On May 10, 1776, the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia to determine the future of the American colonies. It was one of the greatest gatherings of statesmen, brilliant thinkers, and talented orators ever assembled. On July 2, the Continental Congress passed a resolution from Virginian delegate Richard Henry Lee proclaiming a new country, separate from the British Empire. Two days later, this momentous decision was announced through the Declaration of Independence.
With its effect on the course of history and the future liberty of millions, Congress’s ultimate ratification of the Declaration was the most consequential vote ever taken. The Declaration of Independence didn’t just herald the coming of a new nation. It asserted timeless principles discovered through thousands of years of reason and revelation.
Yet the axioms of freedom must be taught and renewed with each generation. If we fail to preserve these truths, we risk squandering the fruits of the American founding. In order to secure our future liberty, we must know our history, and we must relearn the lessons taught by our Founding Fathers. There is no better place to begin than with the Declaration of Independence.
Our Natural Rights Come From God
The very first sentence of the Declaration begins with an affirmative statement that our rights come from “Nature” and “Nature’s God.”
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. [emphasis added]
The subsequent sentence of the Declaration spells out that men are “endowed by their Creator” with inherent, unalienable rights. The Founders did not claim the divine sanction of any one specific religious denomination. They did, however, understand that our rights are natural rights revealed and observed in nature by the virtue of man’s reason and bestowed to us by a Supreme Being.
The capitalization used throughout the document is no accident. Every word and every phrase were deliberately chosen and meticulously reviewed by Jefferson and the Committee of Five (which included John Adams and Benjamin Franklin) who gave advice and helped edit Jefferson’s drafts. The capitalization of “Laws,” “Nature,” “God,” and “Creator” indicated the reverence the Founders held for the Supreme Being as the source of our rights.
As Winston Churchill would say 165 years later, “There’s something going on in time and space, and beyond time and space.” The Founders knew that as well, and they knew the source of our rights were not mortal men, but an unseen Higher Power.
The Importance of ‘Created Equal’
Equality, rightly understood, as our Founding Fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences. Wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism. —Barry Goldwater
Much of the strife and acrimony in our political discourse has come from a twisted manipulation of “equality.” Today, the concept of “equality” is used as a club to bludgeon political opponents or in the service of radical schemes of income redistribution or other socialist follies. Equality, as understood by the Founders and elucidated by the Declaration, had a much different meaning than the equality of outcome promoted by leftists over the last 80 years.
When the Declaration speaks that all men are “created equal” it does not mean that we are all gifted with Marilyn Monroe’s looks, Albert Einstein’s intellect, or Michael Jordan’s athleticism. It does mean that we are all created in God’s image. It means we all have the same God-given rights. As humans, we are equal in our moral worth, which means no man may treat another man as he would an animal and no man may rule another without his consent.
Ultimately, the full meaning of the words “created equal” would not be realized until after the Civil War. It fell to Abraham Lincoln to preserve the best hope for man on earth and provide America with a new birth of freedom. More than 600,000 men gave the last full measure of devotion and perished on the battlefields of Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg to wholly make right on the Declaration’s promise for all Americans.
Our Rights Pre-Exist Government
Related to the revelation that our natural rights come from God, is that by that same virtue they pre-exist government—whether a republic, democracy, monarchy, or tyranny. This is an important distinction. By listing our rights before mentioning the existence of any sort of state, the Declaration makes it clear that government is not the source of those rights.
Any rights granted by the state, no matter how holy, benevolent or well-intentioned the officeholders, can be taken away in an instant. Rights that come from Nature and Nature’s God, however, are permanent, intransigent, and emphatically unalienable. Contrary to the opinions of many modern politicians, the Declaration makes it clear that the American experiment is fundamentally grounded on the principle that free and independent people get to tell the government what to do—not the other way around.
As Randy E. Barnett has put it, the founding documents of the United States paint a picture of tiny islands of government power awash in a vast sea of liberty. Today, we’ve inverted that ideal to our grave detriment. Too often our present political landscape resembles a parched, vast expanse of government power marked by disappearing oases of liberty. We must do all that we can to reverse this course. It begins with the recognition that our rights come first—government comes second.
There Is a Defined Role for the State
Government is a necessary evil insofar as we cannot protect our natural rights entirely independent from one another. The Declaration is explicit in mentioning why the new American government was formed:
…to secure these rights [Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness], Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
The state is given a monopoly on the legal use of force so that the strong and the malevolent cannot easily violate the rights of the weak and the righteous. Without government to secure “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” these rights are fragile and liable to be infringed upon by indecent or capricious men.
The Founders were not in favor of throwing off the yoke of tyranny in favor of anarchy. The Declaration recognizes that some level of government is required. As it states, governments are formed out of consenting individuals so that our “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” can be preserved.
The government protects our natural rights in several ways. First, in providing order, courts of law, and mediating disputes. Second, in the necessary protection of men against fraud, assault, or violence from their fellows. Lastly, in defending its citizens from foreign invasion. All these government powers derive from—and ensure the security of—the essence of our inalienable rights under the Laws of Nature.
Nothing Is ‘Owed’ to Us in this Life
The Declaration is silent on any other obligations of government beyond securing “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It does not proclaim cradle-to-grave social welfare. It also doesn’t say it’s the government’s role to provide “free” health care and college, a stable job, or a nice home. A bliss-filled existence is not pledged to us by the Declaration. America’s founding document does not guarantee happiness.
The operative word at the end of the relevant line is “pursuit.” In the United States, we are offered a chance to follow our dreams and to actualize all our potential. We are afforded the prospect of a grand adventure.
The pursuit of happiness is ours to seize and venture forth in all our strength. America was built by faithful, intrepid men and women who took this challenge head-on, knowing full well that nothing was assured, but the possibilities were limitless.
The Founders Knew the Cost of Freedom
What the Founders did on in July of 1776 was righteous, justified, and necessary to restore the natural rights that had been stripped from them. But, make no mistake, it was treason in the eyes of the British monarch George III. The signatories of the Declaration knew that failure in the struggle to come would mean certain death. How they handled this high-stakes moment is revealed in the closing line:
…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. [emphasis added]
The Declaration closes as it opens—with an appeal to heaven. The American colonists had several different faith backgrounds. Some would best be described as “deists.” But ultimately, they understood that without faith, without constant prayer for wisdom, prudence, and guidance in the trying times ahead, their cause would be doomed from the start.
Eight months before the signing of the Declaration, the phrase “an appeal to heaven” was appropriated from the influential writings of John Locke into one of America’s most exceptional revolutionary flags. The “Pine Tree” flag was flown on General George Washington’s first six warships beginning in October 1775. The colonists recognized they needed strength and perseverance beyond normal human capacity, and they knew where to find it.
Beginning with a rediscovery of the timeless truths of the Declaration of Independence, we need only to follow the Founders example to restore our republic to its noble roots. If we’re wise, we’ll also glance upward, and appeal to heaven once more.