In 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had occasion to reflect upon the principles of the American Founding. Using a biblical metaphor, he thought that the Declaration of Independence was an “apple of gold” because it contained the foundational principles of the new country. The Constitution was the “picture of silver” framing the apple with the structures of republican government. In the mind of Lincoln—and those of the Founders—an inextricable link bound together the two documents in creating a free government.
The Declaration of Independence and Constitution seem to have had different purposes. The Declaration was an assertion of independence that included laying down the Enlightenment and Lockean principles of natural rights and republican self-government based upon consent. The Constitution created the framework of the national government with three separate branches operating with certain powers. However, a close reading of the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution reveal a common set of republican principles as Lincoln saw it with his metaphor.
The Declaration of Independence affirmed the republican principle of popular government. The people were the source of all sovereignty, or authority, in the representative government and gave their consent for it to govern. It stated, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
The Constitution was significantly rooted in popular sovereignty. The Preamble to the Constitution agreed that the new constitutional government was to be based upon the principle of popular sovereignty. It began, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union.” The previous government under the Articles of Confederation (1781-1789) did not have sufficient powers to govern the nation adequately so the Framers decided to create a new government with powers to achieve its ends.
The Constitution supported popular sovereignty in several ways. The Congress, and especially the House of Representatives, was closest to the people and represented them. As James Madison wrote in Federalist #51, “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.” The people directly or indirectly elected several offices in free elections and for fixed terms. In addition, the people and their representatives were responsible for ratifying the Constitution as fundamental law in popular ratifying conventions.
Republican government was predicated upon majority rule of the sovereign people and their representatives. Majority rule was based upon reason as well as justice in preserving minority rights. President Thomas Jefferson reminded Americans of the moral basis for majority rule in his First Inaugural Address: “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect.”
The core principle—the “apple of gold—of the Declaration of Independence was human equality in natural rights. “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.” This principle of equality was enshrined in the constitutional government and closely related to building a just and equal political order.
The Constitution created a system whereby all were equal under the law and equal in their rights. The Fifth Amendment reads, “No person shall be…deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” In Federalist #51, Madison recognized the defining importance of justice when he wrote, “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society.”
The Declaration supports the rule of law based upon popular consent. The people form a government with a rule of law to protect their rights. They have the power to overthrow a tyrannical government but have a responsibility 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 rule of law allows citizens to live their lives peacefully and civil society to function normally.
The Declaration claimed that the natural rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” were self-evident. Political, economic, and religious liberty were among the fundamental and inalienable rights of the individual. The very purpose of republican government is to protect liberty, and its powers would be limited to achieve that goal.
The weakness of the Articles of Confederation actually endangered liberty by allowing unjust laws and little power to govern properly to preserve liberty. The more robust constitutional system was intended to do a better job of preserving liberty with laws that were more just and national security that was more vibrant.
The Founders created a free constitutional republic so that Americans might govern themselves by their own consent through their representatives. Limited government meant that its powers were restricted to guarding the people’s rights and governing effectively so that the people might live their lives freely. A free people would pursue their happiness and interact amicably in the public square for a healthy civil society.
In Federalist #1, Alexander Hamilton explained the entire purpose of establishing free government based upon the principles of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. He stated that Americans had the opportunity and responsibility to form good government by “reflection and choice,” not by “accident and force.” The United States was founded uniquely upon a set of principles and ideals.
Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn