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America's First Principles: The Declaration of Independence & Governing a Free Society

What is the significance of the Declaration of Independence? Leading scholars explain why the Declaration was revolutionary at the time it was written, and why it continues to be a document of vital importance. What are inalienable rights? Why did they, and do they, provide a basis for legitimate government of a free people? https://youtube.com/watch?v=sw0tHfghf7g


When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another. . . The Declaration of Independence is by far the most important document, I think, in American history. That phrase, "All men are created equal," is the most important phrase, as Abraham Lincoln recognized, in our history. It has been used over and over again by every group championing equality of one sort or another. 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. This is a statement of First Principles that resonates with us today because it is true of us today. That is that all men are created equal, and they are endowed with certain unalienable rights. Jefferson got the language he used from Virginia's Declaration of Rights, from a first draft written by George Mason. But he took George Mason's language and made it much more poetic and powerful. They didn't make their appeal on the basis of a nationality, ethnicity, race, sex, gender, you name it. They decided to make their appeal a rational appeal, an appeal to reason. They said, "Let facts be submitted to a candid world." The Declaration, of course, goes through a long list of things that the King of England had done to lead the colonists to break away. He is the culprit. There is no mention of Parliament, which is interesting, in the Declaration even though Parliament was the author of the Stamp Act, the Coercive Acts, all of the legislation that the colonists objected to. By 1776, we Americans had concluded that we were tied to the Empire only to the King through the Crown. And so that's the only break we had to make. No one in the English Parliament directly represents the American colonists, but nonetheless, the Parliament claims that it virtually represents the American colonists just like it virtually represents various other constituencies in England itself. When they said there should be no taxation without representation, they were citing a fundamental principle of the Enlightenment. That one had fundamental rights. That inhere in the individual, rights to one's property, one's liberty and one's life, which cannot be infringed upon unless one has a say in how these rights are going to be limited. 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 The Declaration was the legal case that the colonists made on their own behalf as to why they were not actually traitors to the Crown. They were making out their legal case for why they were justified in separating themselves from the English government, and resuming a state of nature between themselves and the English government. Many of the founders argued that they needed to revolt from England because they needed to protect their natural rights, their innate rights as human beings. What government gives you is not your rights. It provides a wall, if you will, a security so that you can exercise that which you already possess simply by being human. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is what you have simply by virtue of being a human. But, what do you lack? The protection, the security of those rights. You have this super valuable thing in a very insecure or vulnerable state. To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the government. Not any power at all that a majority might seek to have, but only their just powers. Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. It was using Locke that the founders believed that America was not granted its natural rights, was not granted its legitimate political rights under the British crown. Therefore they use very Lockean arguments, almost Lockean language, within the Declaration. An unalienable right is a right you can always get back when you decide you want to reassert the exercise of that right for yourself. It was necessary that they be inalienable to negate the British argument that they'd already been tacitly surrendered up to the British government. But many of them were also arguing that they needed to protect their rights as Englishmen. The Founders believed that they were being more true to the British constitution than the Brits themselves. That they were trying to restore, to reestablish the rights in the British constitution. And this was according to the Whig theory of English history. Now the real Whigs, as they were called, are those who believed that the British constitution in its pristine state was one that favored government only by the people and government that protected these individual rights. The notion of rights is very much a part of English culture. It's part of the Common Law. And when they're debating the English authorities in the Imperial crisis, they kept referring to their rights, but these are English rights. At one point, in the Continental Congress, in 1774-75, they begin to realize that if they keep appealing to English rights, that it's a little awkward if they're going to move towards independence. So they just simply rhetorically change the English rights to natural rights. The Declaration of Independence is hugely important because it memorializes the idea that the government rests on the consent of the governed. Once Americans no longer felt they could consent to British government, they had a right to form new forms of government for themselves. That was the genius of the founding. They actually wrote it down. This is what we believe to be true about human beings. This is what we believe to be true about the purpose of government. Of course it's a major step into modernity because it's saying that we at birth are born equal and all the distinctions that we have among us are due to our upbringing, our education. In other words, it's all nurture, not nature. So one important feature of the American Revolution, is that ultimately it becomes a revolution against the King and against aristocracy. It started primarily as an independence movement separating North America from England, but not necessarily a movement against the nature of British government as such. Tom Paine is extraordinarily important in this way, in helping to rally the people of the North American colonies to the revolutionary movement. And he does it in part by calling on them to embrace republicanism, embrace a more popular government and reject hereditary forms of government represented in aristocracies and the King. And that sweeps through the North American continent like wildfire. It's embraced by the Americans. It becomes a feature of their revolutionary constitutions that are being formed in the states and so by the time you're drafting the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia, it is a fundamental feature of the American political culture that's going to be a popular form of government that we're not going to have a king like there is in England, we're not going to have a hereditary aristocracy like there is in England. I would say nowadays it's commonplace for people to dismiss the Declaration as being irrelevant to our Constitution because it obviously was something, it came before the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution comes later. It's not supposedly a legal document, but in my view, the Declaration does state the political theory of the United States. This is the political theory on which the country was formed as a separate country. It was unanimously agreed to by representatives of the people. First comes the Declaration, and then comes a form of government to secure the rights identified officially in the Declaration of Independence. It becomes a background document that I think is important to interpreting what comes later, and that is two cracks at government, including our Constitution.

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