We are all familiar with the Declaration of Independence—perhaps too familiar. Perhaps we’ve let our familiarity with it blind us to what it actually says and does not say. For example, we all remember something about self-evident truths regarding natural rights and the purpose of government. But the document is hardly reducible to this statement. And, the further we range about the Declaration, the more we recall the most obvious truth of all: that our nation, as it was Founded and as it currently exists, is hardly reducible to the Declaration of Independence!
So, to complement all the other ways we mark Independence Day—in John Adams’s words, by “solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty” as well as “Pomp and Parade, […] Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations”—here are three overlooked lessons from the Declaration of Independence.
1. Communities Have Rights, Too
We all remember the second sentence of the Declaration (“We hold these truths…”); but we’re liable to overlook the first sentence. Here’s how it begins:
“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands that have connected them to another, and 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…”
Before speaking of persons (who, per the second sentence, are all “created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”), the Declaration speaks of peoples: the communities to which individuals belong. The Declaration is a statement on behalf of “one people,” arguing that that people—that nation—is entitled to its own “station” “among the powers of the earth.” This is not merely a descriptive statement; it is normative, as well: distinct nations do exist, and it’s right that they do. Natural law and divine law both affirm this principle: the independence and separation of diverse “peoples” is discoverable by human reason (the common sense of citizens and statesmen, as well as the profound reflections of historians and philosophers) and has Scriptural warrant as well (e.g., Gen. 11:8, Deut. 32:8, Job 12:23, Ps. 22:28 and 66:7, Acts 17:26, Rom. 13:1).
Far from being an abstract statement of the rights of naturally-isolated individuals, the Declaration begins by recognizing that every individual always already belongs to a community. Our Founders, including the authors of the Declaration, were familiar with the various “state of nature” teachings of modern political philosophers. But they didn’t invoke a state of nature as a premise for the Declaration, a document that, according to Jefferson, rather than being derived from a single political philosophy was “an expression of the American mind” based on “the harmonising sentiments of the day, whether expressed, in [conversations,] in letters, printed essays or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney Etc.” When the British powers over them became tyrannical, each American colony and town fell into a “state of nature,” provoking communities to re-establish themselves as bodies politic bound together with new social contracts, that is, constitutions. None of the Founders were very taken with the idea of a historical “state of nature” of asocial individuals preceding our social and political condition. The Founders understood that we are always already social animals, and thus, always already particular—men and women of this or that nation and culture …
2. Self-Government Requires Virtue
… and thus, more or less capable of this or that form of government.
The universal statements contained in the Declaration (“Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”; “all men”; “any Form of Government”) sometimes blind us to its careful attention to particularities. There is no contradiction here.The Founders acknowledged a universal, divinely-instituted nature that characterizes every human person and sets the standard for judging every human polity; and they acknowledged also the empirical data of all history and their own experience, which indicated that every society is different, and certain traits qualify (while others disqualify) a society for certain forms of government.
As a result, the Founders emphasized the importance not only of human nature, but of virtue—the perfection of human nature—in establishing and maintaining good government. And the Declaration abounds with virtue-language. Prudence is named explicitly as the form of wisdom that supervises political decisions, including the ultimate political decision of revolution; and the “self-evident truths” are themselves examples of the true beliefs undergirding the colonists’s practical wisdom. The Declaration also praises the “manly firmness,” or fortitude, of the colonial legislatures in opposing the King’s “invasions on the rights of the people.” It refers to the moderation of the Americans in previously having “petitioned for redress in the most humble terms.” It is suffused throughout with appeals to justice, from God the law-giver in the first paragraph, to its appeal to “the Supreme Judge of the world” in the last. And it concludes with an affirmation of piety: “a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”
All this virtue-talk is likely to give us the warm and fuzzies. But it has a disturbing corollary. Not every person—and not every people—is equally virtuous. Thus, not every people is equally capable of every form of government. The Founders thought that republican self-government required the greatest virtue in the people. The Declaration’s grievances conclude: “A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” The Americans of 1776 are “a free people,” and deserve to be ruled accordingly. But this implies that there are other, “unfree” kinds of peoples. As John Adams would later declare, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” What constitution would be “adequate” to govern an immoral and irreligious people? Similarly, at the closing of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin acknowledged that the new Constitution “can only end in Despotism,
as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.” This decay, from a virtuous people capable of a republic to a vicious people incapable of anything better than despotism, has recurred throughout history, and is perhaps most vividly exemplified by Rome, the ancient referent that dominated the Founders’s political imagination. Virtue matters for forming a regime—which means that vice does, too.
3. There’s More than One Legitimate Form of Government
By simultaneously holding in mind an objective standard for good government and a realism about its elusive conditions, the Founders were well within the great tradition of political philosophy, from Aristotle to their own time. By contrast, many modern-day ideologues cleave so closely to universal doctrines of human rights and liberal-democratic governance that they abstract from the moral (and other) conditions for political regimes, and give themselves over to political utopianism.
This often distorts our interpretation of our Founding documents. Americans today often are tempted to reduce the Declaration to a simplistic polemic against monarchy—the British Monarchy of the time, and monarchy as such—and therefore interpret the document as a dogmatically-republican statement.
To do so overlooks two features of the Declaration. First, its grievances are leveled against the British parliament and British people as well as the British king. The king is faulted for failing to restrain Parliament, which had overstepped its bounds in arrogating to itself legislative power over the colonies. The colonies thought of the British Empire as a community of nations loyal to the British Monarch. Parliament, by contrast, was the legitimate legislative body for Great Britain, and Great Britain alone. The British Parliament itself was created in 1707 by Acts of Union passed by the separate Parliaments of England and Scotland. No such act was ever passed by a colonial assembly to join itself to the British Parliament. The American assemblies retained independent legislative authority over the respective colonies: Parliament was no more the legislature for Massachusetts or Virginia than the Massachusetts General Court or House of Burgesses was the legislature for England. The king’s greatest sins, according to the Declaration, consist in failing to prevent, and then actively supporting Parliament’s bid to tyrannize the colonies by usurping their rights to self-government: “He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of Pretended legislation.” A full year before declaring independence, when the Continental Congress voted to take up arms against the British, they declared that Parliament was seeking to enslave them; yet until July 1776, they still saw themselves as members of the Empire, loyal to the King.
Second, while the Declaration emphasizes that legitimate government requires the consent of the governed, it grants the people a surprising latitude to determine their form of government:
“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, 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 is dogmatic about the origin and purpose of government: “the people,” and their “Safety and Happiness,” respectively. But it leaves it to the people to determine the proper means: which government will best serve them and their posterity? Only an ideologue would insist that there is one, and only one, legitimate form of government, and that it must be instituted everywhere all at once. The times and the place—and, crucially, the character of the people, moral and social and economic and religious—determine what is possible, and more often than not that will mean that the best form of government is out of reach. The people are given the broadest possible latitude to determine what “principles” should lay at the foundation of the new government, and how its “powers” should be organized. The people are not simply instructed to implement, say, a “liberal democracy,” or a “constitutional republic.” It is reserved to the people to deliberate on these fundamental questions, and to consent to whatever “shall seem most likely” to hit upon the unmoving targets of politics.
As Montesquieu, the most-frequently-quoted authority in the Federalist Papers, put it: “the government most in conformity with nature is that government whose particular disposition best relates to the disposition of the people for whom it is established.”
We have seen that, rather than a paean to the “liberty” of isolated individuals, the Declaration fully recognizes the reality and rights of “peoples”: the sovereign political communities to which persons and families always already belong. And, rather than a statement of ideological or utopian rationalism, meant to be applied universally without attention to local capacities, circumstances, and consequences, the Declaration is a product of genuine prudence, or practical wisdom, attentive simultaneously to the unswerving truths of nature and to the complexity of particular conditions, especially the necessity that a regime-form must vary with the rise and fall of the moral character of the people.
All this should inspire confidence in us, that the Declaration of Independence is not merely an interesting historical document, and not merely a noble portion of our heritage, but remains a valuable resource for clear thinking on ultimate political questions and a bountiful source to which we can return as we seek to navigate the crises of contemporary America.