A Few Basics of the Declaration of Independence


Thomas Jefferson, once kindly criticized for relying on principles already so well known in John Locke’s ‘Second Treatise on Government’, replied that he was not trying to

“...find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent…[The Declaration] was intended to be an expression of the American mind…All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right…

Are the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence still an expression of the American mind?

Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence answers the questions “Why” and “What” in relation to governments and their entire purpose. The Constitutions of the several States, as well as the US Constitution itself, was their attempt at answering the question of “How,” in attempting to create governments in harmony with the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence. Thus, the principles outlined in this founding document should be the compass, or the glasses, if you will, through which we study any Constitution and assess its validity and adequacy.

The Preamble states the purpose of any document.

“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 to the Declaration shows that not only does this document declare “independency,” or, essentially, secession from the British empire, and show the legal justification for this action, but they also state specific reasons as to why this was happening, and even hinted at the desire that those reasons should be well known!

This article will break down some basic premises asserted therein:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident”

If one analyzes the original draft by Thomas Jefferson, the words “sacred and undeniable” were replaced with the term “self-evident.” Either way, it is asserted that these principles stand on their own, with their own validity bringing a natural convincing power with them. That these principles are easily validated by outward observation and inward contemplation!

“that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”

As George Mason put it, “We came equals into this world, and equals shall we go out of it.” The assertion is that every person is created equal, not that they will end up equal! Different choices and lifestyles will obviously have unequal results! The results and consequences are up to the individual persons. But everyone comes into this life equally “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” The assertion is that God is the source of man’s rights! Thus, no man, not even the king, could legitimately deny or disparage those rights of which God was the source. In fact, for this Bible believing generation, it was blasphemy for the British government to infringe on the rights that God had given them, which rights, it was their whole purpose to protect and secure.

Notice the word: Unalienable.

In Thomas Jefferson’s original rough draft, he used the words “inherent and inalienable.”  This certainly seems to be borrowed from Section One of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason a few months earlier. “Unalienable” certainly makes the same point. The word unalienable assumes that they are inherent, and thus only the exercise of those rights can be seen as inalienable, in a sense. Remember that:

Inalienable is defined “as incapable of being surrendered or transferred; at least without one’s consent.” (Morrison v. State, Mo. App., 252 S.W.2d, 101, author’s emphasis)

Unalienable means “incapable of being alienated, that is, sold and transferred.” (Black’s Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition, pg. 1523, author’s emphasis)

Therefore, even with your own consent, or your own refusal to exercise those rights, those rights remain yours! They are inseparable from your humanity!

“that among these [Rights] are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This phrase is often seen as being directly borrowed from the philosopher John Locke. Of course, he rendered it “life, liberty, and estate.” This wording also hints at the Virginia Declaration of Rights wherein it speaks of “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Many render this concept as simply being about “life, liberty, and property.”

So why did Jefferson not merely copy Locke directly? Why didn’t he include the word ‘property’ or ‘estate’?

When you think about it, it is truly a brilliant replacement!

Of course the pursuit of happiness would most inevitably include the right to honestly acquire property if one should choose to do so; but Jefferson touched on something much bigger than merely tangible stuff that we like to hold on to and enjoy. In fact, he points out the logical reason behind many attempting to acquire it in the first place! Happiness is the object of man’s existence. Property certainly is a big part of that, but truly, it is merely secondary. The Journey of Life is centered on the individual’s search for happiness.

Plus, in the end, we are not born with any sort of “entitlement” to property, even if we are born with the unalienable right to honestly acquire it, should we choose to exercise it!

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed

The entire purpose of government is herein outlined in this one line! Remember, Man has rights, government only exercises powers. And government’s  whole legitimate purpose is to secure and protect the unalienable rights of mankind. And not only is consent a necessity when it comes to a representative government, but obviously something cannot be taken from nothing! Governments cannot somehow derive an authority from the people that they, individually, do not have themselves!

As Ezra Taft Benson so succinctly stated: “the proper function of government is limited only to those spheres of activity within which the individual citizen has the right to act.” (The Proper Role of Government)

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 should be obvious that when a government becomes the means of the very criminal actions that their whole purpose it is to punish and deter, then the people have the same rights associated with defending themselves against the government as they would any other individual that is infringing on their rights! In fact, as you read on, Jefferson adds:

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”

It is true that a tyrannical government infringes on one’s rights! And that is and should be about them! Yet, most don’t think about how that right relates to other people. When your agents in government are infringing on the rights of others, it is your DUTY to throw off such government! In fact, to remain silent on this point is to be a party to criminal actions essentially done in your behalf! Remember: Silence implies consent.

They then go on to state specific treasonous actions committed by the British government against the rights of the people of the now, united States of America. Can you identify which rights were being violated therein? Are we in a similar situation with any of these grievances today? Can we identify the attempts to alleviate these problems in the Constitutions of the several States, as well as the US Constitution? How can we assert these solutions in our personal lives, as well as at every level of government?

“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.”

Remember, as a result of the Declaration, these former colonies were now officially sovereign States. Each one was its own nation. Thus, in the concluding paragraph, the “united States” were always referred to as a plural. Even later, when the US Constitution was ratified, this would never change. This still hasn’t changed, regardless of how ignored the principle currently is! Every state of the union is a sovereign nation. In fact, a Congress, in the founding era, meant a meeting of sovereign nation-states.

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

As a concluding point for this quick article, it should definitely be noted that not only was this a declaration of Independence from Britain, but it was a declaration of Dependence on God. Thus, in the concluding paragraph, not only do they appeal to “the Supreme Judge of the World,” (since they realized that they were appealing to his ‘Laws of Nature’ for the legal justification of the Declaration), but they even state:

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.”

These men pledged to each other everything they had for the “Holy Cause of Liberty,” and hoped that God would make up the rest! If this cause was so important then, how could it be any less important now? Are we guilty of giving admiration to these men for their part in a cause that we are unwilling to actively take part in ourselves??

How can we pledge to each other OUR lives, OUR Fortunes, and OUR sacred Honor to the cause of human rights and human freedom?

As Ezra Taft Benson stated so succinctly:

“For centuries our forefathers suffered and sacrificed that we might be the recipients of the blessings of freedom. If they were willing to sacrifice so much to establish us as a free people, should we not be willing to do the same to maintain that freedom for ourselves and for future generations?(Our Divine Constitution, Oct. 1987)

The question of whether or not this country, and mankind in general, will live free or live in bondage, ultimately resides in every individuals’ answer to that question.

Because ultimately, it is entirely up to us.

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