American Revolution

American Revolution/Declaration of Independence

The Americans had the Declaration of Independence; the French followed with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (August 27, 1789).

The premises of the Declaration of Independence were as follows.

1. That all men (meaning men, not women) have imprescriptible natural rights.

2. That the British empire is a voluntary federation of independent states.

The Second Continental Congress made changes to Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Declaration of Independence. The most notable was the deletion of Jefferson's denouncement of the slave trade. Jefferson himself thought this long paragraph one of the best parts of the Declaration; certainly nothing could have been more germane in an argument based on the natural rights of man than an allusion to slavery, that "cruel human war against nature itself." There were many slave holders in Congress, none so naturally sensitive to slavery's violation of the principles at hand as to find the "peculiar institution" obnoxious.

Richard Henry Lee's Resolution of Independence was introduced on June 7, 1776 and voted by the Continental Congress on July 2. In the strict sense, this was the official declaration of independence; if we were a nation of antiquaries we should find an incongruity in celebrating the anniversary of our independence on July 4. On June 10, three days after Lee first introduced the Resolution, the Congress voted to appoint a committee to "prepare a declaration to the effect of the said first resolution."

The primary purpose of the Declaration was not to declare Independence, but to proclaim to the world the reasons for doing so. It was intended as a formal justification of an act already instituted, in which history was in the making, and which was in need of justifying.

The Declaration was not primarily concerned with the causes of this rebellion; its purpose was to present those causes in a manner to provide a moral and legal sanction for the rebellion. It was essentially an endeavor to demonstrate that rebellion was not the exact term for what they were doing. Apart from the preamble and conclusion, the Declaration has two quite discrete components. The first, embodied in the second paragraph, claims general concepts of a democratic political philosophy. The second, much longer, details the specific grievances against King George III, presented as the historical causes of this revolution.

In the controversy leading up to the Revolution, the issue hitherto had been the authority of the British Parliament. What were the character and exact boundaries of Parliament's authority over the colonies? This question was the central point; the issue of being British subjects was ignored. Separation from England was vindicated on more general grounds, the natural rights of man.

To simplify the issue and make it appear that the rights of man had been undeniably and egregiously transgressed, these rights should seem as little possible circumscribed or clouded by the positive legal obligations admittedly binding on English subjects of the empire. To place the Declaration of Independence in the best possible light, it was expeditious to assume that the tie between the colonies and Great Britain had never been intimate, never binding in positive law, but a connection voluntarily entered into by a free people. On this basis, the doctrine of the rights of man would have a free field and no competition.

The essence of this theory of government is that the colonies became parts of the empire by voluntary act, and remained parts of it solely by dint of a compact between them and the king. Their rights were those of all men and every free people, their obligations such as a free people might incur by professing freely rendered allegiance to the personal head of the empire. On this theory, both Parliament and the rights of the British subjects could be set aside as not pertaining to the crisis at hand.

Jefferson in 1776 used as a model John Locke's justification of the Whig Revolution or Glorious Revolution of 1688. God, naturalized is a Prime Mover. Thus, the divine right of kings has no validity.

Note the element of deism here. Natural law was still the part of the mind of God that a rational creature could grasp; but if a rational creature could understand all God had done, the creature would, for all practical purposes, share completely the mind of God, and natural law would be, in the final analysis, identical with eternal law. Having deified nature, the eighteenth century could conveniently dismiss the Bible and eternal law altogether. René Descartes was original enough to suggest the wonderful possibility, "I think, therefore, I am." Whatever is, is rational; hence there is an exact correspondence between human reason and the objective world.

In this deification of nature, a decisive influence must be ascribed to Isaac Newton, whose great work, the Principia, was first published in 1686. In his hands, philosophy became no more than observation, and mathematics an occupation any intelligent person might in some measure pursue, not the manipulation of a subtle dialectic which only the adept could follow and which could fashion more difficulties than it solved.

In the hands of popularizers, Newtonian philosophy expanded into a system of the world that could be made to serve as a model of government, an argument to confound atheists and libertines, a firm mathematical foundation for natural religion, or a major premise from which a strictly materialistic interpretation could be derived. It was these broad ramifications of Newtonian philosophy that made it so popular and gave it significance beyond the narrow field of physics and astronomy.

The eighteenth century did not cease to bow down and worship; it only gave another form and a new name to the object of the worship; it deified nature and denatured God.

According to Locke, since man, and the mind of man, were integral parts of the work of God, it was possible for man, with the use of his mind, to bring his thought and conduct, and hence the institutions by which he lived, into perfect harmony with universal natural order. In the eighteenth century, the truth was accepted as self-evident that a valid morality would be a natural morality, a valid religion would be a natural religion, a valid political law would be a natural law. This was another way of saying that morality, religion, and politics ought to conform to God's will as revealed in the essential nature of man.

Locke's natural law is the law of reason. Its only compulsion is an intellectual one; the relations it prescribes are such as would exist if men followed reason alone and no compulsion were necessary. Such a state never in fact existed in nature. Locke's state of nature is not the actual pre-social state of history, but the logical nonsocial state, which he constructs imaginatively, as a premise from which to deduce the rational limits of governmental authority. Locke is seeking not the historical origin but the rational justification of government.

Since governments exist for men, not men for governments, all governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. The three concepts God, Nature, and Reason are made the foundation of politics and government as well as religion. This conception of natural law crept into the mind of the average man to confirm his faith in the majesty of God while destroying his faith in the majesty of kings.

In the British empire there were many legislatures, deriving their authority from and finding their limitations in their constitutions as parts of this global power. Benjamin Franklin assumed that the empire was composed of separate states—all subject to the king, but each possessed of its legislature outside the jurisdiction of the British Parliament!

According to legal theoretician James Wilson, who would sign the Declaration of Independence and participate in drafting the Constitution, inferior sovereignty is manifestly limited by superior; accordingly the British Parliament must be limited by the law of nature, which affirms that the happiness of the society is the first law of every government.

But in 1773, when the Parliament conferred on the East India Company privileges that gave it virtual monopoly of the American tea trade, the dispute recurred. On December 16, a cargo of tea the company sent to Boston was dumped into the harbor by Boston rebels. Parliament replied to this act of violence by passing by overwhelming majorities the Intolerable Acts (called Coercive Acts in Britain): remodeling the Massachusetts Charter; authorizing transfer to English courts of cases involving breach of peace or conduct of officials in the performance of their duties; providing for quartering British troops on the inhabitants; and closing the port of Boston until the town made reparation for the destroyed tea.

To give these measures force, General Thomas Gage, commander of military troops in America, was made governor of Massachusetts. "The die is cast," wrote the king to Prime Minister Frederick, Lord North; "the colonies must either submit or triumph." When the First Continental Congress assembled on September 5, 1774, everyone thought something ought to be done. The Congress drafted a Declaration of Rights and Grievances to the king and Parliament, outlining its position. In framing the Declaration, the Congress was in the nature of the case less concerned with the logical coherence and validity of the statement than with a statement that would be acceptable to the greatest number of Americans an best adapted to win concessions from England.

The Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms appeared in July 1775. The phrasing admits the authority of Parliament as of act, and does not expressly deny it as of right, which by implication leaves it to be supposed that the exercise of authority as both fact and right is dependent on the consent of the colonies, which at present they give but in the future may withdraw. Such a theory of separation could only be found closely tied to a conception of the empire as a confederation of free peoples submitting themselves to the same king by an original compact voluntarily entered into, and terminable, by any member at the will of the people concerned.

The Committee of Five, appointed June 11, 1776 to prepare a Declaration of Independence, comprised Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingstone. In his 1805 Autobiography, and in a letter to Timothy Pickering in 1822, Adams said that the Committee decided on "the articles of which the declaration was to consist," and appointed Jefferson and himself a subcommittee to "draw them up in form."

The grievances against the king occupied so much space that one is apt to think of them as the principal theme. Such is not the case. The primary intent of the Declaration was to convince a candid world that the colonies had a moral and legal right to separate from England.

The major premise from which the conclusions of the Declaration are derived is that every people has a natural right to make and remake its own government; the minor premise is that the people of the thirteen colonies are a people in this sense. In establishing themselves in America, they exercised their natural rights to institute governments suited to their ideas and conditions; at the same time they voluntarily retained a union with the people of England by professing allegiance to the same monarch.

From this allegiance, they might have at any time withdrawn; if they had not withdrawn, it was because of the advantages of being associated with the people of England; if they now proposed to withdraw, it was not because they now any less than formerly desired to maintain the ancient association, but because the king by repeated and deliberate actions had undertaken to usurp an absolute authority over them contrary to every natural right and to long established custom.


Congress deleted two parts from Jefferson's version

1. It denied any legal obligation to the British Parliament. The theory of the constitution was only voluntarily binding on the colonies in a friendly league through the king.

2. It deleted Jefferson's denouncement of the trafficking in human beings in the slave trade.

Modern democracy has accepted the article of the Jeffersonian philosophy that government rests on the consent of the governed; and this article in the form of the right to rule by the majority has been erected into an article of faith.

What was wanted in England when there was a movement for parliamentary reform was a philosophy that would enable the English to be both radical and respectable, a doctrine in the compass of which one could advocate universal suffrage and at the same time renounce Rousseau and French political philosophy. Rejecting natural rights, Jeremy Bentham made utility the test of institutions. The goal of society is to achieve the greatest good for all its members; do not ask what rights men have in society, ask what benefits they derive from it.

John Calhoun, Disquisition on Government (circa 1851)

To paraphrase Carl Lotus Becker's 1922 work, The Declaration of Independence, Liberty is both the cause and the reward of progress, which implies inequality of condition. In popular government, there must be "equality of citizens, in the eyes of the law." But to attempt to establish equality of condition would be to "destroy both liberty and progress." It follows that instead of men being born into the state of nature, the premise of the Declaration of Independence, they are born into the social and political state; and instead of being born free and equal, they are born subject to the laws and institutions of the country where born. Thus, Calhoun identified natural law with the positive law of particular states, the state of nature with the state of political society as history actually gave it rather than as it might be rationally conceived and reconstructed. In this scheme the natural state of the African race, for example, was obviously the state which the historic process created for it in any moment of historical development.

F. S. Savigny, the Historical Rights School

"The effectiveness of the historic rights philosophy was indeed exactly in that it encountered the natural rights philosophy of the eighteenth century on its own ground, and refuted it from its own premises. Admitting that rights were found in nature, it identified nature with history, and asserted that the institutions of any nation were properly but an expression of the life of the people ... the resume of its history" (Becker, The Declaration of Independence).

Leopold von Ranke sought for that which was unique in each people. His interest in universal history never disturbed his faith in the "individuality of nations." He does not identify human with the universal man, with "man in general," but with the particular nation—or "great men" speaking for the nation, at the moment when the nation most self-evidently manifests its peculiar genius or individuality.

This faith in the Enlightenment and natural laws and rights did not survive the onslaught of the forces of the modern world. Science itself dissolved natural laws into competing views of human and natural nature with heterogeneous, partial hypotheses, leaving much to be understood and even more to be explained, unlike natural laws which homogeneously illuminated a closed universe accessible to any man with critical reason.