The Philosophical Meaning and Greatness of the Declaration of Independence
In my opinion, the Declaration of Independence is the greatest and most important political document in human history. It radically changed that history forever. For centuries, most people lived as subjects or slaves to various despots, monarchs, and thugs. Any individual enjoyment of life or property was by permission, not by right. America changed all that. Alone among nations, America was founded on a philosophy of individual rights. This philosophy transformed the world by creating what was, and still is, the greatest nation on earth.
The first few paragraphs of the Declaration summarize the essentials of that philosophy. The great men who founded our nation declared that your life, liberty, property, and right to pursue happiness belong to YOU, not the State or any other collective. In the immortal words of Ben Franklin, they gave us, not mob rule democracy, but “a republic – if you can keep it.”
What follows is a very quick summary of my personal understanding of the Declaration of Independence, and why I appreciate it so much. I do not expect everyone to agree – the freedom to disagree is also what makes our nation so great.
Self-Evident Truths. The Declaration begins with the famous statement, “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.” Unfortunately, what was self-evident to a great thinker like Thomas Jefferson is alien to countless sundry leftists of today (including many of our current political leaders). These are the people who – not grasping or appreciating the greatness of America – want to “transform” it into its opposite. Nevertheless, these truths are the political axioms of the philosophy that created this nation. The validity of the American political philosophy stands or falls with the validity of these truths. The left knows this. Conservatives must know this, too. We must all learn how to defend American values all the way down to these fundamental, “self-evident” truths.
All men are created equal. When Jefferson wrote, “all men are created equal,” I believe he meant that every human being has the same inalienable rights, i.e. the same freedom of action to pursue human values. He did not mean that we are all entitled to the same equality of outcomes. He did not mean that we are equally entitled to a job, similar pay, “free” education or health care, or any other good or service. We have the right to think and act to pursue these goods and services. But we do not have any right to them (provided at someone else’s expense).
Endowed by their Creator. The phrase “endowed by their Creator” leaves the door open for atheistic leftists to deny the truth of Jefferson’s statement by denying that God exists. But I think the key term here is “endowed.” We have inalienable rights – we are “endowed” with them — because we are human beings with human needs. Even an atheist can accept that we are endowed with rights (in this sense of the word).
Inalienable rights. One of the most important phrases is “inalienable rights.” I think it has a very simple meaning. It means that we have these rights by virtue of our nature as human beings. In other words, rights are not a set of permissions that a government can create or deny. To the contrary, the very opposite of acting by right is acting by permission. “Inalienable right” means that no government can properly demand that you obtain its permission to live and enjoy your life. Your life is yours. The government’s role is to secure your life, property, and freedom, and not to control your every thought and action.
The right to life. The right to life is the fundamental right of any rational political philosophy. Without the right to life, i.e. to exist as a human being as your nature requires, all other rights are meaningless. If the state can deny you the right to live, it can deny you any other right upon which your life (or its enjoyment) depends. This is how totalitarian nations like the former Soviet Union tried to maintain power for decades. This is how the modern left wants to control your every thought and action today. We must deny them this power as a matter of principle. Even if we happen to agree with them on the ends (which is increasingly rare). The ends never justify the means.
The right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To live and enjoy life, we must be free to think and act to discover and achieve the values that any human life requires. Aristotle identified many of these values millennia ago. They include material goods and services; intellectual goods such as the pursuit of knowledge, science, and the arts; and social goods such as family, friendship, marriage, business associations, etc. Therefore, if we are to live in a human society, each human being must have the same right – the freedom of action – to pursue these values or goods. To preserve this freedom, we must – again – fight every attempt by the left to control our every thought and action.
The role of government. Jefferson continues, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –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.” Put simply, the proper role of government is to secure the inalienable rights summarized above for each individual. It is to ensure the freedom of action of each individual to live and enjoy life, as long as he respects the same freedom of action of each other individual. It is not to create a “better society,” or some left winger’s fantasy of a utopian world. It is not, to quote Mr. Spock, to put “the needs of the many above the needs of the few.” It is not to “share the wealth” through coercive wealth redistribution schemes. It is not to “nudge” people into living according to any specific set of religious or moral beliefs. It is not even to provide a minimum “safety net” – this notion began with the New Deal, not the original founding of our nation. The Founding Fathers believed that taking care of the needy was for private charity, not government.
The Constitution. I view the Constitution as the model or blueprint for implementing the individual rights philosophy in the Declaration. In particular, I see the Ninth Amendment as a catch-all provision that incorporates this philosophy into the Constitution. [Note: for an interesting history and view of the Ninth Amendment, go here.] Unlike many conservatives, most notably Robert Bork, I vehemently disagree with the notion that the Ninth Amendment is a mere “inkblot” on the Constitution. The key principle is that a proper government secures freedom of action, in whatever form it takes, as long as such action respects the same freedom of others to live and enjoy their lives.
Why we fight. The form of the battle today is different, but its essence is the same. This is primarily a philosophical battle. We small government conservatives continue to fight for individual liberty and for the principles upon which this nation was founded. We want the same freedom of action to live and enjoy our lives that Thomas Jefferson and others envisioned for us during that hot Philadelphia summer of 1776. And like them, we are fighting against people who want to control every aspect of our lives – how we think, what we believe, what we eat, what we buy, what we read, what we watch on TV, how we spend our money, how we raise our kids – you name it. We are fighting for the same principles that made America the wealthiest, greatest, noblest country in human history. We are fighting against philosophies that led to poverty, tyranny, destruction, and death in every nation that has tried them, in every time period, from when we first crawled out of caves to modern day North Korea and Cuba. It is a fight that is still worth winning.