The Declaration of Independence is the very first document associated with the founding of the United States. It is the document that broke the bonds between the colonies and the British Empire and established the United States as an independent nation. The document is divided into four sections: (1) Introduction, (2) Crimes of the King of England, (3) Conclusion, and (4) Signatories. The Declaration of Independence is not a very long document, but it contains major themes that would identify the United States as a very distinct nation. The limits of government and natural rights are among the themes that will emerge in an analysis of this document. In order to simplify and organize the analysis, this work will follow the four sections of the Declaration of Independence.
The beginning of the Introduction states the following:
“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.
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” (DOI).
The Introduction explains that all humans have certain rights given to them by God. These rights are said to come from the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God. All of these God-given rights are not explained, but among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The rights, often referred to as inalienable rights, need to be looked at a litle more to see what implications they have for the United States today.
All men are created equal. This document was being written in 1776, nearing the end of the Enlightenment. Philosophical evolution was perhaps the hottest topic in academia at that time. The founding fathers were not ignorant people. In this environment, they took a stand and unequivocally affirmed creation as a self-evident truth. Many who want equality under the law have failed to recognize that legal equality comes from equality in creation. Those who reject creation are, in essence, rejecting the source of human equality according to the Declaration of Independence. An affirmation of creation was not the main purpose of the Declaration. The founding fathers wanted to affirm that all people are equal and that equality does not come from any government or human organization. In the process of affirming human equality, the founding fathers took a stand on the side of creation.
All people are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. Humans have certain rights that are not conferred by any individual, document or institution. These rights cannot be unevenly protected according to some socially derived formula for ability and need because it is, paraphrasing the founding fathers, self-evident that these rights, being unalienable (that is, not foreign but a part of our humanity), come from the Creator. To reject the Creator is to also reject the only source of unalienable rights. All human rights then become socially derived, the creation of human societies (and institutions). Since human societies are different, human rights would be different for each society, making human rights a relative concept. If human rights are to be the same everywhere, then society cannot be the source, and this is what the Declaration affirms.
Among these (unalienable rights) are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. The right to life, the right to liberty (many of the freedoms claimed under the Constitution) and the right to pursue happiness are just a few of the unalienable rights that come from the Creator. These rights are not conferred by the Constitution because they exist outside of the Constitution and preceed it. Yet, they are contained in the Constitution and protected by the Constitution precisely because they are our unalienable rights. No government has the right to deny any individual these rights because they are part of our human nature.
A government is very important in the life of a people. A government should not be changed for unimportant resaons. People create government to protect these rights. When these rights are abused or undermined by the government, then, for the people, “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government,…”
“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. 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. — 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” (DOI).
One of the most surprising things about the Declaration of Independence is that it did not denounce slavery which was completely against human equality, inalienable rights, and everything that the Declaration stood for. How could it be that men who, with so much eloquence, made a convincing case for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness could not see in slavery the exact opposite of everything they professed? Frankly, these men saw slavery for the evil it was. As a matter of fact, slavery, the slave trade, the failure to end slave trading, and slave insurrection were among the crimes the King of England was accused of in Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence. In referring to the King in the original draft, Jefferson wrote:
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another” (Transcript)
Even Jefferson saw the hypocrisy in the King in that slavery, the opprobrium of infidel powers, should be the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Yet, Jefferson and his colleagues did not see the hypocrisy in their fight to defend life and liberty while at the same time condoning an institution that was in complete violation of their struggle.
This pasage did not survive the final draft. Why? The sanitized historical explanation is that it had to be withdrawn because slavery was a fractious issue between the Northern and Southern delegates. In other words, the Northern delegates did not favor slavery but the Southern delegates did. So to appease the Southern delegates and avoid a rift, the grievance against slavery was withdrawn. This explanation summons several troubling moral questions, the answers to which do not reflect favorably on the Christian majority:
If slavery was, in the words of Jefferson, an assemblage of horrors and the opprobrium of infidel powers, while would a Christian nation, at its very inception, seek to appease the supporters of slavery?
If slavery was a cruel war against nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty … , why was it necessary to appease its supporters and not its opponents?
Was it because the Southerners were more honest in their support of slavery than the Northerners were in their opposition?
Or was it really because many of these Christian men and their constituents were reaping great economic benefits from this evil institution so they chose to see no evil and speak no evil?
Could it just be that slavery did not present much in the way of a moral quandary for the “Christian principles” these men stood for?
Whatever the answer or answers may be, it puts some doubts on the sincerity of the people who adopted the Declaration of Independence.
In the final draft, the section on the Crimes of the King of England did not mention slavery at all. The King of England was accused of violating many of the rights of the people of the colonies, but the Declaration was completely silent on slavery. In this very one respect, the Declaration of Independence was a very defective document. If the founding fathers had dealt with the issue of slavery at the birth of the nation, it is just possible that the Civil War would not have been necessary nearly a century later. Thomas Day, an abolitionist in England, thought that the Americans were being hypocritical in demanding freedom while at the same time destroying freedom through slavery. “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves” (Armitage, 77). Nearly a century later, Abraham Lincoln would use the Declaration as the basis for his opposition to spreading slavery in the Union (McPherson, 126-127).
The Crimes of the King of Great Britain is like a 29-count indictment against the King of England, showing how through his actions or inaction, the British Government had abused or undermined the God-given rights of the people of the colonies. In spite of the defect of the Declaration, the document goes on to conclude that because of the King’s violation of the rights of the people of the colonies, they are separating themselves from the authority of England. The concluding section is the actual declaration of independence. It is short and very much quite explanatory. It is perhaps best to produce it in its entirety:
`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, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do’’ (DOI).
This section states that the colonies are “absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown” and have now become “Free and Independent States.” With this conclusion, the British colonies in the Western hemisphere became the United States of America.
The final section of the Declaration of Independence is Signatories: Here is listed the names of those who signed the Declaration of Independence. It begins with a very brief introduction: And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
The main theme of the Declaration of Indepence is the natural rights of people. These rights are not given by any government and cannot be denied by any government. In the eyes of the founding fathers, the British government had violated these rights of the American colonists and they were within their righrts to separarte from England. Except in the section on the Crimes of the King of England, this document makes an appeal to God in one way or antoher. That God is called upon in the foundation document of the United States does not support the idea of separation of Church and state that has become popular in America today.
Armitage, David. The Declaration Of Independence: A Global History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007.
DOI – The Declaration of Independence. U. S. Constitution Online. Located at www.usconstitution.net/declar.html. Retrieved April 27, 2009.
McPherson, James. Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Transcript of the Thomas Jefferson’s draft is located at www.loc.gov/exhibits/declara/ruffdrft.html. The section on slavery in Jefferson’s handwriting can be found at www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/images/decp3.jpg. Retrieved April 27, 2009.