Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Declaration of Independence

Written by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence stands as a timeless statement of human liberty, rights and equality. Adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, the signers of the Declaration pledged to it their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Jefferson said, “The Declaration of Independence... [is the] declaratory charter of our rights, and of the rights of man.”[1] The Declaration is America's first and foremost founding document. It sets forth our understanding of human rights based upon the principles of natural law, and the legitimate authority and purpose of government. The first three sentences constitute its most significant and oft-quoted words:

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. 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. 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.

 Writing to Henry Lee concerning the source of the principles of the Declaration, Jefferson said: This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, not yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All it's [sic] authority rests on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, & c. [2] Abraham Lincoln said that ‘[these] principles … are the definitions and axioms of a free society.”[3] He concluded that that in the Declaration, Jefferson introduced “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times ….”[4] Indeed, the individual, natural rights of man and woman to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are universal. As we celebrate our nation's independence this 4th of July, may we read and reflect upon the words of the Declaration of Independence that declared to all the world that all men are created equal and that God is the "Author of Liberty."[5]
[1] Jefferson to Samuel Adams Wells, 1819, ME 15:200.
[2] Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825, ME 16:118-19.
[3] Abraham Lincoln to H. L. Pierce, April 6, 1859, Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1953), 3:375-76.[1] [4] Id.
[5] Samuel Francis Smith, "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" (1831).

1 comment:

Barry said...

Jefferson modestly says that the words they penned in the Declaration were not new principles or arguments never before thought of, but what his modesty does not allow him to acknowledge is the very uncommon expression of those principles. George Washington Carver said "When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world." If the principles and ideas expressed in the Declaration were already known by many, it was in the uncommon expression of those principles, in the times and circumstances in which they were expressed that has commanded the attention of the world.
Even during these times, I am bolstered by the feeling that these principles and ideas are still very much "an expression of the American mind". I believe, in the end, just as in the beginning, liberty will prevail.
David, outstanding job of expressing these founding sentiments toward our observation of Independence Day.