Why I like the Declaration of Independence


Today citizens of the United States celebrate Independence Day. On this day, 232 years ago, thirteen American colonies proclaimed their independence from Great Britain in a famous document that Thomas Jefferson wrote, the Declaration of Independence. As a history teacher, I find this document fascinating, because it fuses together two different political traditions. On one hand, it recalls seventeenth-century English constitutionalism and its arguments about what had supposedly always been the rights of Englishmen. On the other hand, it advances the kind of powerful and universalizing claims about natural law and human rights spawned in the Enlightenment and given their most dramatic expression during the French Revolution. These connections make the document an interesting object lesson for the history classroom. They also can act as a healthy reminder to Americans that our Declaration of Independence displays not only differences from European political traditions, but also powerful affinities for them.

For traditions of English constitutionalism, have a look at the second half of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, which speaks of “a long train of abuses and usurpations” and ends thus: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.” Following this statement is a list of all the King’s offenses.

Now compare this list as well as the language complaining of tyranny to the Petition of Right, which the English parliament issued in 1628 in response to perceived abuses of power by King Charles I, who a couple decades later fought a civil war and was eventually tried for treason and beheaded in 1649. To understand the gulf in political culture between Parliament and the King, it is also helpful to look at a statement that the king’s father, James I, wrote in 1598, while still just James VI of Scotland: True Law of Free Monarchies. In it the king is a divine right ruler who sees himself as “before any estates or ranks of men within the same, before any Parliaments were holden or laws made; and by them was the land distributed (which at the first was wholly theirs), states erected and discerned, and forms of government devised and established.”

England tried government without a monarchy for a about a decade, but in 1660 a Stuart, Charles II, once again ascended the throne. His son became King James II in 1688. Fears of the son’s absolutist ambitions and attempts to bring Catholicism back to England led Parliament to depose him, and invite his daughter and son-in-law to rule, William and Mary. This time Parliament passed a much more far-reaching bill, the English Bill of Rights of 1689, to which the new King and queen acquiesced. Nonetheless, Parliament did not claim to have the right to depose kings. Instead, it observed that James II had “abdicated the government and the throne [was] thereby vacant.” After discussing his offenses, the members of the upper and lower houses of Parliament declared that “for the vindicating and asserting [of] their [the representatives’] ancient rights and liberties,” kings could not rule without Parliament on their royal authority alone. The king was subject to the law. Then the document enumerates a series of rights that will look familiar to anyone who knows the first ten amendments of the United States Constitution.

Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence describes similar tyranny, and his explanation for the colonists’ rebellion is not inconsistent with what Parliament had done eighty-eight years earlier. It represented not so much a revolution, per se, as a severing of relations with the king, in order to preserve traditional rights. Jefferson’s own argument read thus:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

If the Declaration of Independence was consistent with English constitutionalist traditions, however, it also offered a powerful and universal statement about human beings that was based on natural law instead of ancient liberties.

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.

This kind of thinking was indeed revolutionary. In France beliefs in natural law soon helped bring down the old regime in 1789, though the American contribution to that was probably more the debts that Louis XVI had incurred in his support of the enemies of his enemy, Great Britain, during the American rebellion. Members of the Third Estate called the National Assembly into existence, and members of this body began their work by focusing on individual rights, only later turning to more practical constitutional issues. In contrast to England in 1688 and later the American colonies in 1776, though, the French didn’t modify an existing form of government. They invented something new based on natural law. Read the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which appeared during the first summer of revolution. The first three items in this document will sound familiar to Americans who know their own country’s foundational documents:

1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on common utility.

2. The purpose of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

3. The principle of all sovereignty rests essentially in the nation. No body and no individual may exercise authority which does not emanate expressly from the nation.

The causal link between this document and our own Constitution and Declaration of Independence is indirect at best, but one can see the common concerns that had arisen from the Enlightenment, and the common justification for people coming together and forming a new political order of their own free will.

The Declaration of Independence has a foot in two different traditions, one of old English rights that Parliament asserted and expanded in the face of the absolutist ambitions of its kings, and one more universal, based on natural law and reflected not only in the ideals of the French Revolution, but also the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is tempting to speculate on how these two different traditions might continue to inform American political culture today, but that will have to wait for another time and perhaps another author. Important here is rather the conversation among foundational constitutional documents from the United States, England, and France.

Image: “Declaration of Independence” by John Trumbull

This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.