The Declaration -All people equal in possession of common humanity
consequence of the French and Indian War was the British government's budget had
to be increased substantially. When the English imposed an internal tax upon
American colonists, they set in motion a series of events culminating, less than
a dozen years later, in the American Revolution.
As English acts of oppression increased, so did acts of resistance. Corresponding was escalation of objectives of the colonists, from immunity from specific laws and practices to complete independence.
Arguments used by colonists to justify resistance escalated from "lower" legal and historical grounds to "higher" philosophical and moral grounds.
Colonists first argued that the oppressive acts were violations of their rights as British subjects. But in the end, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, they argued that oppressive acts were violations of their rights as members of the human race.
At first, colonists argued the English Parliament did not have the power to enact certain specific acts, although acknowledging Parliament's supremacy over the colonies. Eventually, they claimed Parliament had no authority over them.
To make such a claim appear plausible, the patriots formulated a theory of British/American relationship which put America in the same constitutional position in which Canada was later placed in once she attained Commonwealth status.
This theory was not expressly stated in the Declaration of Independence, but is definitely implied.
Expressly stated, in addition to a long list of grievances against the English King, are a general theory of government based upon the natural rights philosophy. This philosophy was used to justify the act of revolution. Equally important, it also put forth a constructive theory of government.
A paradox indeed, that the same principles of government can be used as justification for the destructive act of revolution or a basis for a constructive and lasting set of political institutions. But such was the nature of the philosophy set down in the Declaration. In the words of Thomas Jefferson:
"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.
It was not enough for the patriots to set down a list of grievances against the king. Grievances were one thing, but revolution against constituted authority was quite another. What they needed was a general theory of government that made revolution look respectable.
As for the constructive part, Jefferson offered a general theory of human rights that served as inspiration for his own as well as later American generations. The view that people had inalienable rights was something so "self-evident" that Jefferson did not bother to explain it in the Declaration. To a generation steeped in views and sentiments of the Age of Enlightenment, such an explanation would have been unnecessary.
The key phrase in the statement quoted is that which asserts: "All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights " This involves the view that individual rights are not derived from government. They belong to men as men, or as we would say today, to persons as persons.
These rights existed prior to government, in terms of time, logic and priorities.
It was often argued by believers in the natural rights philosophy that a state of nature existed as a historical condition where no political institutions existed, and where each person was naturally free in the sense that no one was subjected to anyone else's authority.
When they discussed the so-called state of nature, natural rights philosophers were not so much interested in explaining the actual origin of government as they were to come up with a political theory to explain and justify why people would obey governmental laws and decrees. The so-called state of nature was, therefore, a hypothetical state, rationally constructed.
What natural rights philosophers were after was to discover what man would be like were he alone, stripped of accidents of time and place, social status and wealth. If they could find this natural man, and know which rights he needed to allow him to reach a level of existence commensurate with the essence of his true human nature, they could put forward correct claims for particular men against particular governments.
Jefferson and other natural rights philosophers thought they had found this natural or universal man. He was a likeable and rational person, a prince of a fellow, but no angel. He needed someone as impartial judge in cases of interpersonal conflicts and to enforce rights impartially. That someone was government, or as Jefferson states in the Declaration, "Governments are instituted among men."
The process of transforming the state of nature into political society was called the social contract, or social compact. The social contract idea, the principle of consent formulated as a historical process, had a particularly strong hold in America where this concept had been given a sense of reality by many written compacts which were parts of American history, from the Mayflower Compact of 1620 to the various colonial charters.
The social compact was, in words of the Massachusetts Bill of Rights, an act "by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good."
From this we see that authors of the Declaration believed human rights stemmed from human nature itself. The right of national self-determination was asserted as a right based on natural law in the Declaration: " the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" entitle our people to assume a "separate and equal station " among powers of the earth.
The doctrine of natural law is complex and has as long a history as Western civilization. By the time of the Declaration this old doctrine had taken a new meaning. The impact of Newtonian physics had been the study of nature or physical universe had become the primary tool of discovering God's will instead of study of words of the old prophets.
According to philosophy of the Enlightenment, ideological source for sentiments expressed in the Declaration, there was a rational order in the cosmos which could be understood by man's own rational faculties. There was also harmony within and between men, between self-interest and the common good.
An act of revolution required courageous men, and a philosophy which justified a revolution must be a philosophy that contributed to such courage. This the philosophy of Enlightenment did. More than anything else, it proclaimed faith in man.
It told men they were capable of being their own masters in addition to teaching them they had a right to such a status. Instead of the old humility, self-degradation, submissiveness to authority and dependence on the supernatural, the philosophy behind the Declaration taught men to be self-reliant and self-confident.
Such a philosophy not only strengthened and reinforced men untied in a common cause against enemy soldiers but was the philosophy needed for the people bent on conquering a new continent.
This essay has been written to explain the philosophy expressed in the American Declaration of Independence, and is not an attempt to provide a critical analysis. As befits a birthday party, one would like to accentuate the positive.
This Declaration and the Revolution which it supported and justified have inspired other democratic and revolutionary movements around the world. Even today, the philosophy of the Declaration has a message for us.
Are not goals of the patriots of 1776 who drew up the Declaration the same ones we seek today?
Are we not still trying to live up to and implement goals of equality, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as well as respect for life?
If we aren't perhaps we should. Even though the modern mind no longer accepts all the cosmic and psychological assumptions of the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration, one must admit it expressed a humane and uplifting faith.
In a nation torn with racial strife and in a world divided by conflicts, the gift of the forefathers 200 years ago to present-day America remains a precious and relevant one: the message that beneath all things that set man and nations apart, all people are equal in possession of a common humanity.
In the nuclear age, the most important challenge has become one with the fundamental law of nature as seen by Jefferson's favorite political authority, John Locke, who said:
"The law of nature stands as an eternal rule of all men, legislators as well as others the fundamental law of nature being the preservation of mankind."
UW-EC Dept. Of Pol. Science
Extracted from the Eau
Claire Leader Telegram
Special Publication, Our Story 'The Chippewa Valley and Beyond', published 1976
Used with permission.