The Declaration of Independence

Heritage Explains

The Declaration of Independence

Listen to this episode first, and then read the Declaration in full. It's worth it!

It's that time of year when we celebrate our Declaration of Independence. On this episode, we play an interview featuring well-known historian, scholar, and Heritage fellow Dr. Allen Guelzo. It encapsulates why Independence Day is so important, and gives meaningful context into the complexity and deliberation of this "miracle" of a document. Try this: listen to this episode first, and then read the Declaration in full. It's worth it!

Tim Doescher: The summer season is always so special for us. Not only because we love summer and the slower pace that comes with it, but also because of what this season represents.

Michelle Cordero: My family and I will be camping this weekend. And while we're roasting marshmallows and lighting sparklers, we won't forget the miracle that allows us to take pause around the 4th of July every year, the Declaration of Independence.

Doescher: We wanted to play an interview conducted last year, featuring well-known historian and scholar, Dr. Allen Guelzo. It encapsulates why Independence Day is so important and gives meaningful context into the complexity and deliberation. I suggest listening to it first and then reading the Declaration in full.

Cordero: But before the interview starts, we just wanted to say that we hope you're having an awesome summer with your friends and family, and we hope that you're able to take some time to reflect on the greatness of this nation.

Doescher: And I'll be back next week with a brand new episode. But, until then? Roll it, John Popp.

Doescher: Dr. Guelzo, the drafting of the Declaration of Independence is a remarkable story. And what the Declaration has produced is even more remarkable. Can you set the stage for us in terms of the buildup and getting to the point of actually declaring independence?

Allen Guelzo: Well, understand what the American Revolution was about and where it was about in 1775 and 1776, because that was when the first hostilities between the army of the British empire and the commissioned forces of the Continental Army under George Washington were having their first collisions. What was this all in motion towards? That was the real question. And that question came down to two possibilities. The colonies either would or would not declare themselves independent of Great Britain.

Guelzo: There was not much enthusiasm for anything which settled for a negotiated settlement. All the old conflicts, which had brought American matters to this pass would only crop up again. And both the King, George III, and his prime minister, Lord Frederick North, and Parliament showed little taste for anything short of complete American submission. That left a move to declare independence the only alternative, but that alternative involved huge risks. Britain had emerged from the Seven Years' War, which ended in 1763, as the greatest Imperial power in the Atlantic world. To oppose Britain, the colonies had next to nothing in the way of a navy, and only the sketchiest of armies of militia and continental regulars. So unsure were many Americans that when a general Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1774, some colonial legislatures actually forbade their delegations from discussing independence.

Guelzo: But as the conflict wore on through 1775 and 1776, resistance to the idea of independence crumbled pushed on by some early successes by the continental army, by independence minded delegates, like the Massachusetts cousins, John and Samuel Adams, and by the propaganda skills of Tom Payne in his sensational pamphlet, Common Sense, mocking the whole notion of kingly government. And calling not only for American independence, but for the establishment of a republic, without any trace of the old British monarchy.

Doescher: Okay. So public sentiment starts to change. And there becomes an understanding among Americans that things are just not going to change, and almost get worse. So what was the tipping point?

Guelzo: Well, it was deeper, and wider too, because in May of 1776, a second Continental Congress resolved to authorize the formation of new governments in the colonies that would favor independence. In the meanwhile, an attempted invasion of Canada had failed. And news that arrived at the King was hiring German mercenaries to beef up his forces. Both of those developments signaled to the Congress they needed allies from abroad. And the only way they were going to get such allies was to declare independence.

Guelzo: So finally on June 7th, 1776, the second Continental Congress, and they were meeting in Philadelphia's State House, what we now call Independence Hall, adopted a resolution offered by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, that these United colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states absolved from all allegiance to the British crown. And that was adopted without a descending vote by the Congress on July 2nd. Now at the same time, Congress authorizes a committee of three, benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson to compose a declaration to frame Lee's resolution. Which, in good lawyerly form, would itemize the reasons why the independence of the 13 British North American colonies and the organization as the United States of America was justified.

Doescher: Now I've seen the Declaration be referred to as mere propaganda, which is obviously not true. But talk about the document itself and the writers, because I think this helps demonstrate the seriousness and what was actually intended.

Guelzo: Well, start with the people who were supposed to write the Declaration. Franklin and Adams were part of this committee, but they really didn't have much of a role to play in it because they were already occupied with plans for alliances and foreign policy. And in fact, both of them would end up going as emissaries to Europe, recruiting European support. The task of composing the Declaration was left largely to Jefferson, largely because he had already demonstrated more than a little talent in writing with his 1774 tract, a Summary View of the Rights of America. But you know, this was not going to be the usual legal declaration. A declaration is a kind of document a lawyer composes when filing a motion in court for a judge to give a summary judgment. Now like a declaration, it itemized 27 separate grievances the Congress believed justified the separation of the colonies from the British empire.

Doescher: Yeah. And just to stop you there, it's funny because when I went through law school and did that whole thing, and when I read a complaint, that's not a very inspiring document to read.

Guelzo: No. And frankly, you read these 27 grievances in the Declaration of Independence and they are a real eye glazer.

Doescher: Right. And it's funny because this document has served as such a guidepost throughout American history. You've done extensive work on Lincoln. I find it interesting that Lincoln began the Gettysburg Address citing, not the constitution, but the Declaration of Independence. Dr. Martin Luther King used it as well. And many others have. So this has really shown to be a guidepost. Get into a little bit more of why that is, this court document.

Guelzo: The reason why this apparently very legalistic grievance-laden court document, lawyerly declaration, catches fire, it's not because of the 27 grievances. It's because of the opening sentences of the Declaration. Because in those opening sentences, Jefferson did something that declarations generally don't do. He laid out an alternative theory of government to every monarchy which had ever existed. He founded government on an new entirely basis in modern times, borrowed in large parts from the philosophy of the 18th century enlightenment.

Guelzo: So let's take those words at the beginning of the Declaration, words that have been worn smooth with familiarity. And he starts off with a simple sentence of what he's about to do. He tells people he is going to explain to the world what American independence means. "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."

Guelzo: That's pretty straightforward, and he could have gone right from there into that list of 27 grievances without missing a beat. Except he's already slipped in a sign of where he's going next by asserting that American independence is based on the laws of nature and of nature's God. That's important because it's not on British common law. It's not on parliamentary statute. It's not on Magna Carta. It's not on Justinian. It's not on any ancient law givers. And above all, it's not based on mere political power.

Guelzo: You see, for time out of mind, human societies had been built as hierarchies. As pyramids, if you will. With kings at the top and nobles in the middle and commoners on the bottom. And that hierarchy was part and parcel of common law and parliamentary statute and all the others. Jefferson proposes to sweep that aside. The American experiment in independence, like Galileo's and Newton's experiments in physics, is going to be based on natural law, not traditional authority.

Doescher: And that natural law leads to one of my favorite phrases, sentences in all of the things that I've read in my entire life, which talks about what they call inalienable rights, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Just put that in context.

Guelzo: Because, well, that's the real revelation. Because having given away in that first sentence that he's basing the American independence on something very different than traditional societies, he then comes in the next sentence with the real revelation, that this law of nature contains five components, truths which Jefferson describes as self-evident. Self-evident like the axioms with which you began a geometrical proof. Self-evident they're open, they're understood, they're assented to by the human mind as soon as they're presented to it, without any need for reasoning one's way to them.

Guelzo: So here they are laid out in one long majestic sentence. "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," And the last of these five, "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 see. Most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Guelzo: By the time we get to the end of this sentence, every system of hierarchy in the known world has crumbled. All men are created equal. There are no kings, nobles, and commoners. There's no one class born, as Jefferson would say 50 years later, with boots and spurs ready to ride on other people's backs. They are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. Rights, not status. People don't come into this world with status, branded as high or low or common or royal. People arrive simply in this world with rights. And whatever status they earn afterwards is purely the result of how they use those rights.

Guelzo: Now what be these rights? Well, Jefferson doesn't create an exhaustive list. Remember this is a legal declaration, not a philosophy textbook. But he wants us to understand that the list of these rights at least includes three things, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And having these rights, this is self-evident. Everybody knows they have them. No one cannot not know that they have them. And since people come endowed by their creator with these rights, the purpose of government is not to create these rights or to bestow these rights or to withhold them as punishments. It is to secure these rights. Jefferson says that "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

Guelzo: And, you have to add, for no other purpose. When a government takes into its head to claim otherwise, then the time has arrived for, what Jefferson goes on to say, is the logical result, for "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. In other words, governments do not make people from the top down. People make governments from the bottom up. And they can unmake them, too.

Doescher: I want to really dig into what it meant to be a signer of this document. We say we want life, liberty, pursuit of happiness. We can get into what all those mean. But they also say they pledge their lives-

Guelzo: Yes.

Doescher: ... and their sacred honor, in order to get this, in order to give this to all people that would consider themselves Americans, and to people around the world who want to embrace freedom as well. So is it something that... You know, we're being sacrificial? Was that was that the mindset of the time for the people that signed this document?

Guelzo: Well, they're being sacrificial, certainly, in the sense that they realized they're putting their necks in a noose.

Doescher: Yeah.

Guelzo: They are rebels against the authority of the King of Great Britain.

Doescher: And there been threats by the crown? Say, "If you were to do this, you're going to die" kind of thing?

Guelzo: Oh, yes. The Crown declared this a matter of treason. This was a treasonous rebellion, and the British army was there in North America to enforce that. And had the members of the Continental Congress been captured, let's say, by a surprise operation... Let's suppose that the British army had the 18th century version of the Seals. And suddenly one evening in 1776, they descended on Philadelphia and bagged the entire Continental Congress, then yes, they would have been fully as much liable to the penalties of treason as earlier rebels against royal authority had been. I'm thinking of Monmouth's rebellion in the 1680s. I'm thinking of what was done to the regicides when Charles II is restored as King of Great Britain in 1660.

Guelzo: Oh, yes, that was the fate that they certainly had to contemplate. And yet, they take this risk. And they believe that it's worth taking the risk because they're establishing American independence on something more than just their personal advancement or their personal ambition. They are establishing American independence on the laws of nature and nature's God, and the self-evident possession by all men of certain inalienable rights, which included life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Guelzo: When they did that, the members of the Continental Congress had done than merely dissociate themselves politically from Great Britain. They actually did more in fact than just create a republic, rather than another monarchy. What they had done was to justify the idea of a republic on the basis of natural law and natural right, in harmony with the political theory of the 18th century enlightenment. They had reached across the normal boundaries of what the 18th century or the 17th century considered to be political rebellion and treason. They'd reached across that to lay hands on a principle much, much more sublime. They believed that they had touched the bedrock, the reality, the natural law of human society and human relations. And for that, they were willing to risk their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Or in a more practical sense, as Benjamin Franklin said to them, they were going to have to hang together or be assured they would all hang separately.

Doescher: Yeah. I keep trying to bring this into modern context, and where my head goes, Dr. Guelzo and you can pick up on this where you'd like, there's a lot of people out there right now saying that they are currently demonstrating, or they are currently pushing for what was called for in the Declaration of Independence because of equality. You know, the word equality, equality, equality. We're pushing for equality, equality, equality. And yet it seems like there's a lot of inequality effervescing through what they're pushing for, which is equality. So put that a little bit in context as well with statutes being torn down and with speech being silenced. Where are we off today?

Guelzo: Abraham Lincoln once said that the pursuit of equality was a little bit something similar to what you find in the gospels, where followers of Jesus are told, "be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect." And Lincoln explained this, and he said it's not because there was an expectation that they were going to immediately manifest moral perfection. No. Lincoln said this was an aspiration. It was there to be aspired to. It was there to be worked towards. It was there to be explored, to be refined, to be tested. And that is what we have been doing through much of our history.

Guelzo: Many of the people who want to tear down statues do so because they're violently disappointed that George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or Ulysses Grant or, truth be told, even Abraham Lincoln did not somehow produce perfect equality out of their back pockets. They would have been the first to admit that no, they didn't. Because nobody knew at that point what equality really might involve. They knew and had some basic idea. It certainly did not involve a hierarchy. It certainly did not involve nobles and kings and a social pyramid. That much, at the time of the Declaration of Independence, they were able to sweep away which was a major step toward equality.

Guelzo: But then there have to be other explorations of this term "equality" and Lincoln believed we are continuing to experiment here. And the word experiment is not a bad one to use in this context because Washington uses it, Lincoln uses it. We are an experiment in equality. We are going to find aspects of equality that we are going to explore for years hence. And sometimes we'll experiment with them and find that they lead us to dead ends.

Guelzo: There are some pursuits of equality, such as we have seen in the French Revolution or in the Bolshevik Revolution, which held out the promise of a still greater equality. But we have put by the mistakes of the French Revolution. We have put by the mistakes of the Bolshevik Revolution. There's no reason why we should try to repeat them simply because of the enchantment of the word equality that they misused. We should return, in our pursuit of equality, to the guidance that is offered us by natural law, by natural right, by those inalienable rights that Jefferson describes, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. And they are the bulwark of the proposition that Lincoln believed the Republic was founded upon when he spoke at Gettysburg.

Guelzo: If we will take that as our guidance, if the pursuit of that natural law and natural right is what leads us to understand equality and interpret equality, then we really will have equality in its true and right sense, not in an equality that drips with blood and which produces more harm and more suffering than the equality which Jefferson and Washington and Lincoln promoted, risked their lives for, and in Lincoln's case, gave his life for.

Doescher: Dr. Guelzo, this is fantastic context for why we celebrate this weekend. And to our listeners and to everybody else in the Heritage family and the Heritage network, we're asking people to post on social media with a hashtag. It's hashtag proud American. And I'm curious. With the declaration context, why does it make you a proud American?

Guelzo: For this reason. It's sometimes said that it takes 1200 years to make a Frenchman. I mean, there's a culture there. There's a history there. There's a language there. There's a religion there.

Doescher: And they'll let you know it, too.

Guelzo: They will indeed. But you can become an American in 20 minutes. And the reason why is that America is not built around a race, a religion, an ethnicity, a language. America is built around a proposition. It's built around what was written into the Declaration of Independence. And whoever wants to step up and say "yes" to that, at that moment, by appropriating that proposition, they have become an American. Great thing that we celebrate on the 4th of July is not just an American revolution against British authority. It is not just a piece of parchment with elaborate and beautiful handwriting signed so boldly by John Hancock.

Guelzo: What we celebrate on the 4th of July is the discovery that, behind all the accidents of race, nationality, ethnicity, language, however you want to define it. Behind all the politics of blood and soil that made such a catastrophe of the previous century, there is a bedrock of human identity which is the same in every human being. And within that bedrock of human identity, as endowed by its creator, are these rights. And the American experiment, the American Republic is about creating a government which puts those rights in first place and gives them the freest possible field for operation. That is what we celebrate.

Doescher: Dr. Guelzo, it is such an honor to finally speak with you. Finally. We've been trying to get you on the show for a long time, and so it is a great pleasure to speak with you, and for such an incredible topic as this. Thank you for your time and have a great 4th of July.

Guelzo: And you, too. And all Americans.

Heritage Explains is brought to you by more than half a million members of The Heritage Foundation. It is produced by Michelle Cordero and Tim Doescher, with editing by John Popp.