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On the Declaration of Independence

Sep. 16, 2014

by Stephen Morris

One of the advantages of teaching American Government is having the regular opportunity to read and discuss what has been called the grandest, bravest, and most profound political document ever written. The Declaration of Independence was, in the words of John Quincy Adams, “the first example of a self-constituted nation proclaiming to the rest of mankind the principles upon which it was associated.” The document’s principal author, Thomas Jefferson, said that the Declaration “was intended to be an expression of the American mind.” Abraham Lincoln extolled the Declaration’s “sacred” principles, and G. K. Chesterton considered the Declaration to be America’s political “creed.” 

What are the sacred principles upon which the Americans of 1776 associated? The core ideas of the Declaration are found in its brilliantly concise second paragraph:

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 of 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.

These few lines articulate the eight essential tenants of the political philosophy upon which America is founded: 

1. America is founded on belief in Truth. Men do not pledge their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor for principles that they are not convinced are true and right. The postmodern world may reject the idea that truth is absolute or knowable, but the Declaration plainly adopts truth as its standard of authority and action.

2. America is founded on belief in God. There is an ongoing debate over whether America is, or was ever, a “Christian nation” (it depends, of course, on how one defines the term), but no one can dispute that the Declaration presupposes the existence of a “Creator” and “Supreme Judge of the World” who guides by “Providence” and is the source of natural law. The existence of God is the first, great self-evident truth (Psalm 19:1, Romans 1:20), and it has profound implications for political principles that follow.

3. America is founded on Natural Law. The Declaration expressly relies upon “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” a concept that was accepted by everyone from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas to John Locke. Natural law is comprised of the kind of “self-evident” truths upon which the Declaration relies, truths which are capable of being established by observation and reason. God established natural law to be universal, immutable, and ultimately superior to the authority of any earthly sovereign.

4. America is founded on the equality of all men. Because God created each of us in His image (Genesis 1:27), the Declaration rejects any sort of aristocracy of birth in favor of considering every person a legal and political equal, each possessing the same rights. America is often criticized for failing to live up to this principle, but the Declaration’s rejection of kings and nobles in favor of limited self-government was the first step on the long road to every American being equally free and independent.

5. America is founded on the existence of fundamental rights. Each person has been endowed by the Creator with life, with freedom of choice, with abilities, and with opportunities. Our right to these gifts comes from God, and no human government has the authority to deprive us of their enjoyment. 

6. America is founded on the principle that the basic purpose of government is to secure the rights of its citizens. Not only are our rights “unalienable,” government has as its first duty the protection of rights.  National defense, the police, the courts, and our laws exist to “secure the blessings of liberty” by protecting us from those who would do us wrong (Romans 13:1-7).

7. America is founded on the principle that just government depends upon the “consent of the governed.” A government can maintain its power over its people by many means, but the only legitimate basis is the support or acquiescence of its citizens. When President Lincoln spoke of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” he was reaffirming this principle of popular sovereignty.

8. America is founded on the principle that the people have the right to alter or abolish any government that “becomes destructive of these ends.” When government infringes or otherwise fails to secure the fundamental rights of its citizens, those citizens are free not only to criticize the government, to vote politicians and parties out of office, and even to amend the Constitution, but, in the most extreme cases (“not for light or transient causes”) they may even overthrow their government and establish a new one.

Here are eight ideas that united America, eight profound spiritual and political propositions that still justify our existence as a nation and form the basis of our Constitutional system. These principles are our heritage as Americans, a heritage we must cherish and maintain. As Lincoln said, the Declaration was “meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”