Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Basic Principles of the Declaration of Independence


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. 

"The Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" -- are the foundation of the political principles of American independence.  As set forth in the writings of Locke, Sidney, and others, it means that nature has inherent laws by which each individual has a conscience, accountability for one’s actions, and a duty to not harm others or their property.  It is not the “law of the jungle,” nor license, but a moral code that binds us together in families and communities, manifest in English common law, and in religion. It recognizes the innate ability of all people and their magistrates to use reason and faith to choose virtue, the common good and civility, over vice and corruption.  

"We hold these truths to be self‑evident” (Jefferson used the words in his first draft, “sacred and undeniable”) -- confirms that there are certain truths that all people are bound to acknowledge, such as the equality of the rights of man, including the right to govern his life and property. 

“…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.” A religious people rose in rebellion against Great Britain in 1776, and the vast majority of American colonists believed in God, the Bible, and in the creation of man.  Even for "deists" like Jefferson, there was an acknowledgement that God is the author of liberty and of the natural rights of each person.  He wrote in 1774: “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.”[1]  Jefferson recorded that, “Happiness is the aim of life.  Virtue is the foundation of happiness.”[2]  Our natural rights are divine gifts and not subject to human grants.  The term “unalienable” means incapable of being sold or transferred.  

“…the consent of the governed” -- Governments are properly the result of the choice of the governed.  As John Jay wrote in Federalist No. 2, “Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of government; and it is equally undeniable that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with requisite powers.”  The people are sovereign and they delegate to government the power to rule. 

“… it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” Under the circumstances of “a long train of abuses” -- consisting of violations of individual and societal liberties and usurpations of power, there is a right and a duty to revolt against tyranny.


[1] Thomas Jefferson, Rights of British America, 1774 (The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Memorial Edition) (ME) 1:211.
[2]  Thomas Jefferson to William Short, October 31, 1819, ME 15:223.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Our Duty to Conscience


In England of old, under the common law, there developed two courts: courts of law and courts of conscience. A court of conscience -- or “court of equity” -- administered justice according to the system of equity, and according to the rules, principles and procedures of chancery; as distinguished from a court having jurisdiction in the common law.  In practice, these courts (with clerics as chancellors) approached cases in equity with the flexible application of broad moral principles to fact-specific situations for the sake of justice.  For them, as it should be for us, “equity” was defined as “a moral sense of fairness based on conscience.” Duty to conscience is the foundation of fairness and justice, and forms the basis of moral principle.  That is the test of every man in every generation...

Sir Thomas More was born in London in 1478 . . . entered Oxford to study law . . . then entered Parliament. He attracted the attention of Henry VIII who appointed him to a succession of high posts. However, he resigned in 1532 when Henry VIII persisted in holding his own opinions regarding marriage and the supremacy of the Pope. In 1534 he refused to take an oath and render allegiance to the King as Head of the Church of England. . . His lands and estate were taken from him.  Then he was arrested and was confined to the Tower of London. Thomas was tried and convicted of treason. He told the court that he could not go against his conscience . . . The king knew that many people admired More and what he was doing. Even the king did not really want to put him to death. As a final attempt to get More to change his mind, King Henry sent More’s wife and his daughter Meg to see him in prison. They urged him to take the oath to preserve his life. In the play, “A Man for All Seasons,” Meg reminded her father that he had always taught her that God regards the heart, not the words of the lips. Then she pleaded with him to “say the words of the oath and in your heart think otherwise.” More replied, “What is an oath but words we say to God?” Then cupping his hands he continued: “When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then—he needn’t hope to find himself again” (Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons [New York: Random House, 1960], p. 140). 

More was beheaded on July 6, 1535.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

No Liberty without Virtue












To our Founding Fathers it was obvious, or “self-evident,” that self-government, or a democratic republic, could only be perpetuated by the self-governed.  Reflecting these precepts, a contemporary German writer to the Founders, J. W. von Goethe, stated: "What is the best government? -- That which teaches us to govern ourselves."[1] And, a later, prominent 19th Century minister, Henry Ward Beecher, simply said: “There is no liberty to men who know not how to govern themselves.”[2] Self-governance consists of self-regulation of our behavior, ambitions and passions.  To this end, the Founders fundamentally believed that the ability to govern ourselves rests with our individual and collective virtue (or character).

John Adams stated it this way, Public virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private Virtue, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.”[3] In this regard, the revolutionary war was as much a battle against “the corruption of 18th century British high society,”[4] as it was against financial oppression.  While the Founders and American colonists were very concerned with their civil liberty and economic freedom, demanding “no taxation without representation,” they were equally concerned with their religious liberty, particularly in preserving their rights of individual conscience and public morality.[5]  With respect to the vital need for virtue in order to establish and maintain a republic, the Founders were in complete harmony:

George Washington said: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government,”[6] and “Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.”[7]

Benjamin Franklin said: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” [8]

James Madison stated: “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical [imaginary] idea.”[9]

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and … their minds are to be informed by education what is right and what wrong; to be encouraged in habits of virtue and to be deterred from those of vice … These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure and order of government.”[10]

Samuel Adams said: “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.  He therefore is the truest friend of the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue.”[11]

Patrick Henry stated that: “A vitiated [impure] state of morals, a corrupted public conscience, is incompatible with freedom.”[12]

John Adams stated: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”[13]

Virtue ennobles individual character and lifts society as a whole. Virtuous principles eschew prejudice and discrimination, confirming that “all men are created equal.” Virtue encompasses characteristics of goodwill, patience, tolerance, kindness, respect, humility, gratitude, courage, honor, industry, honesty, chastity and fidelity. These precepts serve as the cornerstones for both individual and societal governance.


[1] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Maxims and Reflections of Goethe, translated by Bailey Saunders (MacMillan & Co., New York, 1906), Maxim No. 225.
[2] William Drysdale,ed., Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit, Selected from the Writings and Sayings of Henry Ward Beecher (D. Appleton & Co., New York, 1887), p. 72.
[3] John Adams to Mercy Otis Warren, April 16, 1776. A. Koch and W. Peden, eds., The Selected Writings of John and John Quincy Adams (Knopf, New York, 1946), p. 57.
[4] Marvin Olasky, Fighting for Liberty and Virtue (Regnery Publishing, Washinton D.C., 1996) p. 142.
[5] See, e.g., Id., Olasky, Fighting for Liberty and Virtue; Richard Vetterli and Gary Bryner, In Search of the Republic: Public Virtue and the Roots of American Government (Rowman & Littlefield, New Jersey, 1987).
[6] Victor Hugo Paltsits, Washington’s Farewell Address (The New York Public Library, 1935), p. 124.
[7] Washington to Marquis De Lafayette, February 7, 1788, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, (U. S. Government Printing Office, Washington D. C., 1939), 29:410.
[8] Jared Sparks, ed., The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, (Tappan, Whittemore and Mason, Boston, 1840), 10:297.
[9] Speech in the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 20, 1788. Jonathan Elliot, The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution (J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, 1891) 3:536.
[10] Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1819. ME 15:234.
[11] William V. Wells, The Life and Public Service of Samuel Adams (Little, Brown, & Co., Boston, 1865), 1:22.
[12] Tryon Edwards, D.D., The New Dictionary of Thoughts - A Cyclopedia of Quotations (Hanover House, Garden City, NY, 1852; revised and enlarged by C.H. Catrevas, Ralph Emerson Browns and Jonathan Edwards, 1891; The Standard Book Company, New York, 1955, 1963), p. 337.
[13] John Adams, October 11, 1798, letter to the officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts. Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, (Little, Brown, and Co., Boston, 1854), 9:229.