What the Declaration of Independence Said and Meant

July 4, 2020 in News by RBN Staff

source: reason.com

[This year, my annual post celebrating the Fourth of July is drawn from a chapter of Our Republican Constitution: Securing the Liberty and Sovereignty of We the People, and from a short essay on the same topic, The Declaration of Independence and the American Theory of Government: First Come Rights, and Then Comes Government.” It also draws upon Sean Wilentz, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding]

The Declaration of Independence used to be read aloud at public gatherings 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 the founders believed 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,” another idea for which the Declaration is famous.

The adoption of the Declaration, and the public affirmation of its principles, led directly to the phased in abolition of slavery in half of the United States by the time the Constitution was drafted as well as the abolition of slavery in the Northwest Territory. The Rhode Island gradual abolition law of 1784 read:

All men are entitled to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, and the holding Mankind in a State of Slavery, as private property, which has gradually obtained by unrestrained Custom and the Permission of the Law, is repugnant to this Principle, and subversive of the Happiness of Mankind.

Later, the Declaration also assumed increasing importance in the struggle to abolish slavery. It became a lynchpin of the moral and constitutional arguments of the nineteenth-century abolitionists. As one New Yorker opposed to slavery wrote in 1797:

The right of property which every man has to his personal liberty is paramount to all the laws of property…. All I contend for at present is, that no claims of property can ever justly interfere with, or be suffered to impede the operation of that noble and eternal principle, that “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights–and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Declaration was much relied upon by Abraham Lincoln and many others before him:

Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of “Liberty to all”–the principle that clears the path for all–gives hope to all–and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all.

The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate. Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. No oppressed, people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters.

The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture.

The Declaration had to be explained away–quite unconvincingly–by the Supreme Court in Dred Scott. And eventually it was repudiated by some defenders of slavery in the South because of its inconsistency with that institution.

When reading the Declaration, it is worth keeping in mind two very important facts. The Declaration constituted high treason against the Crown. 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.”

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