Reading the Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence bears the heading, “in Congress, July 4, 1776, a declaration by the representatives of the United States of America, in general Congress assembled.” At the outset we see the practice of a “congress” — it reads: “in Congress July 4, 1776.” This act taken in a solemn assembly was called for specific purposes “by the representatives of the United States of America.” This is ambiguous, for the American states were previously colonies, not states. Nor was there something called the United States as a single entity (although in 1775 George Washington — who had been appointed commander of the “Army of the United States” — had begun to speak of the United States as a single Union and of developing, strengthening and perpetuating it).
Nevertheless, if the Declaration makes united states in America the United States of America, then the title expresses the end accomplished through these very words. Moreover, the Americans democratically appointed representatives to enunciate these principles.
Thus “in a general Congress” they wrote:
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
“In the course of human events” invokes the fact that things happen; people undergo the various accidents and sometimes deliberate effects that unfold in the course of history. And in the course of such specifically human events — not world history or local events, not geological events, not astrophysical events —there arose a parochial moment in which a part of the British Empire (which may be called British North America) proceeded to dissolve existing political bands. The words “political” and “bands” convey a very significant and special meaning; they did not “dissolve all human connection,” they did not “dissolve moral connections,” they did not “dissolve commercial or economic connections,” they did not “dissolve religious connections.” They dissolved the rules, the principles, the practices, the operations, the procedures and the institutions through which they governed themselves.
While they acted self-consciously, they did so on the basis of lawful rights or claims. Their rights derived from the laws of nature and of nature’s God. Further, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” In other words, they have a duty —referred to here as “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” — to declare these principles and to state their case before a jury of all mankind. Any objective intellect will understand the justice of their claims. Finally, not only are they entitled to revolt, but it was necessary for them so to do. Moreover, if it were not necessary, it would have been imprudent to separate.
We readily understand how it could be imprudent. Any people, deciding suddenly to separate from the superintending and protecting care of a larger entity that had protected and secured them against the dangers of the world, while also themselves lacking resources sufficient to obtain like security, would act most imprudently.
Continuing, “We hold these truths to be self evident.” That is only the first clause of the second sentence! We hold certain things as truths and these truths do not require proof. Self evidence does not mean obvious to every self. It is a term that is borrowed from the language of geometric axioms, definitions and propositions. Self evident means that the truth of the axioms is contained within the terms of the axioms themselves. When we say that two things each equal to a third are equal to each other that is an axiom that is not subject to demonstration (which does not bar pedants (PED-nts) from laboriously re-enacting the truth!).[i]
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal”. They used the term “men” in the general sense, which means therefore all human beings. This refers to all human beings, because it is based on an universal axiom; but we do not depend on that logical and grammatical distinction in order to see the relevant significance of this. We remember that the term “equal” already appeared in the first paragraph when we referred to a people assuming a separate and equal station. That equal station or nationhood is not the same equality that is invoked when we say all men are created equal. The first paragraph refers specifically to peoples or nations as equal. In the second paragraph we say rather that all men are created equal. The authors of this document understood when they wrote “men” that they intended human beings and not this or that particular grouping of humans. We have many testimonies to this effect from the era itself. Elected representatives in the State of New Jersey[ii] refer to these words and their universal significance.
“They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Followed by a dash, the sentence has not yet finished. What unalienable rights derive from human equality? “Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It is not necessary to list them all; it is only necessary to establish that reasonable and rational human beings will agree that what makes human beings human conveys upon them title to certain rights. If we could shed our humanity and be something else, something not human, then we would not have these rights.
That first sentence of the second paragraph continues, “to secure these rights governments are instituted among men.” Notice the passive voice; “among men” has precisely the same value as “that all men are created equal.” Certainly nobody means to say that women, children, slaves or any particular subsections are ungoverned. It may be, as the exordium makes clear, that the governments are instituted among groupings of human beings; so that differing groupings have differing governments; but everywhere that there are human beings governments are instituted among them.
That governments are instituted among men is a passive construction, because there are differing ways in which governments may come to be. Some of the ways are legitimate and some not. We can not move from the passive voice to the active voice, where we actually identify who institutes the government, until we understand what the rule of legitimacy is. The first sentence of the second paragraph continues, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Observe the direction; the process works through time and it works through moral authority. Those subject to the government are the men among whom the government comes to exist. They have a right to consent (the moral dimension) and it becomes just when they consent (the temporal dimension). Only at that point may we then switch voices and, instead of speaking passively, say that men institute government. For their consent is the agency, the power, that creates the government.
The Declaration next reads, “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends,” any people may “alter the government” or “abolish it” — i.e., withdraw consent — thereby stigmatizing powers exercised without their agreement as powers unjustly exercised. Moreover, it continues, “and to Institute new government.”
Here emerges the active voice; these men — the consenting individuals, the people of the nation, — will institute new government just as they had a right to institute the prior government, “laying its foundation on such principles” — i.e. they do not act arbitrarily. They act rationally; they have preferences to be sure, but the preferences consult the principles; the principles guarantee the unalienable rights.
Once they proclaim such principles they are able to continue “organizing” the government’s powers “in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness”. There the sentence ends.
All previous political arrangements that assert the superior claim of some few to rule the many (whether those few were monarchs or feudal barons or despots or tyrants or any kind of minority rule) are “illegitimate and therefore based on some kind of superstition.”[iii] The unalienable rights mentioned in the Declaration are those from which obligations can be inferred or deduced. [iv] For the Declaration is a statement of when some men might and might not be rightfully regarded as the rulers of other men.
We understand man and his rights as much by understanding what he is not as by understanding what he is. In fact, we understand the latter only by understanding the former, for man is neither beast nor God. To prove that God exists is not necessary to the argument; it suffices that divine nature would be of a certain sort. Such a nature would carry to absolute perfection those potential perfections perceivable in man, such as reason, justice and mercy, without the corresponding imperfections, such as the passionate self-love that corrupts the perfections. The conception of a being in whom reason is not or cannot be affected by desire is the conception of a being in whom just power naturally resides. It is a conception of a being in whom the different powers of government can safely be collected. Thus the God of the Declaration combines three roles besides that of creator: legislator; supreme judge; and finally, executive power or divine Providence.
It is an absolutely necessary condition of the rule of law that these three powers of government never be united in the same human hands — legislative, executive, and judicial. For them to be so united, whether in a singular or collective body, is the very definition of tyranny. For the equality of mankind is an equality of defect as well as an equality of rights.
These fundamental questions of political life go into determining whether any particular institutions, operations or practices can not only be received as legitimate but also actually accomplish their ends. The body politic arises from fundamental rights and claims that give scope to the greatest potential of human enlightenment. [v]
Read The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=3136
W. B. Allen is Dean Emeritus, James Madison College; and Emeritus
Professor of Political Science, Michigan State University
[i] Cf., “Political Arithmetic: Social Science, Scientific Revolution, Political Innovation,” in Statistics Science and Public Policy. IX. Government, Science and Politics. edited by A. M. Herzberg and R. W. Oldford (Kingston, ONT: Queens University, 2005).
[ii] Merrill Jensen, ed., The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. Vol. I “Constitutional Documents and Records, 1776â€‘1787,” (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976). p. 116.
[iv] Harry V. Jaffa. The Conditions of Freedom: Essays in Political Philosophy. Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975. Chapter 7, pp. 151-152.
[v] W. B. Allen. “Machiavelli and Modernity.” In Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince. Translated by Angelo Codevilla. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997. edition translation of Machiavelli’s Prince]