Few documents are more misunderstood than the Declaration of Independence. This is not surprising when one considers that most people only read it as teenagers at school, when they lack the maturity or even basic literacy to make sense of it. Consequently, in the minds of most Americans, this founding document of the United States is just another overrated, unreadable text written by a racist dead white man.
However, when one encounters the Declaration of Independence as an educated adult—say, as an English teacher explicating the text for high school juniors—the wide gulf between what is popularly assumed and what the text actually says becomes apparent. Indeed, in many ways the Declaration is as revolutionary today as it was when it was originally written.
To begin with, the Declaration is not a constitution that defines the role of government and articulates its laws. It does not officially institute the American representative democracy with its three branches of government and various checks and balances. It does not establish a federalist system in which state governments operate independently but are nonetheless united under a national government. And it does not include a Bill of Rights that guarantees certain freedoms to all Americans in all states.
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Rather, the Declaration establishes the founding principles of a new kind of government for a new kind of nation. It is a concise and beautiful expression of natural law, which is based in human nature and arrived at by human reason—and which has a long tradition in the Catholic Church. This is what is meant in the famous line, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” They are “truths” about the conditions for humanity, not laws enforced by a government, or customs enforced by traditions, or commandments issued by God. They are “self-evident” because they transcend proofs outside themselves; they are the rational products of experience and common sense.
And what are these self-evident truths? “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.”
Depending on how the reader defines these terms, this is either a very high bar to set for government or a very low one. Is the government on the hook for protecting its citizens from all potential mortal threats—like guns, Covid, and bad drivers? Or does it just protect them from foreign armies and domestic criminals? And do all people have an unalienable right to life, or just the people who can take care of themselves and be productive?
The right to liberty is even more vague. Does the government liberate its people from all forms of oppression, real or imagined, or does it only liberate them from government oppression? What if one citizen’s liberty infringes on another’s? And how would one negotiate a conflict between one’s personal safety and another’s personal liberty?
This is to say nothing of the most problematic of these self-evident truths, “the pursuit of happiness.” Is that an injunction to tolerate all lifestyles? Is it an admission that a happy life of virtue is what life and liberty are for, not dissipation and misery? Is it a guarantee that the government will meet all the material and social requirements of a happy life, even to the point of creating a government department devoted to such a purpose?
For this reason, it’s important to understand the truths of the Declaration’s second paragraph in the context of what follows, which is a list of grievances against England. It becomes apparent that Jefferson and the founders weren’t imagining a welfare state devoted to safety, tolerance, and compliance; instead, they wanted to outline a system that maximized self-government and subsidiarity. Indeed, if it were the former ideal, then England’s paternalistic approach to ruling the colonies would be welcome.
In their grievances, Jefferson and his fellow writers take issue with England repeatedly overruling their state governments, often dissolving them and preventing elections to fill vacancies. They point out the partisanship of the crown’s judges who neither care for the laws or the common good. They decry the English government interfering with commerce, its creation of useless departments meant to harass Americans, and failing to maintain law and order. And by encouraging insurrection, funding piracy, sending armies into civilian residences, hampering the immigration process, and arming hostile Native American tribes on the frontier, the English government clearly hopes to weaken and intimidate American colonists to the point of submission.
When one reads this list of offenses, it’s hard to ignore the parallels between the English government in the 18th century and the American federal government today. It is well known that the men and women in Washington, D.C., ardently seek to overrule state governments, rig and nullify state and national elections, politicize and weaponize the judicial system, expand the federal government with more departments that prey on American citizens, interfere with commerce by preventing energy production and devaluating the currency, and enable certain groups to foment chaos and destruction in so many cities by refusing to enforce laws. And why else does the government want to encourage abortion, silence free speech, and disarm households, except to weaken and intimidate American citizens into submission?
While it would be easy to blame the secular Left and the current progressive leadership in Washington for today’s current dysfunction, it would be fairer and more accurate for Americans to consider their own role. Have they fallen for the utopian dream where all people would be freed from all moral and natural limits? Have they helped perpetuate this lie? Are they upset that the federal government doesn’t do even more? Do they shrug at the abuses committed against their neighbors? Do they desire a tyranny to help them cope with the heavy burden of ruling oneself in accordance with natural law?
In one way or another, many Americans have fallen for these temptations, corrupting the great vision of what Jefferson and the founders originally had in mind. Fortunately, acknowledging this can be the first step to true social reform. Not only does Jesus command His disciples to “remove the plank out of [their] own eye,” but He also tells them that this will allow them to “see clearly to remove the speck from [their] brother’s eye.” Politically speaking, this means that Americans who remove their own desire for tyranny will have the capacity to identify and eliminate tyranny in today’s leviathan state.
Nothing is more patriotic and truer to the country’s founding ideals than to individually and collectively engage in this self-examination and conduct an honest critique of American democracy. And there’s no better place to start this great task than reading the Declaration of Independence and reflecting on those self-evident truths that it contains.