The Meaning of the Declaration of Independence

Benjamin A. Kleinerman is the R.W. Morrison Professor of Political Science at Baylor University. He is the Editor of The Constitutionalist

Since my children were little, I have insisted on us reading and discussing the Declaration of Independence every 4th of July.  Before going to the bike parade and chicken barbecue in the downtown square of Marshall, Michigan.  Before the afternoon hot dogs and the evening fireworks that we bought at the sketchy tent near the highway, we’d spend about an hour reading and discussing this great document.  Unfortunately, now that they’re 18 and 19, they have refused to engage in this annual tradition.  Even though they would profit more from it now than they did at 9 and 10, it’s hard to compel adult teenagers to do much of anything.  So our annual tradition seems to have died alongside the kids’ bikes that they rode around the square in the bike parade!  No longer able to discuss it with my children, I figured I’d turn to this place and discuss it with the world!  Or, at least with the people who come to this page.  So what follows is my line by line exegesis of this great and noble 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 Declaration begins with a strikingly moderate argument.  Jefferson does not announce that colonial freedom follows naturally from a sacred right of self-government.  He does not announce that any free people ought not be governed from a nation all the way across the ocean from them.  Nor does he claim that a free people should not be governed by a King.  Instead, although “Nature and Nature’s God entitle them” to a “separate and equal station,” they still owe to “the opinions of mankind” a declaration of the causes of their separation.  That is, the equality of self-government isn’t enough to justify the dissolution of “the political bands which have connected them with another.” They need reasons other than broad and sweeping principles for dissolving their bonds with Great Britain.  Moreover, this first paragraph claims not that they are “revolting” against the British, but that they are “dissolving” their political bands with the nation across the sea.  Seemingly, a “revolt” might be premised on more abstract principles, whereas a “dissolution” follows from certain concrete abuses that can no longer be tolerated.  The American “Revolution” might more properly be called the American “Dissolution.”  

That the Declaration begins so moderately says much about the difference between this momentous event and the French Revolution which occurs a little more than a decade later.  The French Revolution’s radicals asserted a right to revolt based upon abstract principles.  Although the colonists also believed in abstract principles about the basis of legitimate government, they never claim those principles on their own justify revolution itself.  But now come the principles

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

Even though they do not justify revolution in and of themselves, these principles establish the standard by which all governments ought to be judged.  The application of that standard, however, is conditioned by the first couple of sentences counseling their prudent application.  These noble sentences of the Declaration stand out as some of the most famous sentences ever uttered in the English language.  And, given that nations as diverse and far away as Vietnam have used this same language, one is tempted to say they might be most famous sentences ever uttered in any language.  Deriving from Locke’s principles of natural right, the Declaration first asserts our “unalienable rights”: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Insofar as the Declaration doesn’t explain the principle of our equality, it seems safe to assume that we are equal chiefly in that we all possess these essential rights.  Further following Locke’s principles (a student once described the Declaration as Jefferson’s book report on Locke’s Second Treatise), Jefferson now asserts that “governments are instituted among Men” “to secure these rights.”  The chief, and perhaps only, purpose of government is to secure these rights that we can only assume Jefferson thinks insecure without government.  As Locke shows, because our lives, liberty, and property are constantly under threat from each other in the State of Nature, we need government to secure our rights over and against our neighbors who lack sufficient respect for them.  The faultiness of our natures gives rise to the need for government.  Because we’re rapacious, vengeful, and callous to our neighbors, we need a government that will keep us in line and allow us each to prosper.  

The next phrase may be one of the most debated in the entire text of the Declaration.  What does it mean for the government to derive its “just powers from the consent of the governed?”  Does that require democracy?  Many have interpreted it as such?  The problem with this interpretation, however, is that Jefferson does not concentrate on this lack of democracy in his subsequent list of abuses.  Moreover, the principle upon which government is instituted, i.e. the security of rights, seems not to require democracy as much as stability.  And, finally, the Constitution’s founders would wrestle with the problem that consent isn’t actually the same thing as democracy.  Democracy means the consent of the majority to the choices that the majority makes.  But what if the majority uses it power to stamp on the rights of the minorities in society?  The “governed” minorities cannot possibly be said to “consent” to rule that fails to protect their rights.  Instead, I would suggest that the “consent of the governed” follows from the principle of rights.  So long as the government is securing our rights, the people can be said to consent to it.  Any person, no matter what else they might want from the government, can be assumed to consent to a government that keeps their rights secure and not to consent to one that does not keep them secure.  

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.

Here, Jefferson states the principle of dissolution I have already discussed.  Judged by the “ends” of government, i.e. the securing of our rights, the People have the right to alter or abolish a government that has failed to live up to its purpose.  The People have no obligation to continue to submit to a Government that is failing to live up to its legitimate purpose.  Notice, again, that Jefferson is not, in the first place, arguing for the democratic right of self-government.  The right of abolition follows from governmental abuse not from the lack of democratic consent.  After the rightful abolition of the abusive government, the people have a right to institute a new government founded on the principles and forms that will “most likely effect their Safety and Happiness.”  Given what has preceded this point in the argument, it seems that we should assume that the principles are those already stated in the Declaration.  As for the form of government, the People as a whole might decide democracy will best secure their rights.  But, as we see in the Constitution ratified a little more than a decade later, the founders were much less sanguine about the ability of the people to secure rights while they governed themselves.  The danger of oppressive majorities was, as we will see in the state governments, real and pressing.  Given this danger and the overriding principle of natural rights, the People as a whole might be quite justified in settling on a “form” of government that is less democratic and thus, perhaps, less oppressive.  The Declaration’s principles point to a kind of democracy, at least in government’s founding, but do not require continuous democracy after founding.  

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.

Having dabbled with the most revolutionary claim in the Declaration about the People’s right to establish whatever form of government they choose, Jefferson now returns to the moderation with which he began.  “Governments long established” should not be changed merely because they fail temporarily to live up to the principles of the Declaration.  In other words, the decision to dissolve the political bands with Great Britain was not undertaken for superfluous reasons.  Alongside their principles of dissolution is a principle of “prudence” that dictates moderation in the pursuit of the former principles.  The very next clause, however, suggests that if the People think dissolution necessary, it’s only because it’s become extremely obvious.  The People’s natural tendency is not to change governments for “light and transient causes.”  The very fact that they feel compelled to dissolution is, according to Jefferson, in and of itself proof that the causes must be serious.  

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

Jefferson returns here to the principle of dissolution.  The continuous “abuses and usurpations” suggest a design to establish “an absolute Tyranny over these States.”  Because Great Britain seems intent on creating an “absolute Despotism” over them, they have the right “throw off such Government.”  Their right of dissolution follows from the evidence that if they don’t dissolve their ties now, they will end up under a government that might be so powerful that they’ll no longer be able to throw it off.  Even if Great Britain isn’t yet ruling them tyrannically, the signs are all there that a tyranny will soon come.  This part of the argument transforms some the apparent moderation of the earlier part of the argument.  It isn’t necessary that they actually be reduced to absolute despotism.  Just as prudence dictates an assessment of whether the causes are transient, so too it requires the colonists to judge whether the abuses and usurpations are more fundamentally dangerous.  Finally, it’s worth noticing again the nature of their right of dissolution.  “Necessityconstrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.”  The dissolution of their political bands is not a matter of choice.  Instead, Great Britain’s treatment of the Colonies has compelled them to leave.  As revolutionary as the Declaration seems, it’s actually rather moderate.  Every asserted right of change is accompanied by a principle tempering that right.  In this passage, the right to judge that they are in danger of an absolute despotism is tempered by the fact that none of this is their choice.  If Great Britain were not threatening them with Tyranny, they would not feel compelled to leave.  Compulsion rather than choice has led them to dissolution.  

In conclusion, as you celebrate this great day of our Independence, it’s worth keeping in mind that the founders were much more prudent than we think.  This same prudence may help us think about the elephant that has remained in the room of this essay: slavery.  Just as the founders counseled prudence in the dissolution of their bonds with Great Britain, perhaps they were also prudent—in fact, all-too prudent—in their solution to the problem of slavery.  Precisely because they weren’t revolutionaries, they weren’t willing to take the radical step of abolishing slavery.  According to the principles of the Declaration itself, the institution of slavery was fundamentally unjust and the founders knew it.  They chose to do very little to combat it because, as I have tried to show here, they weren’t revolutionaries, even if some of their principles were revolutionary in nature.  It would take true revolutionaries like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass to reveal fully the injustice of slavery.  So celebrate the founders for their revolutionary principles, for their sober prudence, and for the limits of that prudence in effecting truly radical change.   

4 thoughts on “The Meaning of the Declaration of Independence

  1. The meaning of a constitution personal input. First of all let me state by saying and I’m a very proud, proud American. I love our country. Being sad our country wasn’t just build upon men, but also upon women who wanted religious freedom to be able to choose who and they wanted to worship and win and how to live their life. True freedom it didn’t matter what color? What race? All men all women were free. But soon the rich as always became greedy prideful. He’s never enough for a rich man and today we don’t have freedom of speech. We truly are not a free nation anymore. It must be careful and what we’re saying on labeled a terrorist I stand behind our our constitution as being partnative part black and white. Where does someone like me fit in? Other than that we are all free and that’s what I stand for and I will give my life for that long live the USA.

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