The Lessons of the Declaration of Independence

The colonists’ quest for independence from the British in 1776 began with a goal: “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.” Declaring independence meant that Americans were no longer subordinate to the British monarch nor subject to the British Parliament, but were equal, free, and independent.

The reasons for this dramatic action demanded explanation, as they noted:  “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” Therefore, the Declaration includes two parts. There are on the one hand facts about the conduct and behavior of the British toward the colonists. On the other, there are immutable truths about the human condition. These truths have guided Americans in their quest to live and to build a just and worthy nation since they were penned.

The colonists recognized a universal standard independent of man-made governments and institutions, invoking the authority of the laws of nature and of nature’s God. The coupling of God and Nature was comprehensive. It included that which is human and of this world and that which is created by God and universal.

In his 1837 speech commemorating the Declaration of Independence, John Quincy Adams coupled the laws of nature with the dictates of justice and proclaimed: “In the annals of the human race, then, for the first time, did one People announce themselves as a member of that great community of the powers of the earth, acknowledging the obligations and claiming the rights of the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God. The earth was made to bring forth in one day! A Nation was born at once!”

The now citizens of the United States of America were not just severing ties with their colonial British past, nor were they simply forming a new government. The foundation laid by the Declaration of Independence articulated truths that had never been used as the foundation of any actual government. “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.”

These rights are comprehensive in the lives of men and women, though it is important to note that the document says “among these rights,” which suggests that this list is not exhaustive. That such rights exist is a matter of self-evident truth—that is, the truth of the thing is contained within the definition of the thing. To acknowledge that there is such a thing as “man,” created by God and not himself a god, is to acknowledge his equality to every other creature that can be called “man”—and that goes for females, too. Man, as in mankind, meant that in their essential dignity and nature as beings, created by God, they are beings who are by nature also created equal.

The mere assertion that a sovereign people have inalienable rights is not sufficient, however, because government is always required to secure those rights. A right can exist without people acknowledging it. For rights to be actualized, action is required and the authors of the Declaration were very clear about what kind of action they meant.

The relationship between the citizens and the government is made clear by Adams: “by the affirmation that the principal natural rights of mankind are unalienable, it placed them beyond the reach of organized human power.” This reinforces the idea that government is meant to secure rights rather than grant them, and also the notion that the people themselves, rather than the government, are sovereign.

As Adams continues in his explanation of the text of the Declaration, “by affirming that governments are instituted to secure them, and may and ought to be abolished if they become destructive of those ends, they made all government subordinate to the moral supremacy of the People.” The rights recognized in the Declaration are inherent. The moral supremacy of the people gives a standard by which to judge: it is not force or violence, it is a moral foundation that can be discerned by reason and used as a basis for forming judgments.

How best to understand further the rights and the powers of government to secure our rights as stated in the Declaration? Thomas Jefferson, one of the principal drafters of the Declaration of Independence, expounded upon the limitations of the legislature in his Virginia Bill for Religious Freedom. Drafted in 1779, he included references to the natural rights listed in the Declaration: “And though we well know that this assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act to be irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such as would be an infringement of natural right” (emphasis added). This theme is advanced as well by Frederick Douglass and Calvin Coolidge, who invoke the word “final” to describe the sentiment.

Douglass in his 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” described those who drafted the Declaration as preferring revolution over peaceful submission to bondage.

They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was ‘settled’ that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were ‘final;’ not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times.

Coolidge, in his speech on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, also looked upon the Declaration as having a finality: “If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.”

The finality that Jefferson, Douglass, and Coolidge invoke doesn’t mean that America is static or without the possibility of development or improvement. Instead, it affirms that the principles of the Declaration of Independence are ideals and markers by which to measure all conduct thereafter. The citizens have a responsibility to themselves and to fellow citizens to act in a manner consistent with the foundational principles. One need look no further than Douglass and his reference to “degenerate times.”

The times of which Douglass spoke were among the darkest in the history of the United States. The Declaration recognized that all men are created equal and that they possessed inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but slavery was still present in the southern states. Douglass condemned the recently passed Fugitive Slave Law, which required that slaves in free states be returned to their bondage. He was a freed slave who was active in the abolitionist movement and intentionally gave his “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” speech on July 5. He pointedly included in his remarks about the Fourth of July, “it is the birthday of your National Independence.”

Douglass posed questions to his audience: “Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?” He continues, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

Douglass was blunt. He questioned how the country could declare the self-evident truths of the Declaration, but “you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, ‘is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,’ a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.” Not only were those in the south who held slaves denying them fundamental rights, they were also masters of them in direct contradiction to the principles of the Declaration.

Douglass spoke those words in 1852, but he ended his speech on a note of hope: “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. ‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.”

Lincoln, with respect to the principle of equality in the Declaration, said in his speech responding to the Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott:

They 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 constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere. The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, not for that, but for future use.

The eternal and universal principles used to craft an argument for severing ties with the British and laying the foundation for a new nation were successful in 1776, but their relevance did not end once America became an independent nation, as Lincoln recognized. The principles used as justification and explanation speak to all, as much today as they did 243 years ago. The Declaration is a measure that serves as a reference point, regardless of the time or of a particular set of circumstances. That we are created equal is not dependent upon our being American, or male or female, or our economic condition. It is a universal truth.

That we have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is not dependent upon the government that is in power. That we have the right to alter our government if it becomes destructive of these rights is as true today as it was in 1776. That government is intended to secure our rights and derives its just powers from the consent of the governed reminds us that the foundation of the sovereignty of the people requires participation and vigilance. Consent is given on an ongoing basis and the judgment of whether the government is securing the rights of American citizens or thwarting them is a constant exercise. The words and themes of the Declaration have remained at the heart of American discourse because they provide a guide that is timeless.

There are great differences between the likes of John Quincy Adams, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Calvin Coolidge, yet they all read the Declaration because it spoke to them and it spoke to the America in which they lived, but it also spoke to the America that they wanted it to become.

The Declaration of Independence speaks to us today because it initiates dialogue between the ages, with the ideas and arguments of citizens past and with those living today. When we are forced to ponder all of the assertions and truths in the Declaration, we must engage in a dialogue with our fellow citizens. To quote from another great work from the period of the Declaration, Federalist 1, we are asked to determine whether we can establish good government from “reflection and choice” or are doomed to accept that we must submit to “accident and force.”

The Declaration provides the parameters of the discussion that lead to reflection and choice. As America becomes more fragmented—the current word is tribalistic—as monuments to historical figures are being toppled, questions asked about how America’s past should be honored or erased, or whether one should stand or take a knee during the National Anthem, such parameters and the principles of the Declaration are necessary. The annual remembrance of the ideals and recitation of the words, a deliberation and reflection upon the meaning and applicability of the words must be an occurrence that goes beyond the Fourth of July.

Editor’s Note: This essay is based upon a speech delivered at the St. John’s College Graduate Institute, Santa Fe, New Mexico, “Does the Declaration of Independence Still Speak to Us Today?”

Photo Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

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About Elizabeth Eastman

Elizabeth Eastman holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Claremont Graduate School, an M.A. in Liberal Education from St. John’s College, and a B.A. in French Literature and Civilization from Scripps College. She has taught in political science and history departments and in the liberal studies programs at colleges and universities around the country. She was the 2020-21 senior scholar in residence at the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization in Boulder, Colorado.