Happy Independence Day, my fellow Americans! While I am a general history buff, I especially have an interest in the Enlightenment era, and of early United States history in particular. In view of this, I have devised a week of festivities surrounding the founding documents of the United States, beginning today with a post of the complete text of the Declaration of Independence.
It is a relatively short read, I think, and I encourage EVERY citizen of this country to read it. While I’m sure most of us were told in school how important this document is, I feel, as do these people, that to truly appreciate it and its modern relevance, as with any text you have to engage with it. Read it slowly, and keep a dictionary handy for when you run across a word you don’t understand.
It’s incredible when you consider that this small document, and the Republic it founded, left a lasting legacy on world-wide politics. The idea that a government rules by “consent of the governed” was expressed in an early form in Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 book Leviathan, which outlined a form of social contract theory. But the idea that governments, their laws, and in fact their very legitimacy are actually rooted in the consent of the people, as opposed to a single ruler or group of rulers who derive their legitimacy from an unquestionable divine right, was first expressed in the practical form we understand today in the Declaration of Independence.
It’s interesting to note that during this time in the 17th century there were other revolutions taking place around the Atlantic region, one of which actually preceded the American Revolution (the Corsican Revolution, which ended French rule there). The influence continued to be felt from these revolutions down through the decades, with similar uprisings taking place in 1820, 1830, and 1848.
While not all were successful in achieving their aims (particularly the 1848 revolutions), they all played a part in making governments around the world acknowledge the will of the people as the basis of their rule. Throughout history, absolute monarchies had been the most common form of government.
Today, there are 7.
If you’re interested, here are some questions, which I recommend copying to a separate document or printing out, to focus on as you read the text. Note that some of these questions use terms that have meanings specific to philosophy and law. More information about these terms can be found at the related hyperlinks:
- Why does the opening paragraph invoke the idea of a God of Nature, and declare that both this “God” and the “Laws of Nature” entitle the people of the then-colonies “separate and equal station” among the “powers [I read this as “nations” -WFC] of the earth”?
- What if there are no unchanging natural laws, and morals are relative to the society and time period in which they were created and followed? Does this undermine the legitimacy of the Declaration of Independence? Why or why not?
- Is there an identifiable God of Nature? If one does not recognize the existence of any higher power, supernatural or otherwise, does this weaken the argument the Declaration makes for independence? Why or why not?
- The writer of the Declaration was Thomas Jefferson, a statesman and lawyer from Virginia who would become the 3rd president of the United States. Are there specific passages that especially sound like an attorney arguing for or against something?
- Do you think Jefferson was chosen to write the document because he was versed in legal matters?
- What do you think the terms “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” meant to the colonists in the context of independence from Britain?
- What do these things mean to us as Americans today?
- Have they changed meaning, and if so, in what ways?
- What do these terms mean to you, specifically?
- One passage near the end of the Declaration addresses the conflict that would no doubt arise from declaring independence from Britain: “We have warned [” our Brittish (sic) brethren”] from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us…They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.” [Emphasis mine]
- Why do you think that the colonists make it clear that they wish to remain friends with the British after naming so many accusations against them?
- Does the concept of Natural Law have anything to do with this decision? Why or why not?
Sensitivity Note: Near the end of the list of accusations against the British, the Declaration uses offensive language (“…merciless Indian Savages…”) to refer to Native Americans who had apparently been involved in massacres of colonists on the frontier. Though doing little to soften its derogatory impact today, it should be noted that at the time of the Declaration’s writing, the term “savage” meant something more neutral than it does now, though influential statesman Benjamin Franklin in fact deplored the term because he felt that it was applied to Native Americans simply because they were “different” and not a part of what would have been considered polite society or “civilization” at the time by the average colonist.
While some would probably prefer not to have to engage with this particular part of the Declaration (“wrestle with” might be a better term), I am nevertheless an advocate of understanding and engaging with historical writings on their own terms, as the product of imperfect people with a view of the world informed by particular cultural norms and biases. Rather than an indictment against the ideals embodied by a particular text, I see it rather as an opportunity to reflect on the progress we have made, often on the shoulders of a given document and the broad ideals it encourages, and the work we still have to do in recognizing and overcoming the biases inherent in one’s culture, and oneself.
And now, finally and without further ado, on this July 4th, may I present the Declaration of Independence in its entirety (well, minus the signatures 😉 ):
IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
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.
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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But 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.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
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 Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
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, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, 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. 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.
[Signatures removed for space]
Have a great 4th of July everyone!