What the Declaration of Independence Really Claimed

by Randy Barnett
The Washington Post
July 4, 2015

(As we celebrate Independence Day, I thought I would post a couple excerpts about the Declaration of Independence from my forthcoming book, Our Republican Constitution: Securing the Sovereignty of the People (which is now available for pre-order on Amazon). This passage of the book appears after the one I posted here.)

Today, while all Americans have heard of the Declaration of Independence, all too few have read more than its second sentence. Yet the Declaration shows the natural rights foundation of the American Revolution and provides important information about what the founders believed makes a constitution or government legitimate. It also raises the question of how these fundamental rights are reconciled with the idea of “the consent of the governed,” another idea for which the Declaration is famous.

When reading the Declaration, it is worth keeping in mind two very important facts. The Declaration constituted high treason against the Crown. Every person who signed it would be executed as traitors should they be caught by the British. Second, the Declaration was considered to be a legal document by which the revolutionaries justified their actions and explained why they were not truly traitors. It represented, as it were, a literal indictment of the Crown and Parliament, in the very same way that criminals are now publicly indicted for their alleged crimes by grand juries representing “the People.”

But to justify a revolution, it was not thought to be enough that officials of the government of England, the Parliament, or even the King himself had violated the rights of the people. No government is perfect; all governments violate rights. This was well known.

So the Americans had to allege more than mere violations of rights. They had to allege nothing short of a criminal conspiracy to violate their rights systematically. Hence the Declaration’s famous reference to “a long train of abuses and usurpations” and the list that followed. In some cases, these specific complaints account for provisions eventually included in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

But before this list of particular grievances come two paragraphs succinctly describing the political theory on which the new polity was founded. To appreciate all that is packed into these two paragraphs, it is useful to break down the Declaration into some of its key claims.

  1. 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.

This first sentence is often forgotten. It asserts that Americans as a whole, rather than as members of their respective colonies, are a distinct “people.” And this “one people” is not a collective entity, but an aggregate of particular individuals. So “they” not it should “declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

To “dissolve the political bands” revokes the “social compact” that existed between the Americans and the rest of the people of the British commonwealth, reinstates the “state of nature” between Americans and the government of Great Britain, and makes “the Laws of Nature” the standard by which this dissolution and whatever government is to follow are judged. As Committee of Five delegate Roger Sherman observed in 1774, after hostilities broke out with the British, “We are Now in a State of Nature.”

[Newt Gingrich: Five myths about the founding fathers]

But what are these “Laws of Nature”? To answer this, we can turn to a sermon delivered by the Reverend Elizur Goodrich at the Congregational Church in Durham Connecticut on the eve of the Philadelphia constitutional convention. At the time of the founding, it was a common practice for ministers to be invited to give an “election sermon” before newly-elected government officials, in this case the delegates to the Constitutional convention, to encourage them to govern according to God’s ways.

In his sermon, Goodrich explained that “the principles of society are the laws, which Almighty God has established in the moral world, and made necessary to be observed by mankind; in order to promote their true happiness, in their transactions and intercourse.” These laws, Goodrich observed, “may be considered as principles, in respect of their fixedness and operation,” and by knowing them, “we discover the rules of conduct, which direct mankind to the highest perfection, and supreme happiness of their nature.” These rules of conduct, he then explained, “are as fixed and unchangeable as the laws which operate in the natural world. Human art in order to produce certain effects, must conform to the principles and laws, which the Almighty Creator has established in the natural world.”

In this sense, natural laws govern every human endeavor, not just politics. They undergird what may be called “normative disciplines,” by which I mean those bodies of knowledge that guide human conduct—bodies of knowledge that tell us how we ought to act if we wish to achieve our goals. To illustrate this, Goodrich offered examples from agriculture, engineering, and architecture:

He who neglects the cultivation of his field, and the proper time of sowing, may not expect a harvest. He, who would assist mankind in raising weights, and overcoming obstacles, depends on certain rules, derived from the knowledge of mechanical principles applied to the construction of machines, in order to give the most useful effect to the smallest force: And every builder should well understand the best position of firmness and strength, when he is about to erect an edifice.

To ignore these principles is nothing short of denying reality, like jumping off a roof imagining that one can fly. “For he, who attempts these things, on other principles, than those of nature, attempts to make a new world; and his aim will prove absurd and his labour lost.” By making “a new world,” Goodrich meant denying the nature of the world in which we live. He concludes: “No more can mankind be conducted to happiness; or civil societies united, and enjoy peace and prosperity, without observing the moral principles and connections, which the Almighty Creator has established for the government of the moral world.”

The fact that Goodrich was a relatively obscure public figure—though his son would go on to serve as a Federalist congressman from Connecticut—shows the commonplace understanding of natural law. And Goodrich’s task was to remind the Connecticut delegates of the proper understanding “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

  1. 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 most famous line of the Declaration, and for some the only line they know. The Committee of Five’s draft referred to these as “inalienable” rights, but for reasons unknown the word was changed to “unalienable” sometime in the process of printing it for the public.

What are inalienable or “unalienable” rights? They are those you cannot give up even if you want to and consent to do so, unlike other rights that you can agree to transfer or waive. Why the claim that these rights are inalienable? The Founders want to counter England’s claim that, by accepting the colonial governance, the colonists had waived or alienated their rights. The Framers claimed that with inalienable rights, you always retain the ability to take back any right that has been given up.

The standard trilogy throughout this period was “life, liberty, and property.” For example, in its Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress (1774), Congress had previously asserted that “the inhabitants of the English colonies in North America, by the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts,” have the following rights: “That they are entitled to life, liberty and property: and they have never ceded to any foreign power whatever, a right to dispose of either without their consent.” Or, as the influential British political theorist John Locke wrote, “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”

Perhaps the most commonly repeated formulation combines the right of property with the pursuit of happiness. This was the version drafted by George Mason for the Virginia Declaration of Rights—not the version actually approved by the Virginia convention in Williamsburg on June 11th, 1776, the very day that the Committee of Five was formed in Philadelphia to draft the Declaration for the nation.

The Virginia Convention balked at Mason’s specific wording “on the ground that it was not compatible with a slaveholding society. They changed ‘are born equally free’ to ‘are by nature equally free,’ and ‘inherent natural rights’ to ‘inherent rights.’” The adopted version read:

That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

As we will see, the language of Mason’s radical draft—rather than either Virginia’s final wording or Jefferson’s more succinct formulation—became the canonical statement of first principles. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Vermont adopted Mason’s original references to “born equally free” and to “natural rights,” into their declarations of rights. In 1783, this language was used by the Massachusetts supreme court to invalidate slavery in that state. And in 1823, it was invoked in an influential opinion by Justice Bushrod Washington explaining the meaning of “privileges and immunities” of citizens in the several states.

On the one hand, this sentence of the Declaration will become a great embarrassment to a people who allowed the continuation of chattel slavery. On the other hand, making a public claim like this has consequences. That is why people make them publicly—to be held to account. Eventually, the Declaration became a lynchpin of the moral and constitutional arguments of the nineteenth-century abolitionists. It had to be explained away by the Supreme Court in Dred Scott. It was much relied upon by Abraham Lincoln. And ultimately it needed to be repudiated by defenders of slavery in the South because of its inconsistency with that institution.

  1. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men. . . .’’

Another overlooked line, but for our purposes, possibly the most important. For it states what will later become the central underlying “republican” assumption of the Constitution: that “first come rights and then comes government.” Here, even more clearly than Mason’s draft, the Declaration identifies the ultimate end or purpose of republican governments as securing the pre-existing natural rights that the previous sentence affirmed is the measure against which all government—whether of Great Britain or the United States—will be judged.

  1. “. . . deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

For reasons I will explain in this book, there is a tendency today to focus entirely on the second half of this sentence to the exclusion of the first part that references the securing of our natural rights. Then, by reading “the consent of the governed” as equivalent to “the will of the people,” the second part of the sentence seems to support majoritarian rule by the people’s “representatives.” In this way, the “consent of the governed” is read to mean “consent to majoritarian rule.” Put another way, the people can consent to anything, including rule by a majority in the legislature who will decide the scope of their rights as individuals.

But read carefully, one sees that the Declaration speaks of “just powers,” suggesting that only some powers are “justly” held by government, while others are beyond its proper authority. And notice also that “the consent of the governed” assumes that the people do not themselves rule or govern, but are “governed” by those individual persons who comprise the “governments” that “are instituted among men.”

The Declaration stipulates that those who govern the people are supposed “to secure” their pre-existing rights, not impose the will of a majority of the people on the minority. And, as the Virginia Declaration of Rights made explicit, these inalienable rights cannot be surrendered “by any compact.” So the “consent of the governed” cannot be used to override the inalienable rights of the sovereign people.

So we should recognize that there has arisen a tension between the first part of this sentence and the second. In political discourse, people tend to favor one of these concepts over the other—either preexistent natural rights or popular consent—which leads them to stress one part of this sentence in the Declaration over the other. The fact that rights can be uncertain and disputed leads some to emphasize the consent part of this sentence and the legitimacy of popularly-enacted legislation. But the fact that there is never unanimous consent to any particular law, or even to the government itself, leads others to emphasize the rights part of this sentence and the legitimacy of judges protecting the “fundamental” or “human” rights of individuals and minorities.

If we take both parts of this sentence seriously, however, I believe this apparent tension can be reconciled by distinguishing between (a) the ultimate end or purpose of any legitimate governance and (b) how any particular government gains jurisdiction to rule. So, while the protection of natural rights or justice is the ultimate end of governance, particular governments only gain jurisdiction to achieve this end by the consent of those who are governed.

In Chapter 3, we will see how the concepts of “natural rights” of the people and “the consent of the governed,” were reconciled by the idea of presumed consent. The people as a whole can only be presumed to have consented to what was actually expressed in the written Constitution and, absent a clear statement to the contrary, they cannot be presumed to have consented to surrender any of their natural rights.

Later in our history, the uncertainty of ascertaining natural rights will be addressed by shifting the question from specifying particular rights to critically examining whether any particular restriction of liberty can be shown to be within a “just power” of government—that is, a power to which any rational person would have consented, such as the equal protection of their fundamental rights, including their health and safety.

  1. 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.

This passage restates the end of government—human safety and happiness—and identifies the “form of government” as a means to this end. Therefore, the people have a right to alter and abolish any form of government when it is destructive of these ends, as the Americans declared the British government to be in the list that followed.

Jefferson adopted it from Article 3 of George Mason’s draft Declaration of rights, which affirmed “that whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, indefeasible right, to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conductive to the publick Weal.”

The political theory announced in the Declaration of Independence can be summed up by the proposition I mentioned above: First come rights, and then comes government. According to this view:

  • The rights of individuals do not originate with any government, but pre-exist its formation.
  • The protection of these rights is both the purpose and first duty of government.
  • Even after government is formed, these rights provide a standard by which its performance is measured and, in extreme cases, its systemic failure to protect rights—or its systematic violation of rights—can justify its alteration or abolition.
  • At least some of these rights are so fundamental that they are “inalienable,” meaning they are so intimately connected to one’s nature as a human being that they cannot be transferred to another even if one consents to do so.

Happy Fourth of July!

— Randy Barnett is the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Legal Theory, Georgetown University Law Center, and Director of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution. His books include: Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty (Princeton, 2d. ed 2014); and The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of Law (Oxford, 2d. ed. 2014).

The foregoing was originally published in The Washington Post, July 4, 2015.