All Commentary
Monday, May 1, 1972

The Founding of the American Republic: 10. The Declaration of Independence

Dr. Carson shortly will join the faculty of Hillsdale College in Michigan as Chairman of the Department of History. He is a noted lecturer and author, his latest book entitled Throttling the Railroads.

The Declaration of Independence is a peculiar, unusual, and in many ways, unique document in the modern world. Of revolutions there have been a surfeit, and more, in the last two hundred years. And accompanying them have been pronouncements, directives, statements, proclamations, and declarations enough for a good start on papering the walls of the Pentagon. Of all such documents, however, one stands out and looms above the rest — the Declaration of Independence. Not only has it been revered usually by the people of the United States, provided the grist for innumerable orations, been memorized — in part — by school children; it also has been almost endlessly quoted in reproach of actual American ways and has been looked to by peoples of other lands as a standard. Supreme Court justices have appealed to it, would-be revolutionaries have claimed its rhetoric, while those of a conservative bent have sought their principles within it. For most of the history of the United States only one national holiday —Thanksgiving — has ranked with the 4th of July, the day set aside for celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

It is somewhat strange and a matter for wonder that this document among all those of an era rich with elegant statements should have attained its unique position. John Adams thought that the second day of July would be celebrated, for it was on that day that the resolution for independence was adopted. Moreover, he later declared of the Declaration that “There is not an idea in it, but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before.”¹ That portion of the document to which people usually refer is exceedingly brief, comprising, at most, two paragraphs, the first of which is only a sentence in length. The remainder of the document is of historical interest only. Moreover, the Declaration is not now, and never has been, a part of the fundamental law of the United States. It lies outside the structure of law which is made up of constitutions, statutes, and the common law. There are, of course, reasons for its position, and they will come out in an analysis of the document and discussion of its background and extension.

There are three dimensions of the Declaration of Independence which should be carefully considered for a clear understanding of it. The first is the contemporary context within which it was written, adopted, proclaimed, and served its purpose. However much it may have come to belong to the ages, the Declaration had a definite purpose and a particular role at the time. The second dimension is its past. The words and phrases are given their meaning not only within the contemporary rhetoric but also from historical doctrines and beliefs. Too, the later applicability of anything said is conditioned by the context of a then past history. The third dimension is its future. What men have made of the document, frequently out of context and with no attention to the concepts which give it any continuing validity, tells us something of the reason for its importance.

The Declaration in Context

The story of the composition and adoption of the Declaration is fairly simple. Richard Henry Lee’s resolution for independence, introduced on June 7, 1776, was not immediately adopted. On June 10, Congress decided to delay further discussion of it until July 1, for many delegates awaited instructions, or changes in instructions, from their legislatures before acting affirmatively for independence. Lee’s simple and straightforward resolution would have been adequate for the formal declaring of independence. But America badly needed aid from foreign powers if the appeal to arms was to be successful. Thomas Paine had suggested in Common Sense that some sort of manifesto be published in order to gain friends with other nations: “Were a manifesto to be published and dispatched to foreign courts, setting forth the miseries we have endured and the peaceable methods which we have ineffectually used for redress; declaring at the same time that… we had been driven to the necessity of breaking off all connections… — such a memorial would produce more good effects to this continent than if a ship were freighted with petitions to Britain.”’ This was apparently the origin of the idea for a declaration. Therefore, following the determination to delay adopting Lee’s resolution, Congress appointed a committee to produce such a document. The committee was composed of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston, Thomas Jefferson, and Roger Sherman. Thomas Jefferson was assigned the task of producing a draft of the proposed declaration. Had John Dickinson been favorably disposed toward independence at this juncture, the task would probably have been his. Jefferson had only lately acquired a considerable reputation as a writer with his Summary View of the Rights of British America. In any case, his selection turned out to have been one of the happiest decisions ever made by a committee. Some minor changes were suggested by Franklin and Adams, and these were incorporated in the document. Congress also made a few alterations.³ But the finished work was substantially what Jefferson had presented to the committee. Much of the honor which has fallen to the Declaration should be credited to Jefferson’s felicity of style, graceful turns of phrase, and the evocative power of words appropriately juxtaposed. Congress acted quickly once the Lee resolution came before it again on July 1. The next day it was approved unanimously by 12 colonies, though the New York delegation abstained. And then — on the July 4 date which was to be celebrated by posterity — Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. The stated purpose of the Declaration was to declare to “mankind” the “causes which impel them to the separation.” It was addressed, then, to the world at large. It can be conveniently divided into three parts for purposes of discussion: the first is a theoretical justification of revolution and independence; the second is an enumeration of the abuses suffered at the hands of the British; and the third is the formal declaring of independence.

A Dangerous Action

The theoretical justification of revolution is contained in the first two paragraphs, which are also the most often quoted parts of the Declaration. Interspersed through these paragraphs runs a litany of phrases which have become etched in the minds of Americans: “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” “truths to be self-evident,” “all men are created equal,” “endowed by their Creator,” “unalienable Rights,” and “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The ideas may have been hackneyed, as John Adams said, but the phrases in which Jefferson caught them elevated above the trite and ordinary to the sublimity of enduring poetry.

Yet, ideas are dangerous, as every tyrant knows and even parents of small children suspect; and there is no more dangerous context for setting forth thoughts than the one for which these were written. The Declaration not only declares independence but also proclaims revolt — revolution. Sages may debate as long as they will whether the American revolution was indeed a revolution — and the question is important in some of the later meanings of the word — but there can be no doubt that it was a revolution in the root sense of the word. That is, it was a revolt against and a casting off of the governmental authority which had been exercised over the colonies. Not only that, but it was successful — the basic distinction between a revolution and a rebellion. Nothing more dangerous to the peace and safety of a people can be imagined than a revolution: the former authority is cast off, whether law and order will be maintained is gravely in doubt, and man’s bent to destruction is likely to be loosed from the ultimate means of confining it.

The point of emphasizing the danger of revolution is to enter a warning: the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence are not something to be casually trotted out on any and all occasions. They are a theoretical justification of revolution, and those who intend less than revolution may well take care in how they refer to them. But the point is also to note the qualifying conditions of the document as to what justifies revolt: “Prudence, indeed will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience bath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” The case for revolution, as Jefferson presented it, can be summarized in this way. The Creator has endowed men with certain rights. Governments exist for the purpose of securing these rights to those under them. When a government rather than performing these ends primarily begins destroying them, and indicates by a long term trend that it cannot be brought back to its purpose, “it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it….” This is the nub of the argument.

A Majority Form of Action

There is much that is left out of the simple statement of the doctrine of the right of revolution contained in the Declaration of Independence. There was no need to spell it out on this occasion, and many of the restrictions are implicit. The oppressions must afflict the people generally; they must, therefore, be by a power alien to the generality of the people. And the right to revolt belongs, at the least, only to a majority, probably only to a consensus, and, ideally, to the people generally. This is to say that a minority does not have a right to revolution. The whole idea of a minority having such a right is shot through with contradictions. The minority could only effect this “right” by overcoming the majority. If a minority had a “right” to alter or abolish a government and to erect another in its stead, it would be a “right” to impose its will on a majority. Do minorities not have rights, then? Assuredly, they do, or so Jefferson and many of his contemporaries thought. All men have rights; but the recourse to revolution belongs only to the preponderance of the people. But suppose a minority (or, for that matter, a combination of several minorities) is oppressed and persecuted, what recourse do the members have? The Founders believed that the members of a minority have rights as individuals which should be protected in the system along with the rights of those who happen to belong to the majority or consensus. For example, they have the right to persuade others of the justice of their cause — that is, to become the majority. Freedom of speech and of the press are devices for assuring the opportunity of exercising the right of persuasion. But suppose all fails within the system to relieve the oppression? What is the ultimate recourse of a minority? The ultimate recourse of an oppressed minority is migration. The right to migrate for a minority is the corollary of the right to revolution for a majority.

Metaphysical Foundations

The right of revolution is metaphysical, not existential (and none may logically claim such a right who have not a metaphysics on which to found their case). No government can, in practice, admit the right of its people to revolt against it at any time. The moment such a right is acknowledged effectively, the government abdicates its former power and another government takes its place. No governmental system can be contrived which provides for the right of revolution (though, interestingly, the right of migration can be established). The matter is as clear as it can be when it is seen that the right of revolution involves the right to take up arms against the government. A government ceases to be the government when men take up arms against it with impunity. The United States government can decree that the 4th of July is a national holiday — Independence Day —, and celebrations can be held in which the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence are read, but the United States Constitution could not, and does not, incorporate within it the right of revolution. (It does, however, provide for turning out of office some of those who govern, at stated intervals, but the discussion of this can wait.) That is to say, again, the right of revolution is metaphysical, not existential, an explanation of which follows. The right of revolution has its being prior to, outside of, and beyond government. Jefferson was making his case within a tradition whose groundwork was laid long before. The Declaration of Independence had a past, then, which needs to be a little explored. The two main traditions appealed to are theism and natural law. The rights alluded to are said to be derived from “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” and ones with which “they are endowed by their Creator.” If there were only history and present existence, no right to revolution could be established, for no government that ever did or does exist could or would accord it. The appeal to right, in this sense, requires an appeal to right that existed before history. It is an appeal to that which and He who was before governments came into being. Although our language has no tense for it, it is an appeal to the timeless and the enduring, to that which has no tense. In this timeless sphere, Jefferson tells us, “all men are created equal,” and are endowed by their Creator “with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” This has been, no doubt, the most troublesome passage in the Declaration. What can it mean that all men are created equal? The most immediate meaning, within the time context, is that Americans are equals of Englishmen. They had been contending for this since the dispute between the two had occurred. Americans had claimed that they had the same right to tax themselves as Englishmen, the same right to legislate, and eventually they claimed the same trading privileges. It was the failure of the British government to accord them equal rights which had provoked the dispute. The justification for revolt now became the fact that they had been deprived of their rights. This needs further discussion in terms of what men were to make of the phrase later. Before going into that, one other matter from the past needs to be considered. The justification for revolt by the colonies was tied up with the institution of monarchy. Whether or not they would have their grievances redressed depended in considerable measure upon the will of the king. Hereditary monarchy had long posed a problem in political theory, at least for Western thinkers. Suppose the monarch were a tyrant? Suppose he imposed his will, in an arbitrary and despotic fashion, over the people? It had long been held, by some, that it was the right of the people to kill a tyrant. However attractive the idea might have been to some Americans, they never seriously considered it. And for very good reason: it would not have settled the issues in contention. But the fact that they were ruled by a monarch gave the colonists a justification for revolution that is denied to those who live under elective executives.

Equality Before the Law

Returning to the matter of equality, it should be stated that the phrase “all men are created equal” had and has a much broader potential of application than to the simple proposition of the equality of Englishmen and Americans. Its meaning is fairly clear in the context: all men have an equal claim to certain natural rights. More, the case is implicit for equality before the law, that is, that the law shall deal with acts and not classes of people. Nor is there any reason to doubt that Jefferson believed this principle applied to blacks as well as whites, and that there should only be free men, not slaves. Later in American history, some have read the Declaration of Independence into an idealistic framework. It is from this angle that some would see the Declaration as calling for continuing revolution and as a dream for America that is yet to be realized. Such notions separate the doctrines al most entirely from the context of ideas behind them as well as the temporal context in which they were written. Continual revolution is a nonsensical notion; within this context, at least, it could only mean a continual warfare over who is to govern. Jefferson based his argument on metaphysical Propositions, not idealistic ones. The equality upon which he bases his position is one that has always been, not one that might someday be achieved. True, he declares that the purpose of government is to secure men their rights. It is surely true, also, that governments have most frequently not done this well. The point may be too abstruse to be readily grasped, but Jefferson was not saying that an ideal government would establish this ideal equality; he was saying that a government performing its appropriate function would do so. Of course, the phrases do not touch upon equality within society at all; they apply to equality before the law. The theoretical justification of revolution contained in the first two paragraphs tells us only that there can occur situations in which a people may be justified in revolting against the authority over them. This is the case, we are told, when the government has consistently abandoned its role of protecting the people in their rights and become the persistent violator of them. It is the burden of the body of the Declaration to show that the British government had done this to America.

The Case Against the King

The case is summed up in the next to last sentence of the second paragraph: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” It should be noted here that all the acts are blamed upon the monarch. There was, of course, a reason for doing this as a tactic. Loyalty to the king was the tie that Americans had clung to the longest. It was the one which now must be disavowed and broken if independence was to be achieved. Some purport to see in this blaming of all the acts of the government upon the king disingenuousness by Jefferson and those who concurred in his formulations. The charge has little merit; the tactic is fully justified in British constitutional theory. By that theory, the acts of ministers are acts of the king. Even the acts of Parliament are acts of the Crown-in-Parliament. Moreover, the king had neither disallowed nor disavowed the acts in question, which he might have done. If there was disingenuousness to be charged, it should be about the fact that they had delayed so long in laying upon the king the blame for what was happening. Colonists had, for a decade, blamed Parliament and ministers for what was happening. But this, too, is understandable; it was a means of resisting without revolt. Now the case could be stated bluntly, and the blame could be placed where it justly rested, in the final analysis.

In any case, the British government was indicted for its acts by a listing of them in the Declaration, acts charged to George III. Even a truncated version shows how weighty and damaging was the case against him:

He has refused his Assent to Laws….

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws….

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people….

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records….

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly….

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected….

He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States….

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice….

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone….

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our Legislatures. He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution….

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us.

For protecting them… from Punishment….

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world.

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.

For depriving us, in many cases, of the benefits of trial by Jury.

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences. For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries….

For taking away our Charters…. For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with Power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the Lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation, and tyranny….

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country…

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us….

A case can be made, of course, that there is some hyperbole amongst the charges listed. Some of the acts were done only against selected colonies. One or two of them may have been mere potentiality. Some of the charges are repeated in slightly different formulations. Yet every one of them has substance behind it. The nature of the Declaration was such that an act done against one of the colonies could properly be considered as done against all of them. A jury charged with establishing the facts alleged in the indictment almost certainly would have found Britain guilty of all, or almost all, of the charges brought, after reviewing the mass of evidence that could have been assembled.

The Declaration of Independence was not suddenly sprung upon Britain and the world. The Americans had not suffered abuse in silence, only to lash out in a fit of anger without warning. As Jefferson said: “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.” Not only had appeals been made to the king but also to the British people, or, as the Declaration says, “to our British brethren.” But “They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and consanguinity.” But one course lay open to the Americans, then, and they were taking it. The final paragraph declares the independence of the states from Great Britain. The phrases of the concluding paragraph are, if anything, more felicitous than those of the opening paragraphs. The rhetoric, once again, rises above anything remotely petty or trivial to state the case for the ages. There is an appeal “to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” and “in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies.” They “solemnly publish and declare” that they are “Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown,” and that they are “Free and Independent States.” “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

The Declaration of Independence has been celebrated but not because it contains a theoretical justification of revolution or because it indicted George III for the wrongs done the colonies. Americans have no more generally venerated revolution as a good than they have clung to an enmity with the British people. The message of the Declaration is that revolution is a thing to be avoided so far as can be done, and entered upon only under dire necessity. The results of revolution are too unpredictable to warrant its encouragement; the destruction it portends too likely for the casual contemplation of it as a means to good ends. Revolution is negative and destructive. Far from being a thing of great value, it is a devaluation of the political coin of the realm.

The Declaration of Independence has been celebrated for good and sufficient reasons, reasons other than those connected with revolution. It has been celebrated, of course, because it marks the beginning of independence. It marks, too, the inception — the birth — of a nation, though it probably had not been conceived at the time. It was surely almost accidental that the very name by which this nation was to be called — the United States of America — appeared in the Declaration. It was only the statement of a hoped-for condition — “the united States of America” — when it was written.

The Declaration contains, too, a principled statement of the great purpose for which governments exist — to protect the people in the enjoyment of their rights. The first two paragraphs of the Declaration may be read and re-read — as they have been over the years — not as a justification or call for revolution but as a reminder of the good and proper ends of government to a people who have in their hands the control of the government over them. It contains, too, in its main body a list of abuses to which governments are prone. These United States had a goodly beginning, in spite of the revolution which was made. The good beginning was because of the great principles which were raised up before the people in the Declaration of Independence.

Next: The War for Independence.



1 Quoted in John R. Alden, A History of the American Republic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969), p. 243.

2 Nelson F. Adkins, ed., Thomas Paine (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1953), pp. 43-44.

3 See Alden, op cit., pp. 241-42.


  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.