On the Fourth of July, my family continued a long-standing American tradition; we celebrated our country’s Independence Day by reading aloud the document we honor with that day: The Declaration of Independence. I believe that looking carefully at this document helps us understand our history and the purpose for which this nation was founded.
I plan to take the remaining weeks in July to discuss the Declaration part-by-part. First up is the Preamble and the Declaration of Rights.
Declaration Part One
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and 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, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
The Preamble states the purpose of the document: to explain to the whole world why the revolution was necessary. Think about that. Compare it to other revolutions and current civil wars. Who else has this “decent respect” for the “opinions of mankind”? Who else pauses to care how their actions will effect their neighbors, the “powers of the earth”? Who else wishes their first step in open rebellion to be an explanation of “the causes” of separation for posterity?
Declaration of Rights
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.
In order to establish the evils that “impel them to the separation”, they needed to give context: their rights as men, Man’s relationship to government, the purpose of government, and what must happen when a government attempts to undermine its own ends.
This emphasizes the basic relationship of person to person: a similarity in what we are due to our creation. The same Being that created us all has granted us certain rights because of what He made us to be. He has given us life: that cannot be taken from us unless we ourselves forfeit it. He granted us liberty, the freedom to become who we should be. And He gave us the desire for happiness, so that the pursuit of it is ours in order to fulfill that desire.
Given this relationship of equality between human beings, if we are to be ruled by someone else, it must be by our own free will. We form governments in order to protect these inalienable rights. Governments are not a necessary evil, but rather a very human way to encourage goodness on earth. Governments help men to live their freedom and pursue happiness together. Without governments, this would not be possible. So when a government turns on these very rights, it is, in fact, turning on its own purpose, cutting its legs out from under it. And the people it was meant to protect have the right to destroy it and start over.
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.
These men knew, as St. Thomas Aquinas argued, that “when a law is changed, the binding power of the law is diminished, in so far as custom is abolished. Wherefore human law should never be changed, unless, in some way or other, the common weal be compensated according to the extent of the harm done in this respect.” (Summa Theologia, Prima Secundæ Partis, Question 97, Article 2, Respondeo). They wanted to state, from the beginning, that they knew that some evil would come from what they were doing. But they believed the good they would gain was enough to compensate.
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. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.
Having presented the context of what humans are and how governments are supposed to relate to them, they now address their present concern. The government under which they were born, the one which many had served in various capacities, was no longer serving the purpose for which it was formed. It now planned to take over, as if government were an end in itself, which could use its citizens. And they claim that, in such a case, it is not only the right of the citizens, but it is their duty, to form a government that will protect their rights as were outlined above.
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.
Next time, we’ll look at the Bill of Indictment, the charges against the King of Great Britain.