On June 7, 1776, delegate Richard Henry Lee of Virginia rose to move in the Second Continental Congress, “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, Independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved….” The motion was not immediately considered, because four states, lacking instructions from their assemblies, were not prepared to vote. Nevertheless, Congress appointed a committee of five to prepare a declaration of independence. The committee, composed of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson, assigned the task of preparing the initial draft to Jefferson.
After numerous revisions by Adams and Franklin and, eventually, by Congress itself, the final draft and report were presented to Congress on July 2, 1776. Formal adoption of the Declaration had to await a vote on Lee’s motion for independence. That was approved by the states the same day, with only the New York delegation abstaining. After a few more minor changes, the Declaration was adopted on July 4, 1776. Copies were sent to the states the next day, and it was publicly read from the balcony at Independence Hall on the 8th. Finally, on August 2nd, the document was signed.
General Washington, at New York, received a copy and a letter from John Hancock. The next day, July 9, Washington had the Declaration read to his troops. Whereas those troops responded with great enthusiasm for the cause, reaction elsewhere to the Declaration was divided, to say the least. Supporters of independence were aware of the momentousness of the occasion. As Washington’s commander of artillery, Henry Knox, wrote, “The eyes of all America are upon us. As we play our part posterity will bless or curse us.” Others were less impressed. The anti-independence leader in Congress, John Dickinson, dismissed it as a “skiff made of paper.”
The Declaration’s preamble embraced four themes fundamental to Western political philosophy in the 17th and 18th centuries: Natural law and rights, popular sovereignty exercised through the consent of the governed, the compact basis of the legitimate state, and the right of revolution.
The idea of a universal moral law, obligatory on earthly rulers and to which human law must conform, went back at least to the Stoics nearly two millennia prior, and indirectly even to Aristotle’s conception of natural justice. Cicero, among Roman writers, and the Christian Aristotelian Thomas Aquinas, among medieval Scholastics, postulated the existence of a natural order directed by universal laws. Humans were part of this order created by God and governed by physical laws. More important for these writers was the divinely-ordained universal moral law, in which humans participated through their reason and their ability to express complex abstract concepts. By virtue of its universality and its moral essence, this natural law imposed moral obligations on all, ruler and ruled alike. All were created equal, and all were equal before God and God’s law. Viewed from a metaphysical and practical perspective, these obligations provided the best path to individual flourishing within a harmonious social order in a manner that reflected both the inherent value of each person and man’s nature as a social creature. The need to meet these universal obligations of the natural moral law necessarily then gave rise to certain universal rights that all humans had by nature.
However, the shattering of universal Christendom in the West, with its concomitant shattering of the idea of a universal moral law and of a political order based thereon, changed the conception of natural law, natural rights and the ethical state. No longer was it man’s reason that must guide his actions and his institutions, including government and law, for the purpose of realizing the ends of this order. Rather, in the emerging modernity, there was a “turn to the subject” and, in the words of the ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Protagoras, “man [became] the measure of all things.”
Political legitimacy and, thereby, the basis for political and legal obligation came to rest on individual acts of will. The most prominent foundation for this ethical structure was the construct of the “social contract” or “social compact.” “Natural law” became deracinated of its moral content and was reduced to describing the rules which applied in a fictional state of nature in which humans lived prior to the secular creation of a political commonwealth, in contrast to the civil law that arose after that creation. Natural rights were those that sovereign individuals enjoyed while in the state of nature, in contrast to civil rights, such as voting, which were created only within a political society.
Although expositors of the social contract theory appeared from the 16th to the 18th centuries, and came from several European cultures, the most influential for the American founding were various English and colonial philosophers and clergymen. Most prominent among them was John Locke.
Locke’s version of the state of nature is not as bleak and hostile as was that of his predecessor Thomas Hobbes. Nor, however, is it a romanticized secular Garden of Eden as posited by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, writing a century later. For Locke, existence in the state of nature allows for basic social arrangements to develop, such as the family, economic relationships, and religious congregations. However, despite Locke’s general skepticism about the Aristotelian epistemology then still dominant at the English universities, he agreed with the ancient sage that human flourishing best proceeds within a political commonwealth. Accordingly, sovereign individuals enter into a compact with each other to leave the state of nature and to surrender some of their natural rights in order to make themselves and their estates more secure. They agree to arbitrate their disputes by recourse to a judge, and to be governed by civil law made by a legislator and enforced by an executive. Under a second contract, those sovereign individuals collectively then convey those powers of government to specified others in trust to be exercised for the benefit of the people.
Thus, the political commonwealth is a human creation and derives its legitimacy through the consent of those it governs. This act of human free will is unmoored from some external order or the command of God. For Hobbes, the suspected atheist, human will was motivated to act out of fear.
Locke allows for much greater involvement by God, in that God gave man a nature that “put him under strong Obligations of Necessity, Convenience, and Inclination to drive him into Society, ….” Moreover, the natural rights of humans derive from the inherent dignity bestowed on humans as God’s creation. The human will still acts out of self-interest, but the contract is a much more deliberate and circumscribed bargain than Hobbes’s adhesion contract. For Locke, the government’s powers are limited to achieve the purposes for which it was established, and nothing more. With Hobbes, the individual only retained his inviolate natural right to life. With Locke, the individual retains his natural rights to liberty and property, as well as his right to life, all subject to only those limitations that make the possession of those same rights by all more secure. Any law that is inimical to those objectives and tramples on those retained rights is not true law.
There remained the delicate issue of what to do if the government breaches its trust by passing laws or otherwise acting in a manner that make people less secure in their persons or estates. Among private individuals, such a breach of fiduciary duty by a trustee would result in a court invalidating the breach, ordering fitting compensation, and, perhaps, removing the trustee. If the government breached such a duty, recourse to the English courts was unavailable, since, at least as to such constitutional matters, the courts had no remedial powers against the king or Parliament.
Petitions to redress grievances were tried-and-true tools in English constitutional theory and history. But what if those petitions repeatedly fell on deaf ears? One might elect other members of the government. But, what if one could not vote for such members and, consequently, was not represented therein? What if, further, the executive authority was not subject to election? A private party may repudiate a contract if the other side fails to perform the material part of the bargain. Is there a similar remedy to void the social contract with the government and place oneself again in a state of nature? More pointedly, do the people collectively retain a right of revolution to replace a usurping government?
This was the very situation in which many Americans and their leaders imagined themselves to be in 1776. Previous writers had been very circumscribed about recognizing a right of revolution. Various rationales were urged against such a right. Thomas Aquinas might cite religious reasons, but there was also the very practical medieval concern about stability in a rough political environment where societal security and survival were not to be assumed. Thomas Hobbes could not countenance such a right, as it would return all to the horrid state of nature, where life once again would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Moreover, as someone who had experienced the English Civil War and the regicide of Charles I, albeit from his sanctuary in France, and who was fully aware of the bloodletting during the contemporaneous Thirty Years’ War, revolution was to be avoided at all cost.
Locke was more receptive than Hobbes to some vague right of revolution, one not to be exercised in response to trivial or temporary infractions, however. Left unclear was exactly who were the people to exercise such a right, and how many of them were needed to legitimize the undertaking. Locke wrote at the time of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. His main relevant work, the Second Treatise on Civil Government, was published in 1689, though some scholars believe that it was written earlier. The Catholic king, James II, had been in a political and religious struggle with Parliament and the Church of England. When Parliament invited the stadholder (the chief executive) of the United Netherlands to bring an army to England to settle matters in favor of itself, James eventually fled to France.
Parliament declared the throne vacant, issued a Declaration of Rights and offered the throne to William and his wife, Mary. In essence, by James’s flight, the people of England had returned to an extra-political state of nature where they, through the Parliament, could form a new social contract.
The American Revolution and Jefferson’s writings in the Declaration of Independence follow a similar progression. When King George declared the colonies to be in rebellion on August 23, 1775, and Parliament passed the Prohibitory Act in December of that year, they had effectively placed the colonies outside the protection of the law and into a state of nature. At least that was the perception of the colonists. Whatever political bands once had existed were no more. In that state of nature, the Americans were free to reconstitute political societies on the basis of a social contract they chose.
That project occurred organically at the state level. Massachusetts had been operating as an independent entity since the royal governor, General Thomas Gage, had dissolved the General Court of the colony in June, 1774. That action led to the extra-constitutional election by the residents of a provincial congress in October. Thereafter, it was this assemblage that effectively governed the colony. The other colonies followed suit in short order.
In Virginia, a similar process occurred in the summer of 1774. It culminated two years later in the “Declaration of Rights and the Constitution or Form of Government,” begun by a convention of delegates on May 6, 1776, and formally approved in two stages the following month. The initial document was a motley combination of a plan of government, a declaration of independence, and a collection of enumerated rights and high-sounding political propositions. In the part regarding independence, the accusations against King George are remarkably similar, often verbatim, precursors to Jefferson’s language in the Declaration of Independence of the “united States” two months later. George Mason, whom Jefferson praised as the “wisest man of his generation,” was the principal author. Still, it may have been Jefferson himself who proposed this language through the drafts he submitted to the Virginia convention.
Both documents, the Virginia declaration and the Declaration of Independence, cite as a reason for “dissolv[ing] the Political Bands” that the king had abandoned the government by declaring the Americans out of his protection. George III, like James II a century before, had breached the social contract and forced a return to an extra-political state of nature. The Declaration of Independence merely formalized what had already occurred on the ground. With those bands broken, the next step, that of forming a new government, already taken by Virginia and other states, now lay before the “united States.”
Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty, Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow. Read more from Professor Knipprath at: http://www.tokenconservative.com/
Podcast by Maureen Quinn