Decent Respect To The Opinion Of Mankind
Declaring The Why 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.
Every Fourth of July, Americans celebrate one of the world's most remarkable documents. On that day, in 1776, the Second Continental Congress issued a declaration of their intent to be free from British rule, and by so doing made real a radical proposition that hitherto had only been a quaint abstract concept: that political authority, and the right to govern, descended from the people of a nation.
We are rightly awed by the majesty of Thomas Jefferson's rhetoric. We are properly impressed by the hope and humanity of the ideals he set forth. From that first Fourth of July until now, America has struggled imperfectly to measure up to the premise of universal human equality at the heart of the Declaration of Independence.
Yet the Declaration of Independence is more than its ideals. It is more than a mere assertion of inalienable rights. It is also an homage to humanity.
By issuing the Declaration of Independence, the Second Continental Congress recognized that, for the colonies to stand as an independent nation, they needed to persuade other nations of the essential rightness of their cause. As the text itself states, "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."
The Declaration of Independence is thus not merely a statement of political ideals, but a justification for all the struggle and sacrifice that would follow in defense of those ideals. It is not simply a declaration of independence, but a declaration of the "why" of independence.
The Foundation: That All Men Are Created Equal
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.
Thomas Jefferson did not hesitate, but based the colonies' case for independence on a clear and unambiguous proposition: universal equality. Before God and before the law, no man is neither better nor worse than any other. Even King George himself was on a level with every other man.
Jefferson's words crystallized in political reality an idea that had been germinating in the English consciousness for quite some time. Even William Shakespeare, writing nearly two centuries earlier, dared opine in Henry V that "I think the king is but a man."
Yet despite this growing understanding and belief in human equality, much of British society remained stratified and inherently unequal. In the eyes of the Crown, the colonists as well as all inhabitants of the British Isles were not citizens of Great Britain but subjects of the British Crown, and what flowed from the people to the Crown was duty and loyalty, not sovereignty. As King George III would state in the infamous "Rebellion Proclamation" given the previous year:
Whereas many of our subjects in divers parts of our Colonies and Plantations in North America, misled by dangerous and ill designing men, and forgetting the allegiance which they owe to the power that has protected and supported them; after various disorderly acts committed in disturbance of the publick peace, to the obstruction of lawful commerce, and to the oppression of our loyal subjects carrying on the same; have at length proceeded to open and avowed rebellion, by arraying themselves in a hostile manner, to withstand the execution of the law, and traitorously preparing, ordering and levying war against us
Thus did Great Britain sweep aside the claims and grievances of the colonists. As far as the monarchy was concerned, the colonists had no standing to pursue any such grievances; they were the subjects of the King, and as such duty bound to obey whatever laws were passed, no matter how onerous or burdensome.
To argue a reasoned and substantive basis for independence, Jefferson had to push back against the premise that the colonists owed King George absolute loyalty. He did so by sweeping away all pretense of royal prerogative and privilege, and asserting as political reality what Shakespeare had suggested only as dramatic license--that the king was but a man.
As all men are equal before God and before the law, Jefferson's next argument, that governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed, is inevitable. When all men are equal, there is no other plausible basis for government, and it also follows that the purpose of government is to protect the fundamental civil liberties that are the intrinsic endowment of all men.
In similar fashion, if a particular mode of government ceases to fulfill this function, as the people are the creators of government they are also empowered to be its destroyers--to remove government which does not work or no longer works and to replace it with a mode of government more likely to suit the needs of the people.
This was the gauntlet Jefferson threw down when he wrote that "The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations." The British government had ceased to address the needs of the colonists, and, as efforts at effecting reasonable changes had failed, independence was the inevitable result.
The Conflict: Facts Submitted To A Candid World
Having thrown down the gauntlet of government inadequacy and government betrayal, the laundry list of offenses listed by Jefferson was the necessary validation of that claim. It is a powerful list.
Who can say that a government who disrupts regular lawmaking processes is serving the needs of the people?
Who can say that a government which arbitrarily and capriciously changes the law to suit the whimsy of a monarch or his ministers is serving the needs of the people?
Who can say that a government which makes the military immune to consequence for their predations on a civilian population is serving the needs of the people?
These are but some of the claims issued by Jefferson, and even by the standards of the eighteenth century they form a significant list of reasons the colonies were compelled to seek independence.
However, a closer inspection of the "facts" Jefferson submitted to a candid world shows them to be more than just a litany of grievances. While phrased in the negative, as things Britain did and ought not to have done, or not done and ought to have done, Jefferson's claims against the British crown are also an outline of how government should conduct itself towards its citizens.
The first entries in Jefferson's list echo England's earlier struggles between Parliament and the monarchy which culminated in the English Civil War--the moral imperative of representative government and the challenge such government posed to the very idea of a monarchy. Jefferson fixes responsibility for the failure to resolve these tensions directly on the monarchy, and asserts that such failure jeopardizes the colonies by leaving them "exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within."
However, Jefferson's litany of grievances also includes failures to establish sound immigration policies--in Jefferson's view government should serve to build a society people very much want to join--failures to build and sustain an independent judiciary capable of an impartial administration of justice, and failures to subordinate the military to civilian authority. It is worth noting that all of these issues would be explicitly addressed in the Constitution and the Bill Of Rights.
If the Constitution is a detailed blueprint for good governance, the Declaration of Independence is the first rendering of what good governance actually is.
The Conclusion: Independence The Only Course Left
The final paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence focus on something that often gets overlooked in America's understanding of the Fourth of July holiday: Independence was presented as a last resort, all prior efforts at reconciliation having failed.
The extent to which the Founding Fathers were reluctant to secede from Great Britain and form a new nation is debatable. Some had committed to achieving independence well before 1776, and the Battles of Lexington and Concord--viewed as the opening battles of the American Revolution--occurred a full year previously, and the subsequent Siege of Boston had only ended in March, 1776, when the British evacuated the city. Massachusetts, at least, was well on the way to independence long before the Declaration was even proposed.
Yet there was significant effort by the colonists to seek a rapprochement with Great Britain, as the Continental Congress has sent the "Olive Branch Petition" to London in July of 1775, at the height of the Seige of Boston, seeking the Crown's intervention with the British Parliament to find amicable resolution the the colonists' disputes.
We therefore beseech your Majesty, that your royal authority and influence may be graciously interposed to procure us relief from our afflicting fears and jealousies, occasioned by the system before-mentioned, and to settle peace through every part of our Dominions, with all humility submitting to your Majesty's wise consideration, whether it may not be expedient, for facilitating those important purposes, that your Majesty be pleased to direct some mode, by which the united applications of your faithful Colonists to the Throne, in pursuance of their common counsels, may be improved into a happy and permanent reconciliation; and that, in the mean time, measures may be taken for preventing the further destruction of the lives of your Majesty's subjects; and that such statutes as more immediately distress any of your Majesty's Colonies, may be repealed.
As a matter of simple historical record, the Continental Congress sought peace before independence, with war for independence being waged only after their attempts at peace were rebuffed, as the Olive Branch Petition was met with the Rebellion Proclamation.
The Declaration: A Case Not Just For Independence, But For Liberty And Freedom
Taken as a whole, the Declaration of Independence is not merely an assertion of fundamental human right and human dignity, but of the moral imperatives implicit in all such rights. The Declaration was the statement by the Continental Congress that the true aim of all government, in all places, and in all times, was the preservation of these fundamental rights. The overarching theme of the Declaration is not merely that America should be an independent nation, but that all governments regardless of form are called to elevate human society.
To the Founding Fathers, the elevation of human society came when personal liberty and personal freedom were maximized. So long as the British government could plausibly be seen to support those ends, they were not only willing but wanting to remain part of the British Empire. Once British government came to be seen as hostile to the colonists' liberty and freedom, however, there was no option but to seek independence.
Independence was not merely the colonists' right, but also their responsibility. The cause of liberty and freedom, a cause which transcends individual societies and nations, demanded it of them.
It is this transcendent quality of the Declaration that makes it one of the world's great political documents. Jefferson made the moral case for American independence by arguing the universal moral imperative of liberty and freedom, as relevant to the citizens of China and Hong Kong as to the citizens of the United States.
Independence was--and is--the means, not the objective. Liberty and freedom were--and are--the objectives.
Thus did Thomas Jefferson show a decent respect to the opinion of Mankind: in declaring the "why" of American independence, he reminded all men everywhere what the proper role is for government in society. In stating the causes compelling independence, Jefferson made a case for the grounds on which all government is answerable to every society.
In drafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson laid a foundation for building good government in society. That we still consider the meaning of the Declaration today, some 244 years later, is testament to the foundation of government Jefferson built.