July 4th of this year marks the 243rd year since the enactment of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. This document is one of the most important in history and outlines the basic principles that outline our society. The subsequent document, the U.S. Constitution, forms a frame around the principles outlined in the Declaration.
Thomas Jefferson begins the document with a statement that when “one people dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” A large portion of the document outlines 27 different reasons why King George of Great Britain has become a tyrant and thus the colonies are justified in ending their relationship as subjects.
The audience for the Declaration is not only King George but also mankind. The first paragraph state that “a decent respect to opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” It seems the signers realize their actions should be recorded for the world to see, as well as the mother country. As well read as the founders were, it also stands to reason they expected this document to withstand time and be a written record throughout history. But the document’s audience is even larger than history as the last paragraph states an appeal to “the Supreme Judge of the world”.
The first paragraph cites “the separate and equal station” and the second, “that all men are created equal.” These statements stand in stark contrast of a system of royals and commoners, or the ruling and subject classes of peoples. They are saying, “King George, you are just like us. You breathe, you put on your pants one leg at a time, you bleed red like the rest of us.” This principal of all men being equal has been a struggle in our country. Eighty-eight years later, this principal was in the forefront of our leaders when they ended slavery. No, our country has not been perfect in this manner, but the foundation is stated in the Declaration.
So where does this come from, that all men are created equal and that equally created humans have rights of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”? The opening paragraph identifies these as Laws of Nature and Nature’s God. This is followed by the next identifying the grantor of these unalienable Rights as the Creator. The founders recognized that all this is granted by God, who rules over all affairs of men. This is an interesting concept. Many countries are founded on rights that are granted to the citizens by government. Here the founders show there is a Power higher than a governing class of people and thus these rights are “self-evident” and cannot be taken away.
This follows in line with other great documents like the Magna Carta. Government is defined as where it can rule and how it acts as the servant of the governed. The Declaration states it as “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 abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its foundation on such principals and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
The United States is the first country where the ultimate rights are with the people and this is recognized as an obvious fact everyone realizes. No government can grant or take away those rights. Those in government cannot be tyrants but must be servants to ensure the peace and safety of the citizens who have granted the government the task to lead. At the point of this writing, this concept flies contrary to most other countries and empires where citizens are servants of the government.
The writers realize that this document will start a conflict. Jefferson ends the next to last paragraph with a statement that we will hold the British “as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.” The signers knew this document would be costly as it required them to pledge their lives, fortunes and sacred honor. For some who signed it cost them these things.
On this Independence Day, I encourage you to take a few minutes and read the document that started the whole experiment in liberty which we call the United States of America. Realize a few of the foundational principles that make us different from other nations. Celebrate the liberty we have and what it is grounded in.