The Declaration of Independence

James Madison
The Declaration of Independence is the seminal political document of the republic and is the foundation upon which all else rests.
The Declaration of Independence is one of the seminal documents in US and World History. As the colonists broke with England, they could no longer claim the rights of Englishman. Therefore, the Declaration, in a beautiful logical argument, assets the rights of all humans and then shows the governments derive their power from the individuals and that if a government abrogates these powers, the individuals have the right to throw out the government.

The Declaration of Independence


The Declaration first asserts the rights of humans:
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."

It then clearly states that the government power flows from the individuals:
That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.".

Finally, if the government does not act in accordance with human rights, the people have a right to change the government:
That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to 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.

This is essentially a deductive syllogism. It establishes the logical framework of major premise, minor premise, and conclusion. Jefferson, the document's author, uses "nature's God" to validate the major premise and then shows how the conditions in the minor premise are valid, which logically must lead to the conclusion.

Jefferson does not directly reference the philosophers of the Enlightenment or the Enlightenment by name, but they are they by proxy and by spirit. For example, the phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are directly related to the works of John Locke. Locke used the phrase, "the pursuit of happiness" in his book An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

"Nature's God" is an interesting reference. It can refer to the "state of nature" as well as the "book of nature" cited in Masonic ritual.

The original state of nature argument was from Hobbes, who in, Leviathan, argued that man lives in a state of nature that requires a strong government to keep baser instincts in check. He starts out by stating that all men are created equal:
"NATURE hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he."

However, he then states that the state of nature is competition and strife and therefore:
"Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace. "

Locke and other Enlightenment philosophers argued a different state of nature. In Two Treatises of Government, Locke argued:
"To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man. A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection.” (Chap. II, Sect 4)"

Hobbes wrote Leviathanin 1651, right on the heels of the English Civil War and the Thirty Years War with all the horror they evoked. His ostensible purpose was humanistic and tried to lay out the need for civil governments to have the power to control or curtail the destructive power inherent in humanity.

Locke wrote in 1689 after the Enlightenment was flowering with a far more humanistic and hopeful attitude.

While scholars may argue over whether Locke directly influenced Jefferson's phrasing of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", Jefferson clearly chose Locke's humanism over Hobbes.

a 1752 edition of Jacques Burlamaqui's The Principles of Natural Law states:
"Natural liberty is the right which nature gives to all mankind, of disposing of their persons and property, after the manner they judge most convenient to their happiness… To this law of nature there is a reciprocal obligation corresponding, by which the law of nature binds all mankind to respect the liberty of other men…” Principles of Politic Law, pg. 15-16.

Burlamaqui, however, then argued that civil governments are must diminish the autonomy of individuals to secure the overall happiness.

Gottfried Leibniz may also have been a source. He argued both that happiness is a good and that virtual and happiness flow from God. Descartes argued along similar lines was almost certainly an influence. Jefferson drank deeply from the works of these authors as well as Voltaire, Hume, and others. They clearly shaped his argument as did his fellow Virginian George Mason.

So what is the point?

As Timothy Sandefur notes:
"The Declaration makes clear that government is established to secure those rights. It is an employee, hired to protect the people--like a guard employed to prevent a bank from being robbed. The problem is that the government has such extensive powers that those in charge might pervert it and use it for foolhardy, destructive, or self-interested purposes, just as a bank guard might be tempted to rob the bank himself. This confronts the author of a constitution with a dilemma: in designing a government which is to be administered by fallible human beings, wrote Madison, "the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself." The Conscience of the Constitution: The Declaration of Independence and the Right to Liberty.

In this work, Timothy Sandefur argues that the Declaration is a necessary foundation for the Constitution and that Constitution must be read within the context of the Declaration.

If he is correct, and the inclusion of the Declaration as the first document of US Law seems to indicate that he is, then any attempt to change government into a more Hobbesian approach to compel behavior undermines the philosophy that formed the Republic.

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