On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress, composed of representatives from the 13 British colonies in America, declared unanimously and officially that these colonies “are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States … Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown …”.
One would suppose that virtually every citizen in the United States of America knows that piece of history. Too many have forgotten its meaning. The revisionist myths taught by leftists in control of our school system have diminished the great accomplishment of America’s founding generation. Ask the American on the street why the United States declared independence, and she will in all likelihood repeat the well-known slogan “no taxation without representation,” if she can answer at all. But did the whole question of independence really hang on unfair taxation — on material and commercial concerns?
There is so much more behind American independence that Americans today would do well to remember. To the founders, the fight for American independence was necessary. It was just. The righteousness of their cause is seen through an understanding of the natural-rights philosophy of the American founding, an understanding that has largely been lost thanks to the rejection of the American founding by the progressive movement of the 20th century. Rediscovering this understanding may help Americans navigate our own political crises today.
The Americans declaring independence in 1776 made a universal claim. In the familiar words of the Declaration of Independence, “When in the Course of human events,” you find the phrase “human events.” Not “American” events. Not “colonial” events. Not “white people” events. “Human” events. From the beginning, the representatives of the colonies make clear that what follows in this document is meant for all people, in all places, in all times. Pay attention: This document claims to speak to you.
“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.”
The cornerstone of the Declaration is the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.” This proposition has caused headaches among some conservatives who worry that the equality principle conflicts with liberty. Such conservatives take to heart Tocqueville’s warning that the “taste men have for freedom and the one they feel for equality are in fact two distinct things. … [T]hey want equality in freedom, and, if they cannot get it, they still want it in slavery.” This is true if we take equality to mean equality of outcome, which the government must impose by force.
But that is not what the founders meant by equality. The founders meant equality in rights. What rights? Natural rights – rights that belong to human beings because they are human beings. These are rights endowed by man’s “Creator,” shared equally among mankind.
Equality is the “central idea of the Declaration of Independence,” scholar Thomas G. West writes. “’All men are created equal’ in the sense that no one is so perfect that he may rightfully exercise absolute power over other men for their good or his own. Nor is anyone so defective that he may rightfully be treated as a ‘slave by nature,’ as Aristotle had claimed in his Politics. These facts imply that all are rightfully free of the rule of other men, and that therefore no one should rule another without that other’s consent.”
The right to life means no one has the right to take away our lives by murder. The right to liberty means the right to live our lives free from the coercion of others – including the right to pursue happiness in the private sphere, provided individuals acknowledge their moral duty to respect the rights of others and treat them with the dignity required by their equal status as members of the human race.
“That to secure these rights,” the Declaration continues, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Contrary to the violent ideology of Antifa anarchists, the founders understood that government is a necessary good. In the absence of government, in a state of nature, the rights of individuals are insecure as the strong prey upon the weak. Good government is that which secures our rights from those who would violently prey upon them. But the principle of equality establishes that good government, just government, is only that government which men consent to live under, since no individual has the natural right to rule another without that consent.
This understanding of equality and consent, of the proper role of government, is critical to understanding the founders’ theory of politics and why independence from Great Britain was both necessary and just.
“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends,” the Declaration says, “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.”
In the part of the Declaration of Independence few these days bother to read, the founders laid out their charges against King George III and the British Parliament, citing a “long train of abuses and usurpations” that show exactly how the British Empire had, by its actions, ceased to be a just government and had become “destructive” of the ends of “Safety and Happiness” for the American people.
“He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” The first charge of tyranny against the king is that he has refused to enact laws proposed by the colonies. Laws are “necessary for the public good” to secure the safety and happiness of society by protecting the natural rights of citizens. By this offense, King George III essentially abdicated government in the colonies. That alone would be justification enough for independence – but there are 26 more abuses named.
By dissolving local representative governments and having Parliament pass laws to govern the colonies, King George III attacked the principle of consent. By quartering troops on American property and issuing taxes without consent to maintain this military presence, the British government infringed on the property rights of the Americans. Some of the founders’ complaints are still with us today. “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass [sic] our people, and eat out their substance,” a fitting description of the administrative state if there ever was one.
Perhaps most egregiously, the king “has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us. He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat [sic] the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”
The British government not only failed to secure the safety and happiness of the Americans, it had undertaken actions to threaten their peace and security. It had ignored numerous petitions from the colonies to address these injustices. And so there was only one thing for the Americans to do if they intended to protect their natural rights to life and to liberty. “We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.”
Thus American independence was declared. The government formed by the framers of the U.S. Constitution would carefully follow the outline sketched in the Declaration’s list of grievances, a government formed by the consent of the people’s elected representatives and maintained by the consent of their posterity through regular, free, and fair elections. It was intended to be a just government based on natural right.
The founders spoke, but why should Americans today listen? Progressives like Woodrow Wilson claimed that because of changing circumstances in history, the American founders no longer have anything relevant to say. It is readily apparent that the modern progressive Left has followed Wilson in rejecting the American founding. The Left holds in contempt the idea of natural rights found in the laws of nature. It views the structure of the Constitution as “archaic, idiosyncratic, and downright evil,” to quote constitutional law professor Louis Michael Seidman – a leftist who should be commended for his honesty.
The Left’s rejection of natural rights and the embrace of rights created by government — by power — has led to the logical conclusion that rights are created by violence. One hundred years after Woodrow Wilson, the Left has made violence mainstream in its opposition to President Donald Trump.
There are some on the American Right who agree with the progressives, though they might not know it. They have embraced the disruptive, at times violent, tactics of the Left. Though they pay lip service to securing rights and to protecting liberty, by their actions they reject the founding.
This is a road that leads to universal misery. The weakness of the Left’s political philosophy lies in its relativism – it is a house built on sand. If rights come from and are secured by power, not by an objective standard such as the law of nature, then what are the moral limitations on that power? There can be none. Then, if power is exercised through violence, it may be said that ultimately there is no moral limitation on violence. The founders acknowledged government’s purpose to be to save us from such a sorry state of mankind.
“A Republic, if you can keep it,” Benjamin Franklin said of the government the founders created for us. By rejecting the founding, by failing to respect and defend the natural rights of our countrymen, even those on the Left whom conservatives oppose, we will not keep our republic. We will lose it and we will deserve to lose it – having been proven unworthy heirs of the great traditions and freedoms handed down to us by those who bled and died to win them.
Look upon the Declaration. Read the founders’ closing words. “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
As my teacher, the great Dr. Larry Arnn, so eloquently says, “What else do they have to pledge, except those things? That’s a pledge of everything.” Our forefathers risked everything they had — every right they had — so that we, their inheritors, might live as free men and women in security and happiness. They did so for a cause they believed was just because it was grounded in the truth that all men are created with equal rights.
Abraham Lincoln believed that these principles were a solid foundation upon which the American people might stand their ground against the forces of tyranny. “All honor to Jefferson,” Lincoln once wrote, “to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”
Let the Declaration of Independence, then, be a rebuke to those in this country who would so determinedly toss aside the natural rights of their countrymen. Let the legacy of American independence be a stumbling block against the tyrant souls of ideologues and demagogues. Let all Americans of good conscience claim their heritage, embrace their first principles, defend the natural rights of their countrymen, observe their patriotic duty to impose self-restraint on their liberties, and restore good, limited government for the security and happiness of all.
Chris Pandolfo is a staff writer and type-shouter for Conservative Review. He holds a B.A. in politics and economics from Hillsdale College. His interests are conservative political philosophy, the American founding, and progressive rock. Follow him on Twitter for doom-saying and great album recommendations @ChrisCPandolfo.
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