies to establish military rule, who authorized a naval war on the colonies, and who resolutely refused all formal entreaties from the colonists to engage in peaceful discussions. It was Britain’s forces in the colonies that, by July 1776, had started the shooting war by forcing the colonist’s hand at Lexington and Concord and had committed acts of pure terrorism in the attacks on civilian targets, including the burning of Falmouth. It was the British officials in the colonies who had allied with the Indians to attack the colonists from the west, and it was these same officials that sought to use slaves as a military force against the colonies.
What the colonists were willing to fight and die for was not some new concept of freedom or rights, but rather the ancient rights of British citizens won over half a millenia and enumerated in such documents as the Magna Carta (1215), The Petition of Right (1628), and the English Bill of Rights of 1689. Indeed, that last document was written to establish once and forever the rights of Englishmen after a brutal civil war in Britain that saw with the execution of King Charles I in 1649, and then a second, bloodless revolution that toppled King James II in 1688.
The ideological case for declaring independence was made to the colonists by Thomas Paine in a pamphlet published in January, 1776, Common Sense. It was, relative to population, the greatest selling piece of literature but for the Bible in all of our nation’s history before or since. Incredibly influential in moving public opinion towards accepting the creation of a new and independent America, it timely set the stage for the Second Continental Congress to consider the issue in June, 1776.
When the Congress took up the issue, the strongest argument for declaring independence was purely pragmatic — the colonists needed allies and assistance if they were to win, or at least not be conquered, in a war with Britain. France, Britain’s greatest enemy, was the most likely candidate for an alliance, but France would never ally with the colonists if the colonists’ intention was to return to the British fold. In June, 1776, the Virginia delegation submitted a resolution to the Second Continental Congress, stating that Britain had severed all ties with her colonies and declared war, and that the colonies should declare themselves independent. The resolution met with opposition from five colonies and the motion was tabled, though a committee of five, and ultimately Thomas Jefferson himself, was tasked with drawing up a Declaration of Independence for consideration. The purpose of the document was not merely to declare the colonies independent of Britain, but to justify and explain to the world why this declaration was necessary.
Deciding to approve this Declaration of Independence came with extreme personal risk for the members of the Second Continental Congress. They were among the richest and most successful men in the colonies. They were virtually assured of being executed if the revolution failed — and the odds of the revolution succeeding were not great. When they wrote, as the last line of the Declaration of Independence, that, “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor,” that was not fluff. And Britain’s punishment for treason at the time was not mere hanging, but the gruesome torture of being hung, drawn and quartered.
On July 1, 1776, the Continental Congress again voted on whether to declare independence. This time, only two colonies voted against it, South Carolina and Pennsylvania. After a day of debates, a vote was held again on 2 July, 1776, and the colonists agreed unanimously – but for New York whose delegates were still waiting on their orders – that independence should be declared. For the next two days, Congressmen debated Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence and edited it near ninety times. And on the fourth of July, 1776, they voted to approve the edited version of the Declaration of Independence and sent it to the printers. It was a positive and pivotal day in world history. It was also the zenith of perhaps the greatest era of civilization, the Age of Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson’s preamble in the Declaration of Independence perfectly captured the ideals of the Enlightenment, and it was the only part of the document not edited by the other members of Congress.
Here is the text of the Declaration of Independence. You will note that text includes dashes. These were put in the original by the Continental Congress with the expectation that the Declaration was a document that would be read to large groups of citizens. They were suggestions for where the person reading the document out loud should pause. I have added some additional formatting for ease of reading I have also taken the liberty, in parentheticals, to identify the events to which Thomas Jefferson was likely referring in his list of grievances. Below the text of the Declaration of Independence are two article discussing and analyzing Jefferson’s famous preamble:
IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
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 to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
–That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the 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. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
[According to U.S. History.org, Jefferson is referring here to the refusal of the King to allow westward expansion after the Royal Proclamation of 1763. A more likely explanation from Claremont is that this is a generic complaint against the King for retaining power to veto duly passed local laws and, in particular, the King’s continuing veto of laws passed by Pennsylvania to restrict the slave trade in that colony. ]
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
[U.S. History.org: “In 1764, New York wanted to pass a law to include the Indian tribes, particularly the Six Nations, among the colonies. British Governor Colden agreed privately, but the King sent back instructions to all his governors to stop pursuing this notion until further notice. The colonists waited, but the King “utterly neglected to attend to them.”]
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
[This refers to the 1774 Quebec Act, that ignored the complaints of British citizens living in Canada and did away with representative government there, establishing in its place a legislative council appointed by the King. ]
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
[The Boston Port Act, part of the Intolerable Acts designed to punish Boston and the colony of Masachusetts after the Tea Party, provided in part that the legislature of Massachusetts Bay Colony would, in the future, meet in Salem, not Boston. Similar events happened in Virginia and South Carolina as Royal Governors tried to disrupt intransigent legislatures.]
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
[In 1768 and 69, Britain’s colonial Secretary ordered all legislatures be dissolved if they adopted the Mass. Circular Letter seeking to unify the colonies and petition the government to rescind the Townshend Acts as unconstitutional. It also refers to the Massachusetts Government Act of 1774, part of the Intolerable Acts, that functionally ended representative government in Massachusetts. The royal legislatures of the colonies were dissolved individually by the Royal Governors, most in 1775, as they lost control of each colony to the patriots.]
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
[Britain’s practice of dissolving colonial legislative bodies was meant to stop troublesome legislatures and prevent them from conducting the jobs they were elected to do. Though complaining of this practice, this indictment also states the principle that the source of all local law is the people, not the King, and that such dissolutions has among its effects an abrogation of the sovereign’s fundamental duties to defend the colony and maintain the peace. ]
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
[See British Nationality Laws in the American Colonies. This was a minor source of irritation between the colonies and Parliament.]
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
[According to Claremont, this refers to the difficulty the colonies experienced in getting the Board of Trade to approve election districts, judicial bodies and administrative bodies for numerous new communities forming in their “back country.” In SC and NC, this occurred because people in the Board of Trade had a financial interest in the Court fees that accrued in existing courts, which fees would have been diluted had the Board approved creation of new courts. It led to the vigilante Regulator Movement in NC and SC. ]
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
[Assuring an independent judiciary was an important theme in British history from the 15th to 18th centuries. It was solved in 1701 by The Act Of Settlement which provided that judges had tenure, subject only to recall by Parliament for cause. But Parliament passed a law in 1761 providing that judges in the colonies, most often appointed from among the local populace, served solely at the King’s pleasure and could be removed from office at any time for any reason.]
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
[This was a very significant cause of the revolution. Beginning with provisions of the Sugar Act of 1764, Britain severely burdened American commerce in an effort to raise revenue and stop smuggling. Parliament significantly increased the number of customs agents in the colonies and gave these agents, as well as judges in the Admiralty Courts and Royal Governors, a large financial stake in increasing administrative fees and prosecutions for smuggling. The end result was a very abusive and corrupt system that made a mockery of the law and British rights.]
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
[In the 18th century, people were very distrustful of standing Armies as history, from the time of Julius Caesar to Oliver Cromwell, showed that standing armies were always a threat to civilian governments. Indeed, prohibitions against standing armies and forced quartering of armies both appear in the Bill of Rights of 1689. Yet in 1763, after the French Indian War, Britain opted to maintain an army of 10,000 men in the American colonies, ostensibly to protect against Indians. Colonists objected to the standing army, which they did not see as necessary, and strongly objected to being forced by Parliament to bear part of the cost and maintenance of the army.]
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
[This begins a series of charges against Parliament, for passing legislation effecting and taxing colonists directly, and against the King for his role in approving their laws. The colonists were not represented in Parliament and most colonies, by their charters, had been given the sole right to raise taxes and pass laws locally applicable. When Parliament began impinging on those rights and legislating laws on behalf of the colonists without their consent, this became the rallying cry of the colonists.]
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
[Quartering Act of 1765 and the Quartering Act of 1774, the latter of which was part of the Intolerable Acts and which authorized, in certain cases, forced quartering of British soldiers on private property.]
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
[This refers to Administration of Justice Act, also part of theIntolerable Acts, allowed Royal Governors to direct that trials brought against British soldiers and officers for crimes they committed in the colonies be moved to Britain. This would have placed such a burden on local witnesses to spend months travelling to and from Britain, as well as attending trial, all with no compensation other than travel expenses, that it effectively placed British soldiers and officers outside of the law. In addition, in 1773, a customs official was convicted of a local jury in Boston for the murder of 11 year old Christopher Seider when the official fired his gun directly into the middle of a crowd to disperse them. King George III immediately granted the murderer a full pardon.]
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
[Britain’s mercantilist system of trade long restricted the colonies ability to trade with any nation but Britain for important exports and imports. This was not contested by the colonists but for imports of molasses and tea. This indictment to the Restraining Acts of 1775 and the Prohibitory Acts two punitive provisions passed by Britain to break the economic back of those colonies that adopted an embargo against British trade over the Intolerable Acts. The Prohibitory Act went further, declaring the colonies to be in a state of rebellion. It amounted to a declaration of war and authorized a total blockade of the colonies. ]
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
[Stamp Act of 1765; Townshend Acts of 1767, Tea Act of 1773]
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
[In 1764, with the Sugar Act, Britain began using Admiralty Courts to hear criminal and civil cases involving smuggling. These courts were a mockery of British Rights. Cases were heard and decided by a single judge with no jury. A defendant was presumed guilty and had to prove his innocence. Standards for admitting evidence were much lower than in normal courts. There was no right to confront witnesses. And to make it completely corrupt, Admiralty Court judges received commissions based on the value of ships and trade goods they ordered forfeit. ]
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
[This likely refers to two policies. A provision of the Sugar Act allowed a British official to direct that a trial for smuggling be held not in the local Admiralty Court, where the judge would have been a colonist, but in the Vice Admiralty Court that sat in Nova Scotia with a judge appointed directly by the King. The second policy was one proclaimed by Britain but never put into effect. In 1768, the British Secretary for the colonies charged that the attempt, through the Massachusetts Circular Letter, to unify the colonies in peaceful opposition to the Townshend Acts amounted to high treason. Referring to a long outdated law passed under the reign of Henry VIII, Britain claimed the right to bring any colonist to Britain to be tried for a crime amounting to high treason. The colonists strenuously objected to this law in light of their own colonial Charters. The only serious attempt to arrest people for high treason and send them to Britain for trial was General Gage’s march on Concord, one goal of which was to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock.]
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
[This refers to the Quebec Act, of which the colonists were deeply distrustful and angry. One, it expanded the boundaries of Canada into territory claimed by several of the American colonies. Two, it ended representative government in Canada. Three, it did away with British civil law in Canada in favor of French civil law Four, it favored French Roman Catholics. The American colonists religiously pluralistic but for Catholicism which had been the bete noir of British protestants since the days of Europe’s brutal religious wars. The purpose of the Quebec Act was to satisfy the largely French population of that country and insure that Canada did not join the lower thirteen colonies in opposition to the Crown.]
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
[Britain attempted to do this on more than one occasion in colonial history, but by 1776, this indictment probably only referred to the Massachusetts Government Act, also a part of the Intolerable Acts. By this law, the King unilaterally abrogated the charter governing the colony, in all but name did away with representative democracy, going so far as to outlaw town meetings not pre-approved. This was a clear warning to all of the other colonies that they needed to submit to British demands or Britain would impose a form of martial law upon them. The colonists chose a third option.]
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
[This repeats the indictment about the Massachusetts Government Act, but adds a specific complaint against theDeclaratory Act, which provided that Parliament had unlimited power to legislate for the colonies in all matters. The Declaratory Act was passed in 1766, at the same time Parliament rescinded the Stamp Act, as a means for Parliament to save face.]
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
[This refers to the Prohibitory Act and the clash of arms at Lexington and Concord, then Bunker Hill.]
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
[In late 1775, the Royal Navy engaged in several raids against civilian targets in coastal towns, culminating most notoriously in theburning of the town of Falmouth. These were shocking acts of terrorism and, in particular, convinced at least one still uncommitted colony, South Carolina, that the colony should join in active rebellion against Britain.]
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
[Britain made extensive use of German mercenaries to augment their forces in the colonies. This was seen as particularly treacherous by the colonists.]
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
[The Prohibitory Act authorized not merely the capture of American ships, but the impressment of any of her crewmen into service aboard British naval ships.]
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
[The Southern colonies had large slave populations. The Royal Governor of Virginia, in late 1775, issued what became known asDunmore’s Proclamation, offering freedom to any slave owned by a patriot who would take up arms against the patriots. As to the Indians, those who engaged in warfare against the colonists over the past century had a well earned reputation for savagery and attacking civilians of all ages and sexes. For instance, The Long Canes Massacre and the ordeal of Hannah Duston are but two examples. The colonists viewed British efforts to enlist the various Indian tribes to war against the colonists as acts of particular evil. And while the Congress did not know it, when they drafted this passage, the Cherokee Indians, acting at the behest of Britain, had already started their war against the colonists in SC, NC, Georgia and Virginia, in a series of attacks that were supposed to be timed to coincide with the first British offensive of the Revolutionary War outside of Boston, theBritish attack on Charleston, S.C..]
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
[1774 Petition to the King; 1776 Olive Branch Petition]
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Prof. Randy Barnett has published two articles in the Washington Post (here andhere) taken from a book he is writing on our Founding documents (available at Amazon), discusses Jefferson’s sources for drafting the Preamble and the Preamble’s meaning. I include the relevant portions from those two articles below. In his first article, Prof. Barnett writes:
. . . Needing to work fast, Jefferson had to borrow, and he had two sources in front of him from which to crib. The first was his draft preamble for the Virginia constitution that contained a list of grievances, which was strikingly similar to the first group of charges against the King that ended up on the Declaration. The second was a preliminary version of the Virginia Declaration of Rights that had been drafted by George Mason in his room at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg where the provincial convention was being held.
Unlike today, when such cribbing might detract from Jefferson’s accomplishment, achievement in the Eighteenth Century “lay instead in the creative adoption of preexisting models to different circumstances, and the highest praise of all went to imitations whose excellence exceeded that of the examples that inspired them.” For this reason, younger men “were taught to copy and often memorize compelling passages from their readings for future use since you could never tell when, say, a citation from Cicero might come in handy.”
Mason’s May 27th draft proved handy indeed in composing the Declaration’s famous preamble. Its first two articles present two fundamental ideas that lie at the core of a Republican Constitution.
The first idea is that first come rights, and then comes government. Here is how Mason expressed it:
“THAT all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; among which are, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
So, in Mason’s draft, not only do all persons have “certain natural rights” of life liberty and property, but these rights cannot be taken away “by any compact.” As we shall see, Mason’s words became even more canonical than Jefferson’s more succinct version in the Declaration of Independence, as variations were incorporated into several state constitutions.
Article 2 of Mason’s draft then identified the persons who comprise a government as the servants of the sovereign people, rather than their master:
“That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.” As trustees and servants, those people who serve as governing magistrates are to respect the inherent natural rights retained by the people.
All this was compressed by Jefferson into fifty-five compelling words:
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 to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
John Adams later recalled that Jefferson took only a day or two to write the first draft, which was then turned over to the committee for its feedback before it was submitted to Congress. Although this draft was then heavily edited and shortened by Congress sitting as a Committee of the Whole, its Preamble was left pretty much as Jefferson had submitted it. I turn now to that Preamble, for these two paragraphs identify the theory of what I am calling our Republican Constitution.
And in Prof. Barnett’s second article:
. . . Today, while all Americans have heard of the Declaration of Independence, all too few have read more than its second sentence. Yet the Declaration shows the natural rights foundation of the American Revolution and provides important information about what the founders believed makes a constitution or government legitimate. It also raises the question of how these fundamental rights are reconciled with the idea of “the consent of the governed,” another idea for which the Declaration is famous.
When reading the Declaration, it is worth keeping in mind two very important facts. The Declaration constituted high treason against the Crown. Every person who signed it would be executed as traitors should they be caught by the British. Second, the Declaration was considered to be a legal document by which the revolutionaries justified their actions and explained why they were not truly traitors. It represented, as it were, a literal indictment of the Crown and Parliament, in the very same way that criminals are now publicly indicted for their alleged crimes by grand juries representing “the People.”
But to justify a revolution, it was not thought to be enough that officials of the government of England, the Parliament, or even the King himself had violated the rights of the people. No government is perfect; all governments violate rights. This was well known.
So the Americans had to allege more than mere violations of rights. They had to allege nothing short of a criminal conspiracy to violate their rights systematically. Hence the Declaration’s famous reference to “a long train of abuses and usurpations” and the list that followed. In some cases, these specific complaints account for provisions eventually included in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
But before this list of particular grievances come two paragraphs succinctly describing the political theory on which the new polity was founded. To appreciate all that is packed into these two paragraphs, it is useful to break down the Declaration into some of its key claims.
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” This first sentence is often forgotten. It asserts that Americans as a whole, rather than as members of their respective colonies, are a distinct “people.” And this “one people” is not a collective entity, but an aggregate of particular individuals. So “they” not it should “declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
To “dissolve the political bands” revokes the “social compact” that existed between the Americans and the rest of the people of the British commonwealth, reinstates the “state of nature” between Americans and the government of Great Britain, and makes “the Laws of Nature” the standard by which this dissolution and whatever government is to follow are judged. As Committee of Five delegate Roger Sherman observed in 1774, after hostilities broke out with the British, “We are Now in a State of Nature.” [Note that a “state of nature” is a phrase coined by Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathanand which he used to mean a state of anarchy, where no government exercised power, where no law held sway, and where individuals were subject to rule by the strongest.]
But what are these “Laws of Nature”? To answer this, we can turn to a sermon delivered by the Reverend Elizur Goodrich at the Congregational Church in Durham Connecticut on the eve of the Philadelphia constitutional convention. At the time of the founding, it was a common practice for ministers to be invited to give an “election sermon” before newly-elected government officials, in this case the delegates to the Constitutional convention, to encourage them to govern according to God’s ways.
In his sermon, Goodrich explained that “the principles of society are the laws, which Almighty God has established in the moral world, and made necessary to be observed by mankind; in order to promote their true happiness, in their transactions and intercourse.” These laws, Goodrich observed, “may be considered as principles, in respect of their fixedness and operation,” and by knowing them, “we discover the rules of conduct, which direct mankind to the highest perfection, and supreme happiness of their nature.” These rules of conduct, he then explained, “are as fixed and unchangeable as the laws which operate in the natural world. Human art in order to produce certain effects, must conform to the principles and laws, which the Almighty Creator has established in the natural world.”
In this sense, natural laws govern every human endeavor, not just politics. They undergird what may be called “normative disciplines,” by which I mean those bodies of knowledge that guide human conduct—bodies of knowledge that tell us how we ought to act if we wish to achieve our goals. To illustrate this, Goodrich offered examples from agriculture, engineering, and architecture:
He who neglects the cultivation of his field, and the proper time of sowing, may not expect a harvest. He, who would assist mankind in raising weights, and overcoming obstacles, depends on certain rules, derived from the knowledge of mechanical principles applied to the construction of machines, in order to give the most useful effect to the smallest force: And every builder should well understand the best position of firmness and strength, when he is about to erect an edifice.
To ignore these principles is nothing short of denying reality, like jumping off a roof imagining that one can fly. “For he, who attempts these things, on other principles, than those of nature, attempts to make a new world; and his aim will prove absurd and his labour lost.” By making “a new world,” Goodrich meant denying the nature of the world in which we live. He concludes: “No more can mankind be conducted to happiness; or civil societies united, and enjoy peace and prosperity, without observing the moral principles and connections, which the Almighty Creator has established for the government of the moral world.”
The fact that Goodrich was a relatively obscure public figure—though his son would go on to serve as a Federalist congressman from Connecticut—shows the commonplace understanding of natural law. And Goodrich’s task was to remind the Connecticut delegates of the proper understanding “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
“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.”
The most famous line of the Declaration, and for some the only line they know. The Committee of Five’s draft referred to these as “inalienable” rights, but for reasons unknown the word was changed to “unalienable” sometime in the process of printing it for the public.
What are inalienable or “unalienable” rights? They are those you cannot give up even if you want to and consent to do so, unlike other rights that you can agree to transfer or waive. Why the claim that these rights are inalienable? The Founders want to counter England’s claim that, by accepting the colonial governance, the colonists had waived or alienated their rights. The Framers claimed that with inalienable rights, you always retain the ability to take back any right that has been given up.
The standard trilogy throughout this period was “life, liberty, and property.” For example, in its Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress (1774), Congress had previously asserted that “the inhabitants of the English colonies in North America, by the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts,” have the following rights: “That they are entitled to life, liberty and property: and they have never ceded to any foreign power whatever, a right to dispose of either without their consent.” Or, as the influential British political theorist John Locke wrote, “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”
Perhaps the most commonly repeated formulation combines the right of property with the pursuit of happiness. This was the version drafted by George Mason for the Virginia Declaration of Rights—not the version actually approved by the Virginia convention in Williamsburg on June 11th, 1776, the very day that the Committee of Five was formed in Philadelphia to draft the Declaration for the nation.
The Virginia Convention balked at Mason’s specific wording “on the ground that it was not compatible with a slaveholding society. They changed ‘are born equally free’ to ‘are by nature equally free,’ and ‘inherent natural rights’ to ‘inherent rights.’” The adopted version read:
That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
As we will see, the language of Mason’s radical draft—rather than either Virginia’s final wording or Jefferson’s more succinct formulation—became the canonical statement of first principles. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Vermont adopted Mason’s original references to “born equally free” and to “natural rights,” into their declarations of rights. In 1783, this language was used by the Massachusetts supreme court to invalidate slavery in that state. And in 1823, it was invoked in an influential opinion by Justice Bushrod Washington explaining the meaning of “privileges and immunities” of citizens in the several states.
On the one hand, this sentence of the Declaration will become a great embarrassment to a people who allowed the continuation of chattel slavery. On the other hand, making a public claim like this has consequences. That is why people make them publicly — to be held to account. Eventually, the Declaration became a lynchpin of the moral and constitutional arguments of the nineteenth-century abolitionists. It had to be explained away by the Supreme Court in Dred Scott. It was much relied upon by Abraham Lincoln. And ultimately it needed to be repudiated by defenders of slavery in the South because of its inconsistency with that institution.
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men. . . .’’
Another overlooked line, but for our purposes, possibly the most important. For it states what will later become the central underlying “republican” assumption of the Constitution: that “first come rights and then comes government.” Here, even more clearly than Mason’s draft, the Declaration identifies the ultimate end or purpose of republican governments as securing the pre-existing natural rights that the previous sentence affirmed is the measure against which all government—whether of Great Britain or the United States—will be judged.
“. . . deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
For reasons I will explain in this book, there is a tendency today to focus entirely on the second half of this sentence to the exclusion of the first part that references the securing of our natural rights. Then, by reading “the consent of the governed” as equivalent to “the will of the people,” the second part of the sentence seems to support majoritarian rule by the people’s “representatives.” In this way, the “consent of the governed” is read to mean “consent to majoritarian rule.” Put another way, the people can consent to anything, including rule by a majority in the legislature who will decide the scope of their rights as individuals.
But read carefully, one sees that the Declaration speaks of “just powers,” suggesting that only some powers are “justly” held by government, while others are beyond its proper authority. And notice also that “the consent of the governed” assumes that the people do not themselves rule or govern, but are “governed” by those individual persons who comprise the “governments” that “are instituted among men.”
The Declaration stipulates that those who govern the people are supposed “to secure” their pre-existing rights, not impose the will of a majority of the people on the minority. And, as the Virginia Declaration of Rights made explicit, these inalienable rights cannot be surrendered “by any compact.” So the “consent of the governed” cannot be used to override the inalienable rights of the sovereign people.
So we should recognize that there has arisen a tension between the first part of this sentence and the second. In political discourse, people tend to favor one of these concepts over the other — either preexistent natural rights or popular consent — which leads them to stress one part of this sentence in the Declaration over the other. The fact that rights can be uncertain and disputed leads some to emphasize the consent part of this sentence and the legitimacy of popularly-enacted legislation. But the fact that there is never unanimous consent to any particular law, or even to the government itself, leads others to emphasize the rights part of this sentence and the legitimacy of judges protecting the “fundamental” or “human” rights of individuals and minorities.
If we take both parts of this sentence seriously, however, I believe this apparent tension can be reconciled by distinguishing between (a) the ultimate end or purpose of any legitimate governance and (b) how any particular government gains jurisdiction to rule. So, while the protection of natural rights or justice is the ultimate end of governance, particular governments only gain jurisdiction to achieve this end by the consent of those who are governed.
In Chapter 3, we will see how the concepts of “natural rights” of the people and “the consent of the governed,” were reconciled by the idea of presumed consent. The people as a whole can only be presumed to have consented to what was actually expressed in the written Constitution and, absent a clear statement to the contrary, they cannot be presumed to have consented to surrender any of their natural rights.
Later in our history, the uncertainty of ascertaining natural rights will be addressed by shifting the question from specifying particular rights to critically examining whether any particular restriction of liberty can be shown to be within a “just power” of government—that is, a power to which any rational person would have consented, such as the equal protection of their fundamental rights, including their health and safety.
“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
This passage restates the end of government—human safety and happiness—and identifies the “form of government” as a means to this end. Therefore, the people have a right to alter and abolish any form of government when it is destructive of these ends, as the Americans declared the British government to be in the list that followed.
Jefferson adopted it from Article 3 of George Mason’s draft Declaration of rights, which affirmed “that whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, indefeasible right, to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conductive to the publick Weal.”
The political theory announced in the Declaration of Independence can be summed up by the proposition I mentioned above: First come rights, and then comes government. According to this view:
The rights of individuals do not originate with any government, but pre-exist its formation.
The protection of these rights is both the purpose and first duty of government.
Even after government is formed, these rights provide a standard by which its performance is measured and, in extreme cases, its systemic failure to protect rights—or its systematic violation of rights—can justify its alteration or abolition.
At least some of these rights are so fundamental that they are “inalienable,” meaning they are so intimately connected to one’s nature as a human being that they cannot be transferred to another even if one consents to do so.
[This post originally appeared at Wolf Howling. It’s reprinted here with permission.]