So begins the Declaration of Independence. But what was the Declaration? Why do Americans continue to celebrate its public announcement as the birthday of the United States, July 4, ? While that date might just mean a barbecue and fireworks to some today, what did the Declaration mean when it was written in the summer of ?
Comments Is there a political philosophy in the Declaration of Independence? Living in a pragmatic age, we tend to equate fact with truth, and fiction with falsehood. There is something characteristically American about such a way of thinking. Still, it is important at the outset to recognize that this frame of mind is not universal.
I will return to the question of fact and its relation to truth, but my point at the outset is that part of the question of whether there is a political philosophy in the Declaration is whether what the Declaration proclaims as self-evident truths really are true. But that is not the whole of the question.
It is printed at the head of the United States Code, where it is considered the first of our organic laws.
More to the point, politically today the Declaration of Independence has no open enemies; it is the touchstone of our political arguments rather than an object of advocacy any more.
Even those who dismiss the American founders as racist or sexist want to keep the Declaration. They accuse the founders of hypocrisy rather than mistaken principle.
Whether or not that principle and the other purported truths that accompany it are true, they would seem in fact to be the first principles of our regime.
And this leads to my third concern. While loyalty to the original Constitution is often dismissed as hopelessly anachronistic or conservative, loyalty to the Declaration might seem to have the opposite consequence: Abraham Lincoln seems to have thought so. He wrote that the assertion of human equality in the Declaration provides a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.
These then are my questions. I want to ask whether the self-evident truths are true, whether we believe they are, and how we ought to act on them.
First, however, I want to ask what they mean and to answer by paying attention to the document as a whole. It would be only about a page in length, edited down to the first two paragraphs and then the last, where the actual declaration of independence is made.
No one would deny that these paragraphs—especially the famous second one, with its elegantly simple account of the first principles of natural rights and just government—contain the most memorable phrases in the document, indeed precisely the phrases that have fired the imagination of generations of Americans and of reformers and revolutionaries around the globe.
Nor is it only frequent repetition that gives these phrases their ring of self-evidence, even several centuries after they were penned. Jefferson crafted them with care, and he drew upon a rich tradition of political theory that had developed in the previous century or so in England, most especially as conveyed in the Two Treatises of Government by John Locke.
But that government itself has a human rather than a divine origin is clear. Indeed, in a sense, that is the whole point—for the Declaration is written to justify political change.
Still, the famous paragraphs of the Declaration are but a part of the whole. Looked at by an age enamored of political theory and ideology, they appear to be its most important passages; but at the center of the document is a list of grievances against the king and Parliament that make the case for independence there and then.
The first is concerned with constitutional violations and abuses of constitutional powers by the king.
Here, twelve different complaints are lodged, accusing the king of threatening the public good by the use of his veto, dissolving colonial assemblies, obstructing justice, keeping standing armies among them in peacetime, and the like.
As a reading of the middle section, this is sound, but not sufficient. To be sure, if revolution has to be made for a reason, then there has to be a way of proving that the king is becoming tyrannical; this is precisely what the various facts are meant to show. But unlike the first principles of politics, the tyranny in these rather general facts—which never name names or dates or places—is not immediately self-evident.
The outrage comes from a hidden premise: Here is the source of the principle of no taxation without representation, the independence of the judiciary, trial by jury, the priority of civil to military authority, and much else. That scholars today no longer tend to read these parts of the Declaration is some measure of how far we have lost touch with that tradition, but that does not mean the complaints were not taken seriously by our founding generation.
To speak only of the federal level, nearly every grievance detailed in the Declaration is addressed and prevented by a specific provision of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The Declaration justifies a political revolution, to be sure, but the constitutional dispute with England gave our revolution its distinctive form and contributed to its success.
That revolution was not without its lawless moments, but on the whole its spirit was to reinvigorate old forms of self-governance and to reinforce protection for property and social order.
Its self-evident first principles were soon to challenge some of these forms—restrictions on the suffrage, for example, and in some of the states, slavery, itself unknown at common law—but it is no more an accident that these challenges were approached in a spirit of constitutional compromise than that the revolution culminated in a Constitution.The Declaration of Independence is the birth certificate of the American nation—the first public document ever to use the name "the United States of America"—and has been fundamental to.
The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America While not as flashy as some, this National Archives and Records Administration site on the .
Declaration of Independence? Is there a political philosophy in the Dec-laration of Independence? One step toward is the question of whether the Declaration binds us to a particular political creed. I say "binds" because the Declaration is Is There a Political Philosophy in the Declaration of Independence?
by James R. Stoner. It should be kept in mind that the Declaration did not actually declare the independence of the American colonies from Great Britain; this occurred on July 2, , two days before the Declaration was approved by the Second Continental Congress on July 4. Nevertheless, the primary purpose of the Declaration was not to declare independence, but to proclaim to the world the reasons for declaring independence.
It was intended as a formal justification of an act already accomplished. Thomas Jefferson, one of the principal authors of the Declaration of Independence was the third President of the United States and he was one of the most influential Founding Fathers for his encouragement of the principles of republicanism in the United States.