One surprise for Americans reading the Declaration of Independence today is the relationship between the preambulatory paragraphs and the specific bill of indictments against the British King. Modern Americans (naturally) read the preambulatory theory largely in view of our own experiences, so we typically read it through the lens of the individual versus the government. This often blinds us to one important component of what the founders argued, that individual liberty has a necessary collective, communal, expression. It’s not simply as a matter of the individual versus government. Perhaps in a time that seems to be crying for greater solidarity among Americans, reinvigorating this line of thought from the founding might prove fruitful.
Today is Independence Day, which brings to mind this great passage from the Declaration of Independence: 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…
What a year it has been. “Trump wins and the Resistance begins,” might sum it up. Into this maelstrom steps our annual “What would the Declaration say?” reflection. We could turn in three directions: toward Trump; toward “the Resistance”; toward the people who fall outside his devoted followers and fierce opponents, who wish to make some contribution to the commonweal in the midst of low-intensity civil war.
This Sunday, in the print edition of the New York Times Magazine, Garry Wills joined Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in contending that the Declaration of Independence favors interpreting our Constitution in light of foreign law. They note that the Declaration is prompted by a “decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” The colonists are moved by that respect to recount publicly the causes of their need for separation from Britain. Wills and Ginsburg appear to believe the same decent respect should encourage Americans, including our justices, to resort to foreign law to help construe our Constitution.
But using this sonorous phrase of the Declaration as a support for resorting to foreign or international law has defects that are obvious from the text and context of the great document itself. First, the Declaration makes clear that this “decent respect” requires us to explain our own views to the world, not accept the views of others.
Second, the Signers appealed to a combination of natural law and their own historic rights as justification for their break with the mother country. They did not refer to foreign and international law as support for their position. For good reason. The Enlightenment age in which Declaration was written may have been cosmopolitan, as Wills argues. But the sovereign law in the monarchies of Europe and in despotisms elsewhere were not noticeably solicitous of the rights, like representation and freedom from unreasonable searches, that the Framers thought their birthright.
Civic minded Americans will hopefully pause on the 4th of July to reflect on the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and to the nation dedicated, however imperfectly, to the cause of liberty. In regards to the Declaration, all honor to Thomas Jefferson, as Lincoln rightly observed.
While the principles of the Declaration are considered self-evident, it is also true that men can be persuaded to wear chains, as Jefferson once noted. Thus it took the force of arms to win American independence and secure those principles. George Washington and the Continental Army, with a considerable assist from the French military, converted those ideas into reality.
The Declaration of Independence famously affirms inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As I discussed last week, the heavy lifting of the adjective “unalienable” means that people cannot give or otherwise transfer these rights away. Inalienability is a restriction on rights’ holders. This immediately changes implications of the terms. To wit, today Americans often think of liberty as “autonomy.” Indeed, in the Supreme Court notably defines the Fourteenth Amendment liberty guarantee as a protection of individual autonomy. According to the Declaration, however, inalienable rights to life and the pursuit of happiness exist in tandem with liberty. In the philosophy of the Declaration, “liberty” cannot mean, say, a right to alienate one’s life by committing suicide, assisted or otherwise. So the inalienability of the rights to life and to the pursuit of happiness necessarily structure the meaning of liberty in the Declaration.
James R. Rogers contended in his piece, “Americans No Longer Believe in the ‘Consent of the Governed,’” that as a people we no longer believe in the consent of the governed, nor in the foundations of government noted in the Declaration of Independence.
The last general election seem to contradict those claims.
I posted earlier this week regarding whether Americans still believe the Declaration of Independence’s affirmation that they “consent” to laws and taxes through their legislative representatives. There may be good reasons Americans no longer believe they really consent to the laws their representatives enact, but it is a striking change from the beliefs articulated during the founding era.
In considering whether Americans still believe the Declaration of Independence, we next consider the most-well known section in the Declaration, “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.”
There are, of course, entire books devoted to these few lines. A few observations, however. First, what is the link between there being a creator and persons being endowed with “unalienable” (or inalienable) rights?
Way back at the founding era, Americans took seriously the idea of the “consent of the governed.” As Greg Weiner noted recently, and as I’ve discussed elsewhere, this consent is exercised collectively, either in aggregating individuals’ votes or through voter representatives. But Americans at the Founding took seriously the idea that their consent could be conferred by their representatives. This belief has changed in the intervening couple of hundred years. On both left and right, Americans now talk about taxes being forced on them to pay for things for which they disapprove, even though their respective legislatures adopted the taxes. I doubt many Americans today seriously believe that they’ve consented to most of the laws and taxes that their legislatures adopt. What changed?