If we want to conserve the American nation, then we must begin with the Declaration of Independence.
We should be aware of the richness of this document and what it teaches us about our rights and duties as Americans.
Contained within it is a clear statement about the principles of politics, lawful government, the self-governing practices of the colonists, and why they were reclaiming their right to govern themselves in the face of a settled pattern of abuse by the British government.
The declaration proclaims that the “thirteen united States of America” now “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.”
The declaration was a statement about the type of politics and order that the “United Colonies” would live under and why they were now rejecting the unwritten English constitution.
Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Richard Henry Lee in 1825 stated that the declaration was “an expression of the American mind.” What is that mind? As philosophy professor Paul Seaton has argued, it was logical, liberty-loving, manly, and open to God’s will for the colonists and their push for political independence.
And what is a self-evident truth? A self-evident truth is one that carries the evidence for itself within its own terms. If we say man is a rational animal, the predicate “rational” is contained in the idea of the subject, “man.”
Here’s John Adams’ letter to his son Charles Adams in 1794 on the self-evident nature of man’s equality:
As the genuine Equality of human Nature is the true Principle of all our Rights and Duties to one another: and the false Notions of Equality the source of much folly and Wickedness: and the undefined and indeterminate Ideas of it, the Cause of much Nonsense and confusion, it is of great importance to ascertain, what it does mean, and what it does not mean.
We should keep that passage in mind as we hear leading liberals define us by race, gender, property, and class, and seek to use the state as the enforcer of group rights; that is to say, qualities that are not the foundation of rights, but which can be used as the foundation of state power to redefine us, divide us, and make us malleable in their hands.
Here’s Adams again on equality:
It really means little more than that We are all of the same Species: made by the same God: possessed of Minds and Bodies alike in Essence: having all the same Reason, Passions, Affections and Appetites.
The logical Declaration of Independence states that there is a just order that can be defined and used to deal coherently with tyranny and revolution. Such order is evinced in the English constitutional order that the colonists argue has been violated repeatedly by the Crown and Parliament.
The declaration’s signers meant to reclaim the principles of that order in the nation they would build. We might be surprised to learn that the declaration evinces that reason can understand and guide politics, even revolutionary activity.
In that respect, the declaration is our model of reflection, rhetoric, and deliberate action about politics. The question facing us is whether we believe that about the capacity of human reason and politics. Or have other ideas about who we are as persons, as citizens, distorted our thinking?
Our declaration asserts that government is created by the consent of men who are equal in their rights, whose protection fundamentally limits that government.
In defense of those rights, the Continental Congress—which approved the Declaration of Independence—listed 27 grievances, 18 committed by the king and nine by Parliament.
These grievances grounded the call for a new nation in the important second paragraph of the declaration. They can be split into five parts and move toward a necessary conclusion.
The first seven items bear upon the king’s relationship to legislative power; specifically, the legislatures of the Colonies.
Why start with the Colonial legislatures? Legislative priority is necessary because it’s the central instrument of a self-governing people. Attacking legislatures prevents a sovereign people from being a self-governing people. This is key not only to the opening section of the declaration, but to the declaration’s overall mind, and it will return later as Parliament’s chief misdeed.
The next two items deal with the executive’s relationship to the judiciary. The monarch has not permitted the judicial protection of the people and has abolished the independence of the judiciary. “He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers” and “He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.”
The declaration stated that the executive was intent on bending the judicial power to his will. In short, these are the actions of an aspiring tyrant.
Next come problems of administration and defense, key parts of a monarch’s office, but those portray a “Design” of subjugation of the Colonies. The list is short, but telling:
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to Harass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military Independent of and superior to the Civil Power.
The executive aims to despoil the people with “swarms of officers” and has placed the military over civil government. We were now in wartime, but it was still peacetime when those actions began. The king now exercised his powers in destructive ways.
Next, the declaration lists nine usurpations by Parliament. Parliament had been the king’s companion in violating the “constitution” that governed relations between the Colonies and the Empire.
“He has combined with others [Parliament] to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation.”
We read of nine specific instances of Parliament’s “pretended Legislation,” with the final charge being a direct hit on the heart of American Colonies’ self-government. Their “pretended Legislation” aimed at “suspending our own Legislatures and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.”
The fifth and final section of the indictments refocuses on the king and the war stance of his actions. He had removed his protection from the Colonies, and reinaugurated a state of nature between them and himself. The king was now waging war against the Colonies.
His conduct had included “transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny,” “exciting domestic insurrections amongst us,” and enlisting Indian tribes to wage war against “all ages, sexes, and conditions.”
Tyrannically, he made citizens captured at sea fight against their country and brethren. Who sows discord among citizens and turns them against one another? Tyrants do. King George confirmed the ancient wisdom.
In short, we might restate our declaration as follows: There are principles of politics worthy of free and virtuous people, and they have been violated. Here are the actions of the king and Parliament, which evidence a settled design of despotic ambition, and the Colonists of right and duty determine that they will not bow down to it, but declare their independence as a people. And there is God—“the laws of nature and of Nature’s God”—who warrants this bold action.
Seaton, the philosophy professor, observes that the declaration is an American epic poem that speaks to the depths of our political soul:
The Declaration indicates that even revolutionary action can be warranted. But it also lays down strict criteria for such action. It thus cautions boldness to tether itself to reason, while challenging reason to entertain even the boldest thoughts.
Earlier, I referred to the need for “manliness” made by the declaration’s signers. After making the case for independence on behalf of “the good people of these Colonies,” the 55 representatives pledge to one another their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.
The right of revolution means you are willing to risk everything for the justness of the cause. Liberty entails sacrifice precisely because the passions and vices of others constantly threaten it. But that also means that liberty is about duty.
In knowing what is right and doing it, we demand the liberty to make our virtue a reality. There had been in the Colonies a history of the defense of liberty, one that is noted in the text of the declaration. Earlier legislatures had resisted “with manly firmness” the Crown’s violations. The declaration joined them and found inspiration in their earlier example of resistance.
God is also present in the declaration. He is mentioned or referred to four times. God is presented as Creator, Legislator, Provident, and Judge. Men are created equal, and nature is ordered and formed by God—precisely the activities of creating and legislating.
Those two features occur at the beginning of the document. The other two show up near the end. Those two references were added to Jefferson’s draft by the Continental Congress. They have the effect of indicating that the divine is protective. The Supreme Judge scrutinizes human activity “the world” over and penetrates to the “intentions” of agents. He was also firmly on the side of the colonists. Their understanding of man, man’s freedom, and virtue were also God’s plan for the nascent American people. They called upon His blessing.
And on this July Fourth in 2023, so should we, and then labor to make the declaration’s words and ideas our own as we labor to restore a free country.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal on June 30, 2023