This Friday, April 13th is the birth day of Thomas Jefferson. In recognition of his birthday I thought we’d revisit the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. On the surface the meaning of the Declaration may be self-evident, but the true meaning of many of the sentences and phrases escapes most people.
The Declaration of Independence stated to the world that the thirteen colonies were separating from Great Britain. In other words the colonies were seceding from Britain. The first paragraph says “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.”
But the Declaration embodies certain philosophical and moral beliefs essential to mankind and government. Let’s examine each of these essential points.
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.
There is much confusion around the phrase “that all men are created equal”. It is suggested that Jefferson meant only white people that owned property, or that Jefferson owned slaves therefore he didn’t really think or believe that all men are created equal. These are the lies and distortions propagated through the public schools and the media. The issue Jefferson was addressing was the divine right of kings. Kings believed they were endorsed by God to be divine rulers over all others. Jefferson was stating that no one person or royal class is divine and that through the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God nobody is born with this divine right. To Jefferson this is a self-evident truth.
Moreover, Jefferson is stating that every man has certain unalienable rights endowed upon them by their Creator. Meaning everyone has these unalienable rights. Undoubtedly, all men are created equal and possess the same natural rights under the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.
In the next sentence Jefferson states, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”.
To secure our natural rights Governments are instituted by the people. This is the basis for the concept of popular sovereignty. The ideal that the people are the sovereigns possessing all powers that only they can delegate to government. The people are above government. Lastly, the people decide what powers to delegate to government. In other words, the government’s only powers are those which are delegated by the people through their consent. Otherwise, the government has absolutely no power over the people.
In the next sentence Jefferson states, “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”.
If at any time, any form of government instituted by the people through their consent becomes destructive to securing mans’ unalienable rights, the people always retain the right to alter or abolish the government. This reinforces the concept of popular sovereignty and the people can always alter or abolish their government. This is not an act of treason, terrorism, or extremism. Rather it is a moral right and duty of the people.
In the next sentence Jefferson states, “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.”
This means that history has shown that the people are more inclined to suffer some degree of evils and abuse rather than altering or abolishing government, and that government shouldn’t be changed merely on a whim – light and transient causes.
In the next sentence Jefferson states, “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.”
Jefferson is making the argument that these are not light and transient causes and in fact there has been decades of abuses and usurpations by the British Crown to reduce the colonists under absolute despotism. He reiterates it is the right and the duty of the people to alter or abolish such government and to institute a new government for their future security.
In the next two sentences Jefferson states, “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. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”
Jefferson has said the colonies have suffered long enough and now is the time to alter their government by separating – seceding – from Great Britain. After this Jefferson documents a long list of abuses and usurpations. At the conclusion of the list Jefferson restates the colonies are separating from Britain. In the last paragraph Jefferson states, “That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.”
Each of the thirteen colonies is a free and independent state. The use of the term state was equivalent to a country or a nation. Each state was absolved from any allegiance to Great Britain and all political connections between the thirteen states and Great Britain were dissolved. Most importantly, it is clear that each of the thirteen states possess the full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, etc.
In summary, the Declaration of Independence is the fountainhead on which all government has been instituted. The Declaration of Independence is the moral law of the land. It established:
1) The people are the sovereigns.
2) That nobody has been ordained with powers to rule over others.
3) All people have unalienable rights endowed upon them by their Creator.
4) The only legitimate form of government is one instituted with the consent of the governed.
5) Whenever any government abuses or violates the very purpose for which it was instituted, the people have the right and the duty to alter or abolish it.
6) The people determine which powers to delegate to government. The people — as the delegators — of said powers can retract those delegated powers.