Versions of this essay have been posted on previous occasions.
The Fourth of July is a day for picnics, fireworks, parades, and all kinds of activities celebrating our Nation’s birth. It should also be a time for reflection on the founding principles. The source of those principles is most immediately found in the Enlightenment. This was a cultural, intellectual, and, later, political movement of the late Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries that historians regard as the culmination of a sea-change of thought about the relations of human beings with the universe that began with the Renaissance and Reformation and their precursors. Enlightenment thinkers emphasized the use of reason as the basis of knowledge and understanding and the primary method of discovering moral and physical truths which many regarded as inseparable. Their use of reason led to the idea of the essential sovereignty of the individual person, and the rights of man (in the generic sense) to life, liberty, and estate, or property. The Enlightenment is associated with such thinkers as Isaac Newton, John Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Adam Smith, and others in Europe, and Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine in America. The United States of America is the only nation founded on the basis of common ideas, rather than accidents of geography, of kinship or tribe, or conquest. Some historians have described our primary founding document as an Enlightenment Manifesto. Leonard Peikoff in his book The Ominous Parallels described America as the “Nation of the Enlightenment.” I have spent some time parsing the Declaration of Independence to show why this is so. Please read on.
When in the Course of Human Events…
The first seven words of the Declaration of Independence are themselves revolutionary. Before Thomas Jefferson (with help from Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and others) penned this document, all important legal documents began with the paean to God, or the monarch. The Magna Carta, the Mayflower compact (which some call the first American Constitution) are some examples. There are countless others. This Declaration recognized human, not supernatural, not authoritarian, events which drive this change. This is not to say that it rejects a deity, or even Christianity. It emphasizes that this is the act of human beings, and it is done in the name of a group of people freely associating.
… it becomes necessary…
The word “necessary” in the Enlightenment sense means naturally caused; that is, inevitable because it is of nature. It is akin to a natural law like Isaac Newton described in his treatises on motion and gravity. The law of gravity requires – makes necessary – that an object falls to the ground. As the Declaration goes on to say, events have made American independence necessary.
… for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another…
Political connections are a human construct, not the divine right of kings. The King is not the state – Le roi n’est pas l’état.
… and to assume among the Powers of the Earth the separate and equal Station…
The people of the colonies are “assuming by their own act a status that is independent sovereignty is equal to all the other nations on earth. This assumption is not a grant; it is not a sufferance of the colonial master. It is inherent by right, by the law of nature.
… to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them,…
This is the core of Enlightenment thinking. God is revealed through nature, and the laws of nature are the laws of God. Jefferson may have been treading lightly here. He probably was a Deist, which many Enlightenment figures were, including Benjamin Franklin, and most notoriously Thomas Paine. He had to recognize the Judeo-Christian tradition because most of the colonial leaders, not to mention the ordinary colonists were at least nominally Christian. Deism as such, was not hostile to Christianity, or other forms of religion, but those faiths did not tolerate Deists.
… a decent Respect for the Opinions of Mankind requires that they declare the causes which impelled them to the Separation.
The people seeking independence are telling the world why. They are justifying their actions to the rest of the world, not just their former British overlords. Reason is what gives actions legitimacy, according to Enlightenment principles. Reason is given to men by God, or nature, and they are expected to justify their actions by it. In order for the world to grant its approval and sanction, human actions must be reasonable.
The next paragraph of the Declaration is a treatise on government and gives the underlying philosophical basis and general justification for independence.
We hold these Truths to be self evident…
The introductory phrase is an epistemological statement that breaks from the long-standing Aristotelian Scholasticism’s presumed authority of the past. The Enlightenment held that the empirical observation, and reasoning from those verifiable observations, is the basis of knowledge. The intellectual tradition of the Western world – indeed, the entire world – had been that the received wisdom from the past should not be deviated from and should form all premises on which knowledge was based. The primary Western authorities, of course were the Scriptures and the Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle. Beginning with Francis Bacon, the early modern thinkers gradually broke with this method, at least insofar as it attempted to explain the workings of the physical universe. The Enlightenment scholars, and other humanists, did not necessarily reject religious Christianity to provide moral guidance and inform men as to the relation with God in eternity, but believed that God manifested truths about the physical universe in nature.
… that all Men are created equal…
The notion of equality of human beings in the Enlightenment did not mean that everyone was the same; that is, equal in physical, intellectual, and moral character. Neither did it mean that they should be leveled to the same economic status. The operative word here is “created.” Its use in this context means that no one is given any special status in relation to others merely by the accident of birth. The Aristotelian description of the universe included the Great Chain of Being. This construct held that there is a order from God in heaven down to the inanimate rocks in which every species of being has a place. In the human order, the King and his nobles have their places at the top, and the peasants and serfs have theirs at the bottom, with different levels of status or importance in between. The Chain of Being was not a ladder, and one’s place was immutable. It was a crime or a sin to attempt to rise above or sink below the status to which one was born to. The Seventeenth Century doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings was a logical deduction from the concept of a Chain of Being. The King was God’s lieutenant on earth. The Enlightenment broke with that concept, and declared that there was no inherent aristocracy based merely on the accident of birth. The turmoil of the English Civil War, the Restoration, and then the Glorious Revolution broke the chain in England by the end of the Seventeenth Century. It would persist in France until that country’s Revolution, a hundred years later. That was not long after the American colonies won their independence, with a little help from their friend – France, ironically, while still under the ancien regime.
... that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,…
The quality of being human means that there are rights which are given by God, the Creator of nature and the universe, which cannot be abrogated by the whim of human authority. Those rights may be forfeited, but only by conduct of the individual as rationally determined in the due process and course of valid law.
… that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness –…
This enumeration of rights is declared to be, by the use of the word “among,” not exclusive, but these are the basis of, and imply, others. It comes directly from John Locke’s formulation that when human beings are in a state of nature, these are their individual rights. Locke’s Second Treatise on Government termed these rights as protection of “life, liberty, and estate” – estate being interchangeable with the concept of property. Jefferson changed “estate” or “property” to the “pursuit of happiness,” which included the right to possess and enjoy property, but was broader in scope. The proposition that the pursuit of happiness was a fundamental right was revolutionary in itself. From almost time immemorial, and certainly in the Christian tradition at least until the Reformation, life on earth was not supposed to be happy. Life was an arduous journey through a vale of tears on the way to an afterlife of happiness, or punishment, depending on how one conducted oneself in this world. Rather than pursuing happiness here on earth, it was self-denial and mortification that were virtues, not enjoyment or seeking betterment of living standards and conditions. This, of course, was a doctrine which kept the Great Chain of Being intact, as well as the hoi polloi in line. Individual liberty was nonexistent, because the individual person was subject to the collective, that is, the King or state. One’s life as well belonged to the same sovereign.
That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed…
Legitimate governments are created by the consent of the people, not imposed from the top down. The people, who in a state of nature are unable to adequately protect their lives, their liberty, and the ability to pursue happiness, including the protection of their private property, form a government for this purpose. In order to accomplish these ends, certain aspects of the fundamental rights are limited, and ceded to a constituted authority by consent, whose primary – and only legitimate – function is to secure the essence of those rights.
… That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or 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.
A government can become destructive of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In fact, the use of the word “whenever” seems to imply that it is inevitable that at some point the government will become destructive of such. It is part and parcel of these unalienable rights for the people to alter or abolish it, and create a new government. A new government, however, must be instituted on the core principles stated.
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.
When government has existed for a long time, some deference must be given to it for that quality alone. Stability and just expectations are aspects of the unalienable rights, which themselves must be respected. This passage recognizes that the governments will not be perfect, and there may be better ways of accomplishing the protection of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness at various times, and under different conditions. Just because a government may act in an imperfect manner temporarily is no reason to take the drastic step of abolishing it. The phrase that “mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable” echoes William Shakespeare’s observation in Hamlet that we “rather bear the ills we have than fly to those we know not of.”
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.
This sentence states the conditions necessary to overcome the presumption that governments long established should not be changed. When they are fulfilled, revolution becomes a right – and duty.
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, having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid World.
Thus begins the justification for Revolution and nature of the grievances against British rule. It is followed by a bill of particulars containing twenty-seven specific grievances committed by the Crown, personified by King George III. If one studies the Constitution later drafted and ratified, it is possible to find a provision there which addresses nearly every one of the complaints found in this bill of particulars.
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.
After the bill of particulars, the Declaration provides additional justification for independence by asserting that the people of the American colonies have brought their grievances to the attention of the King, and his ministers, to no avail, and only to receive further injury.
Nor have we been wanting in Attentions to our British 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.
This penultimate paragraph reminds the people of Great Britain that the American colonists have notified them of the grievances, and they have nevertheless done nothing to prevail upon Parliament and the King’s ministers to change policies and redress the grievances. It concludes by defining the relations going forward that the Americans will have with the British: that is, a separate and equal station, along with all other nations of the Earth, and not as sworn enemies.
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 the 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 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.
The use of the lower case “united” indicates that each of the new entities are separate States, though united in purpose. Unification will come later, and remain tenuous, in many ways, even unto this day. The Declarations appeals to God as a witness, but is done in the name of the “good People of the Colonies” who are to be the sovereign. Divine Providence will protect them. The signers pledged their “sacred honor,” the most precious possession to an Enlightenment man. As for their lives and fortunes, they were aware they were committing treason against the British Crown, which was subject to the severest of penalties.
It was over seven long years of war and privation before the Declaration of Independence was ratified by the Treaty of Paris in which Great Britain gave up all claim to sovereignty over its former colonies, but these words written and approved by the patriots in Philadelphia two hundred and twenty-six years ago finally became a reality. It remains so to this day, perhaps imperfect, but there is nothing better. Indeed, there is nothing like it in the world.
The writings of Professor Alan Charles Kors of the University of Pennsylvania, who is the editor of Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment
, gave me the idea for this essay. He teaches 17th
Century intellectual history. Professor Kors is one of the founders of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE
), a watchdog organization that fights the increasing denial of freedom of expression on American college campuses.