The Declaration of Independence used to be read aloud at public gathering every Fourth of July. Today, while all Americans have heard of it, all too few have read more than its second sentence. Yet the Declaration shows the natural rights foundation of the American Revolution, and provides important information about what makes a constitution or government legitimate. It also raises the question of how these fundamental rights are reconciled with the idea of “the consent of the governed” for which the Declaration is also famous.
When reading the Declaration, it is worth keeping in mind two very important facts. The Declaration constituted high treason against the Crown and every person who signed it would be executed as traitors should they be caught by the British. Second, the Declaration was considered to be a legal document by which the revolutionaries justified their actions, and explained why they were not truly traitors. It represented, as it were, a literal indictment of the Crown and Parliament, in the very same way that criminals are now publicly indicted for their alleged crimes by grand juries representing “the People.”
But to justify a revolution, it was not thought to be enough that officials of the government of England, the Parliament, or even the sovereign himself had violated the rights of the people. No government is perfect; all governments violate rights. This was well known. So the Americans had to allege more than mere violations of rights. They had to allege nothing short of a criminal conspiracy to violate their rights systematically. Hence, the famous reference to “a long train of abuses and usurpations” and the list that follows. In some cases, these specific complaints account for provisions eventually included in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The assumption of natural rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence can be summed up by the following proposition: “first comes rights, then comes government.” According to this view: (1) the rights of individuals do not originate with any government, but preexist its formation; (2) The protection of these rights is the first duty of government; and (3) Even after government is formed, these rights provide a standard by which its performance is measured and, in extreme cases, its systemic failure to protect rights — or its systematice violation of rights — can justify its alteration or abolition; (4) At least some of these rights are so fundamental that they are “inalienable,” meaning they are so intimately connected to one’s nature as a human being that they cannot be transferred to another even if one consents to do so. This is powerful stuff.
Off to gather up some
crappy old books before company arrives because yes, it is our tradition to read the Declaration of Independence with our friends and fellow citizens on Independence Day.