The Declaration and Thoughtful Citizenship

If democracy is to endure, thoughtful citizenship is a requirement for a critical mass of the citizenry. We have an opportunity to live up to that obligation today. America’s birthday offers an opportunity to go back to the self-conscious beginnings of our common enterprise, where we meet the Declaration of Independence.

In a letter to Richard Henry Lee, Jefferson famously characterized the Declaration as “an expression of the American mind.” Let’s spend a few minutes considering that mind. We will find it to be: 1) logical; 2) liberty-loving; 3) manly; and 4) gesturing towards, and calling for, philosophical and theological reflection.

In other words, it is a quite impressive mind. We have a lot to live up to.

The Declaration nicely divides into five parts:

A preamble announcing the purpose of the document;

A statement of principles of politics, principles of evaluation and of construction;

A list of 27 grievances against the Crown and Parliament, “injuries and usurpations” effected by the metropole;

A brief reference to the repeated efforts at redress by the colonists, all without success; and

The logical conclusion of the foregoing.

Given these theoretical principles of political right, given these facts—that is, the misdeeds of king and parliament which evince a settled design of despotic ambition—it is the colonists’ right, it is their duty, to determine that they will not acquiesce in their own subjection, but declare their independence as a people. They are warranted in this bold act by “the laws of nature and of Nature’s God.”

Much could be said, in terms of matter and form, about the Declaration’s display of logical thinking. One central point will have to suffice. Perhaps most remarkable is the confidence it shows in the power of reasoning. Subjects not always deemed to be amenable to rational analysis and determination— political right order, tyranny, and revolution—find themselves directly and coherently dealt with. To be sure, doing so requires a variety of reason’s activities: the articulation of principles, the discernment of relevant facts, inferring causes from effects, knitting together ends and means.

The Declaration does all this and more despite the highly fraught and even violent political situation that brought it about. Its confidence in the ability of reason to understand and guide politics, including revolutionary activity, is so remarkable that one could raise it up as a model of capacious political reflection, effective rhetoric, and deliberate action. The Framers of the Constitution and Abraham Lincoln certainly did. Why not Americans today?

To be sure, the Declaration’s mind is not merely logical, not simply cerebral. All this thinking is at the service of something else: in a word, of liberty, both individual and collective. And liberty, while Nature’s and God’s gift and humanity’s birthright, needs to be loved as well as understood, and sometimes defended with life and fortune. The Declaration’s argument is motivated by just such a spirited love.

Hence the need for “manliness” on the part of liberty-lovers. After giving the argument for independence on behalf of “the good people of these colonies,” the 55 representatives pledge to one another their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor. They are willing to risk everything for the justness of their cause. Liberty is worth these sacrifices. In so risking, they insert themselves into an ongoing history of the defense of liberty in the colonies, one that is limned in the text itself. Earlier legislatures, it says, had resisted “with manly firmness” the Crown’s encroachments. Now it is their turn, and they find inspiration in the stout character and actions of their predecessors.

This points to the dramatic character of the Declaration. It self-consciously casts its composers and signers as dramatis personae, as participants in a mighty contest between encroaching tyranny and lovers of liberty. Both parties—tyrants and throwers-off of tyranny—exhibit relevant character traits, and the text is not shy about using a language of virtue and vice. One might even be moved to see the Declaration as the first epic poem that Americans penned about themselves.

The last-mentioned trait, philosophical and theological reflection, remains to be considered. The mind at work in the Declaration is, we could perhaps say, assertively comprehensive—or even, though it’s a bit awkward—philosophical-theological lite. I hasten to explain.

On one hand, its vision is comprehensive. It includes doctrines of God (four references to the Deity); of Nature or the world; of man or human beings; of government (its origins; ends; and proper structure); of “the course of human events” (history); of the fundamental distinction between civilization and barbarism. And it exhibits an awareness and concern for the opinions of contemporary mankind. In other words, it’s a mind with broad and deep vistas.

Yet its fundamental views are for the most part merely asserted. For example, God is asserted or “declared,” but not argued for. His existence and nature and activities are premises of a further argument, not the subjects of inquiry or demonstration. The same is true for the principles of politics in the second part of the document.

This is not to say that arguments could not be given to support the assertions. Their absence, however, does tell us something more about the character of the Declaration. It is a practical document with important theoretical content. It wants to reason and argue, but its argument’s purpose is primarily practical: to declare the causes that impel separation. A thoughtful reader should acknowledge the Declaration’s practical aim, as well as ask: what philosophical and theological arguments were implied, or need to be supplied, to justify its assertions?

On the 238th anniversary of this marvelous document, perhaps a distinctive sort of American studies is therefore in order. Americans could sit down and reread it. Encountering what it explicitly says, they could then speculate about its missing premises and arguments. And they could critically appraise the explicit words as well as the concepts that are tacitly in play.

If that happened, the first and the current generation of Americans would be thoughtfully connected. Not only that—we would be exercising two American virtues: filial gratitude and intellectual freedom. And that would make for a very fine Fourth of July.

Paul Seaton is associate professor of philosophy at St. Mary's Seminary & University.

About the Author

Comments

  1. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    Dr. Seaton makes a minor but nonetheless meaningful textual error in his description of the Declaration of Independence. According to Seaton, the Declaration lists 27 grievances against Crown and Parliament. But it does not. The word “parliament” does not appear in the document; the complaint is levelled solely against “the present king of Great Britain.” The Declaration is thus a peculiar document, because according to the prevailing interpretation in England of the English constitution, not only did the king not do any of the things the colonists alleged he did, he was not constitutionally empowered to do so. (On the meaning of the post-1688 English constitution, see the first volume of Blackstone’s commentaries.) The discrepency is purposeful and meaningful–Jefferson and the other authors of the Declaration were all well trained lawyers well familiar both with English constitutional thought generally and Blackstone in particular. Getting them right on this point is central to what they thought they were doing. For secondary commentary on this issue, see the work of Alison La Croix, Jack P. Greene, and John Philip Reid.

  2. Paul Seaton says

    Dear Kevin, thanks for the comment; happy to be corrected, if need be. To whom does the document refer when it says, “He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their pretended Legislation”? I agree that the Declaration takes its own position among competing positions on the metropole-colonies relation. My purpose, however, did not require me to get into those sorts of things. Thanks.

  3. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    Paul–

    As I said, it is a minor point. You are correct that I over stated my correction. But even so, the indirect reference occurs in just one of the 27 grievances, and as I read it includes courts as well as legislatures–I may be wrong about that. Still, I do not think it is any exagerration to say that the focus is on the king, and not on the king-in-parliament. I think it is very easy to over look the constitutional and political dimensions of the document, and to over emphasize the philosophical and poetic. Those are there, but if we care about understanding the document for the purposes it served at the time it was written, the political and constitutional are the more salient. I think we very often consider the document anachronistically–but take that with an apprpriate grain of salt, and with due consideration for my disciplinary perspective :)

  4. Paul Seaton says

    Very gracious, and helpful, Kevin. Thanks. You’re more than right: the focus is on the king; the parliament comes up incidentally. My “and Parliament” was just an effort to advert to/acknowledge the passage I quoted above. Certainly didn’t have any “king-in-parliament” affirmation in mind. Liked your distinction between philosophical and poetic and constitutional and political. They’re all there, and make the text endlessly fascinating. My piece was in large part determined in its focus and rhetoric by the occasion. Here are a few issues that I think worth considering: 1) the connection between the preamble’s “one people” and the conclusion’s “Free and Independent States”; 2) the connection between the explicit political principles of part 2 and the implied (and stated) ones of part 3; 3) the doctrine of government/State generated by the elements of parts 2, 3, and 5. Issue 1) bears upon the question of the whole and its parts and the type of union envisaged and effected. (This, of course, will lead to the Articles of Confederation.) Issue 2) was famously debated by Harry Jaffa and Martin Diamond (I think Jaffa got the better of the argument, but don’t subscribe entirely to his position). Issue 3) shows what a thematic reading entails and yields: a fuller, more interesting, concept.
    Thanks for the comments.

  5. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    Paul–

    The more I think about it, the more I regret posting my comment. There may be something small to be said for it, but it was entirely tone deaf to the occasion. It is an entirely appropriate thing, on the day we set aside to remember our best national aspirations, to remind ourselves that thoughtful citizenship is in the end the foundation of our public hopes. My post detracted from something worthy and higher.

  6. Paul Seaton says

    Quite magnanimous, Kevin. Nothing ventured, nothing gained — including perspective. I attribute the problem to the literary limits of the blog form. Can’t be as precise as one can in speech, or a lengthier article. (I say that with real respect for Richard and Lauren as editors.) Thanks for the back-and-forth, and good luck sorting out the merits and demerits of originalism.

  7. Scott Amorian says

    Lovely piece, Paul. Thank you.

    I always read the fact that the document was addressed to the King as an acknowledgement of the fact that the King of Great Britain was the official Head of State. Propriety would therefore require that a formal document such as the Declaration be addressed to the Head of State, and likewise the actions of the nation addressed as if they came from the Head of State. It was a formal way of addressing the government of the nation.

    Adams, if I recall correctly, did not think King George was such a tyrant personally and expected the claim would be removed during editing of the Declaration.

    The whole of the document forms a proper legal case. The theory of law is presented: The details of the law of nature did not need to be brought into evidence, just as it is not necessary to produce evidence that one plus one is two. The facts needing evidence are presented as a list of abuses, and associated with the theory of law. God as recognized by both the enlightened Deist and old world Christian is the judge. The nations of the world are the jury. Law requires a rule and a consequence. The Declaration states the rule, presents facts proving the rule was broken, states the consequences, and states that the consequences will be executed as was considered proper and in accordance with the commonly accepted Laws of Nature, or Laws of Nations as they were also known.

    In whole, it is a fascinating document.

    One phrase in the Declaration makes me I wonder. The last three words in the Declaration are “our sacred Honor.” These are one of the three things which the people pledged to each other as they committed what was in effect a declaration of war against the stronger nation of Great Britain. They were the words chosen to end the document. What does that phrase really mean? How is it that honor is sacred and not personal? How and why did the drafters and signers tie honor to God?

  8. Paul Seaton says

    Thanks for the compliment, Scott. Also appreciated your comments.
    If you’ll pardon me, I”m not sure I’d say the Declaration is addressed to the King. Its addressee is a bit opaque; the text appears to indicate that “mankind” is its addressee: “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires … .” The Declaration certainly says a lot about the King, but I don’t see it talking explicitly to him.
    Liked your “legal” parsing of the argument. Although, one would have to say, I believe, that it’s a rather philosophically and theologically-freighted view of the law. (As it happens, I believe the Declaration has or implies a “theory of law,” but it probably would take too long to tease it out in these confines. God is legislator; Nature is lawful; the powers of government are first of all legislative; some laws are wholesome, some necessary; etc.)
    I’ll try to say something about “sacred honor” later. For now, thanks for joining in.

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