By Rob Natelson
Americans today are the heirs to a long chain of Anglo-American constitutional documents. The chain began with a charter issued by King Henry I in 1100. It continued through Magna Carta (1215), the Petition of Right (1628), the English Bill of Rights (1688/89), and charters for the British colonies.
Among the significant American documents in the chain are the Mayflower Compact (1620), the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639), the Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641), the proclamations of the First Continental Congress (1774), the Declaration of Independence (1776), constitutions of the newly independent states (1776–1786), the Articles of Confederation (1781), and the U.S. Constitution (1787).
These documents itemized the structure of government, constraints on government, and the rights of the people. Each marked progress toward individual liberty and self-governance. This essay focuses on the values underlying one of the most important links in the chain: the Declaration of Independence.
The Parts of the Declaration
The Declaration of Independence is divided into five parts: the preamble, the statement of philosophy, the grievances, the operative words, and the statement of the signers.
The practice of inserting preambles in legal documents derived from the drafting customs of English and American lawyers. A preamble usually explained the purpose of the instrument it introduced. The preamble to the Declaration tells us one of those purposes is to “declare the causes which impel [Americans] to the separation.”
The next part is the statement of general philosophy (“We hold these Truths …”). As we shall see, this section is the most fertile source for the Declaration’s values.
The Americans of 1776 sometimes viewed themselves as the heirs to the “Glorious Revolution” that had ousted King James II and produced the English Bill of Rights nearly a century earlier. In its lengthy itemization of grievances, the Declaration followed a pattern set by the English Bill of Rights.
After the grievances came the Declaration’s operative words—that is, its words of legal effect: “these United Colonies are … Free and Independent States.” Last came a statement by the signers (“And for the support of this Declaration ….”)
Values in Each Part
The Declaration’s values surface in every part of the document. The preamble evidences respect for the opinions of mankind, not just in America and Britain, but throughout the world. The grievances against the Crown presuppose certain values being violated. For example, the complaints about the King’s interference with the colonial assemblies assume the value of representative government. The charge of “imposing Taxes on us without our Consent” reflects the Anglo-American tenet that taxes require approval of the people or of their representatives.
The operative words also display underlying values. Those words are:
“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are … Free and Independent States ….”
Notice (1) the assumption of the legitimacy of political representation and (2) the belief in a moral and personal God.
The signers’ final statement discloses faith in God, the sacredness of mutual promises, and a high standard of honor—which meant the signers’ good reputation and fame.
The Statement of Philosophy
However, most of the Declaration’s foundational values are in its statement of general philosophy. It’s this part of the document that sets forth the American common creed:
“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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
This section contains an eloquent statement of the theory of natural rights underlying the Glorious Revolution of 1688/89, as propounded by, among others, John Locke (1632–1704).
The first step to understanding this theory is to know that the word “right” had a broader scope than it does today. When we think of an individual right, we usually think of immunity from government interference with some activity we choose to undertake. Thus, when we refer to the right of free speech, we usually mean we’re immune from punishment for speaking our minds. To the founding generation, however, the term “right” also could mean a power or prerogative.
According to this theory, God bestowed rights/powers upon all individuals. In a primitive state of nature, a person’s rights/powers included all those actions of which he or she was capable. These included self-defense, freedom of conscience, providing for oneself and one’s family, and affecting others for good or for ill. They also included the more mundane choices of daily life, such as whether to wear a hat and what time to get up in the morning. The number of rights/powers was limitless.
However, early in human development (according to the theory) people left the state of nature and entered into society. When doing so, they voluntarily conveyed to a central authority some of their natural rights/powers for the better preservation of the remainder. In particular, they “alienated” (transferred) to government their rights/powers to initiate force against others or otherwise harm others. The government thereby amassed a pool of power that enabled it to keep the peace and protect the rights remaining in the people.
Although the exact rights/powers given to government might vary with the society, there were some that were so central to liberty that they could not justifiably be given away. These rights were “inalienable” or “unalienable”—legal terms meaning “not transferable.” They included the preservation of one’s life; movement; freedom of conscience (religion); freedom to pursue a vocation; freedom to acquire, use, and transfer property; and freedom to engage in expressive activities, such as speech, art, and religious worship—so long as one did not impair others in the exercise of their own rights. People were “equal” in that all were equally entitled to these unalienable rights.
In a proper society, the people retained at least their unalienable rights, and their government protected the people in the enjoyment of them.
The Value of Prudence
Thus, according to the Declaration a government that didn’t protect its citizens’ unalienable rights was a bad government. However, the right of revolution didn’t ensue as soon as a government turned bad. The Founders understood that departing from tradition and from established institutions entailed costs. Revolution could inflict more harm than it cured. Thus, the Declaration also reflects the value of prudence: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.”
Prudence counseled trying other methods of cure before resorting to revolution. The Founders didn’t rebel at the first signs of British overreaching in 1763, nor even in the face of significant provocation in 1773 or 1774. Instead, they employed the procedures provided by the unwritten British constitution: public remonstrance, persuasion through the free press, petitions and resolutions, pressure on Parliament, and peaceful (and sometimes not-so-peaceful) civil disobedience.
Rebellion arose only after these methods proved futile and the colonists had proof of “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object”—“a design to reduce them under absolute despotism ….”
At that point, it became “their right … their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.” Americans had reached a time when revolution was not merely an option, but an obligation.
Robert G. Natelson is a former constitutional law professor and constitutional historian who is senior fellow in constitutional jurisprudence at Colorado’s Independence Institute. He is the author of “The Original Constitution: What It Actually Said and Meant” (3rd ed., 2015).
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