The importance of the Declaration of Independence can hardly be overstated. It established for the first time in world history a new nation based on the First Principles of the rule of law, unalienable rights, limited government, the Social Compact, equality, and the right to alter or abolish oppressive government.
Contrary to the beliefs of some, the American Revolution was not fought for lower taxes or to protect slavery. In fact, the tea tax which provoked the Boston Tea Party actually lowered the price of tea, and many of the Founding Fathers were opposed to slavery.
Indeed, the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence announces for the whole world to see our underlying motivation for the American Revolution:
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. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to 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 seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
The Declaration announced the Founding Fathers’ belief in the “truth” –
there was no relative moralism here. They believed some truths were so obvious, that they were “self-evident,” that is, that they need not be proven: 2 + 2 = 4, not a cow. You, our dear reader, are not the moon. This essay is in English, not water. The Founders declared, against the historical experiences and beliefs of the ages, six founding First Principles, all of which were quite revolutionary at the time, and remain revolutionary today:
1. The Rule of Law: Although not articulated expressly, undergirding the entire Declaration of Independence is the idea of the rule of law. In other words, the government and the People are both bound by the law. The reason we needed to declare independence was because the British Empire was no longer following the fundamental unwritten English Constitution. Until 1776, it was just assumed that most rulers did not need to follow the law, and that huge swaths of the privileged were exempt from the laws that applied to the vast majority of the People. The Declaration of Independence declared – no more! The law should apply equally to all in society, whether they be in the government or the masses, the richest or the most poor. We turned the world upside down.
2. Equality: All men are created equal. This idea is perhaps the most controversial of them all, because the Founding Fathers fell so short of its ideal in practice. But, the Founding Fathers were the very first to proclaim that a nation should be dedicated in this belief. It is based on the belief that the Creator (Nature and Nature’s God) created all people, and therefore we are all equal in His eyes and under our law. Until 1776, no government was established on equality or even declared it should be so. Instead, inequality was the key historical reality and belief of the day. A privileged few lorded over subjects. It was done as a matter of tradition and codified into the law. We fell short in our reality, but we were the first to commit our nation to equality.
3. Unalienable Rights: We are used to thinking we have rights that government must respect, but this was quite revolutionary in 1776. In fact, the People were “subjects” and had “privileges” which means that the government lorded over the people and the people could only do was permitted by the government. A right means the People do not have to seek permission from the government. Moreover, “unalienable” means that the rights cannot be taken away, they are born within each person and can never be taken away by the government. “Alienability” is an old-fashioned word for the ability “to sell” or “transfer” something. Because our rights come from God, they cannot be sold or taken away. Today, too many act like their rights come from government, and they need to ask for permission to do things. Not so. No other society in human society has rested on the foundation of unalienable rights.
4. Social Compact: The idea of the Social Compact is that the People have come together and created a government to protect their unalienable rights. If we don’t have a government, we have the natural right to defend ourselves, but without a police force, we have to resort to vigilante justice. By allowing the government to create a police force, fire department, border patrol, and military, we have given up some of our unalienable rights to self-defense and agreed to abide by the government. This means that the government rests on the consent of the People and only acts justly with that consent. Before 1776, likely no government believed in a true Social Compact, they usually took power by force and violence, and coerced its subjects to follow its dictates.
5. Limited Government. Because the government is formed to protect our unalienable rights, the just limit of its powers is to protect those rights and some ancillary powers. To ensure that the government remains free and just, we limit its powers and authority. In most of human history, governments were developed with the opposite belief that they were unlimited unless they carved out some privileges to their subjects.
6. Reform and Revolution: If a government becomes unjust and violates our unalienable rights, we have the right to reform or even abolish it. That is, after all, the whole point of the Declaration of Independence. If reform failed, and the government undertook a long train of abuses with the intention to assert an absolute despotism on the People, then the People have the right – in fact, the duty – to overthrow the government and start anew. We are a revolutionary people and had no intention of giving away the rights we enjoyed.
Religious texts aside, the Declaration of Independence may be the most important document in human history. It totally upended the prevailing orthodoxy about government and has led to momentous changes across time and the world. Certainly we have fallen short, over and over again, of its ideals. But without the First Principles of the Declaration of Independence, we would live in the total darkness of oppression as mankind had for a millennia before.
Judge Michael Warren is the co-creator of Patriot Week (www.PatriotWeek.org), author of America’s Survival Guide, and host of the Patriot Lessons: American History & Civics Podcast.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn.