“…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 declaring their independence from the British empire, Americans did not merely assert themselves. They declared “the causes which impel them to the Separation” and submitted facts, evidence “to a candid World.” In doing so, they selected a way of arguing that can be understood not only by Americans and Englishmen but by human beings as such. Human beings are by their nature capable of reasoning, of thinking according to the principle of non-contradiction. If I say, ‘Think of a circle,’ you know what I mean, so long as you know the meaning of the words in that sentence. If I say, ‘Think of a square,’ you also know what I mean. But if I say, ‘Think of a square circle,’ you don’t know what I could possibly mean. I have contradicted myself.
A formal argument founded on the principle of non-contradiction is called a logical syllogism. That is exactly what the Declaration of Independence is. A logical syllogism consists of one or more ‘major premises’—the foundations of the argument—one or more ‘minor premises’—typically, specific facts—followed by a conclusion. To give the standard example: ‘All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.’ The major premise is a general or foundational statement; the minor premise is a factual statement; the conclusion follows from the two premises. You could disprove the argument by showing that either or both premises is false, or that the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises, that it somehow violates the principle of non-contradiction. So, for example, if the ‘Socrates’ you are referring to is an angel, the conclusion is wrong, since angels may not be mortal.
In the Declaration of Independence, the clause we are considering is one of the several main premises of the argument; the minor premises are the specific, factual charges against the British king and parliament. The major premises stated before this are the famous ones: that all men are created equal respecting their unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that men institute government to secure those rights; that the governments they institute derive their just powers from the consent of the governed; and that, conversely, a people whose government violates their unalienable rights may rightly be abolished.
According to the logic of the argument, then, the “consent” of the governed cannot mean simply the assent of the governed. Consent can only mean assent to a government that really does secure the rights human beings have by nature, thanks to their Creator, before they form the government. Once they no longer consent to their government because it no longer serves the “end” or purpose a government ought to have, not only do we have the right to alter or abolish it, we also have the right, even the obligation, to frame a new government, one that does secure the rights they old government failed to secure.
How will we do that? By doing two things. First, we do it by “laying its foundations” on the foundations or major premises of the Declaration of Independence: the natural, unalienable rights of human beings. Second, we do it by founding a new regime, a regime which includes a government with a new “form,” a new structure, an architecture, which is logically consistent with those natural foundations. By so shaping the means to the end, the form of the government to the defense of natural rights, we can effect our safety and happiness—secure our natural rights in practice, not merely recognize them in theory.
This clause of the Declaration is the link between the Declaration and the preamble to the United States Constitution. Justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty are all elements of our safety and happiness as an independent, self-governing people. The Constitution lays out exactly the form or structure of the government designed to achieve those purposes, replacing the Articles of Confederation, which had not achieved them, which in turn had replaced the regime of the British empire, which had violated them.
Thus the right of revolution follows logically from the purpose of government, just as the purpose of government follows logically from the existence of unalienable natural rights in all human beings. In presenting their Declaration of Independence in the form of a logical syllogism, the American Founders justified their action not only to themselves, not only to their “British brethren,” but to a “candid world”—to all human beings who think rationally, wherever and whenever they live.
Will Morrisey is Professor Emeritus of Politics, Hillsdale College; Editor and Publisher, Will Morrisey Reviews
Podcast by Maureen Quinn