Can we just say this: The Declaration of Independence, which we celebrate tomorrow, is brilliant and beautiful—and was the first to do what it set out to do: separate from a royal sovereign to become a self-governed sovereign nation.
These past few months I’ve been doing some studying about the Declaration of Independence. Not entirely purposeful, but because things have come my way that started to connect.
Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, has a lot to do with this. He has created a new free online course, Introduction to the Constitution, about the philosophies behind our founding. He also does a weekly hour with Hugh Hewitt, called the Hillsdale Dialogues. Lately these have covered the founding documents: The Declaration of Independence, The Articles of Confederation, and The Constitution.
The Hillsdale Dialogues are archived in a couple of places: among Hillsdale’s online courses, and in Hugh Hewitt’s archived shows (subscription required).
The Declaration covered four weeks, the fourth of which was not Larry Arnn, but Matthew Spalding, head of Hillsdale’s Kirby Center in Washington, DC. [May 6, 2017, around 24 minutes]. He points out an interesting thing about the mentions of God in the Declaration:
They begin by appealing to the “Supreme Judge of the World.” This paragraph includes two more references to God: “Supreme Judge of the World” at the beginning of the paragraph, and He’s “Divine Providence” at the end. Right? This document has references to God as the three forms of government. You recall, He’s “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”; He’s the lawmaker. He’s the “Creator”—endows us with rights; He’s the executive. And now He’s the “Supreme Judge.” So He’s all three branches of the government—and He’s “Divine Providence.”
|screen shot from Lecture 2|
In lecture 2 of the Introduction to the Constitution course, Larry Arnn also refers to these references to God identifying the three branches of government. And then he points out that the king:
has interfered with the legislature and the judges. He’s suspended the legislature. He has removed judges. He has interfered with the trial by jury. The king is trying to be all three branches. But the person who can be trusted to be all three branches is actually named in the document. Only God….
He [Jefferson] might need an authority like that, if he’s declaring a rebellion, because the source of the law up till that moment had been the king and parliament. And they’re saying, “No more.” So king and parliament have not passed a law that says you can cut off from us whenever you want to. If they had, they could have used their authority. But they were saying, “No.” So they needed some higher authority: Laws of Nature.
The revolutionaries weren’t lawless anarchists. The Declaration of Independence isn’t a rebellion against laws; it is a rebellion against lawlessness, and a movement toward laws.
In his book The Founder’s Key, Larry Arnn chapter 3, "Divorce The Declaration and the Constitution Estranged?" Dr. Arnn notes that others have claimed that the declaration is a rebellion against laws—and that’s opposite to the Constitution. But Dr. Arnn says they aren’t actually opposites, except in purpose:
Notice it says that this is a right of “the People,” the group entitled in nature to a certain standing. This group may indeed throw off the government if it pleases. What then is it to do? Jefferson continues that the next step is to “institute new Government.” The institution of new government is parallel in grammar, in meaning, and in priority to the right to throw off government. If it is natural for a people to rebel against a bad government, it is also natural for a people to establish a new one that is good.
As important as The Declaration is in the history of the world, the actual severing of ties was put before the Continental Congress on June 7, 1776, nearly a month earlier.
Neither Thomas Jefferson nor John Adams were the ones to bring the question of independence into the open—beyond tavern conversations. Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia, was the one to do that. He made the proposal on June 7, 1776. But there weren’t the votes to accomplish passing the proposal at that point. So John Adams got to work persuading people toward that.
Lee’s proposal to dissolve allegiance with Great Britain was, for him and all those participating, high treason. The men who acted on the proposal risked execution. But that list of grievances was mounting—and there was a war already underway in which the British crown was firing upon its citizens, rather than protecting them.
Being such a serious proposal, the delegates were given three weeks to consult with and get directions from home, and, according to David J. Shestokas in Creating the Declaration of Independence, time for “a committee to draft a declaration to be issued in the event the independence resolution were adopted.
Among Adams’ efforts was recruiting Thomas Jefferson to do the writing. It was partly that he wanted a more junior legislator to do it, so he could keep doing other things. And partly he wanted someone from the southern colonies to make the proposal—so that it wasn’t seen as a Massachusetts problem, where most of the fighting was taking place. And it was partly because Jefferson really was the best man to do the writing.
Jefferson had written an essay two years earlier called “A Summary View of the Rights of British North America.” Lee used ideas from that. He was a better speaker; Jefferson was a better writer.
The Declaration was without precedent. Some of the concepts had come up before. Jefferson considered them all, one after another, as he went about writing The Declaration. There were patterns he found among the historical documents. The others did include lists of grievances. And Jefferson would use that. As Shestokas describes it,
It was clear that for the world audience to understand, Jefferson would need to list the king’s crimes and how by those crimes the king no longer had the right to rule.
Matthew Spalding, in the Hillsdale Dialogue, talks about the structure of the Declaration, in a lawyer’s terms:
You’re a lawyer so you’ll appreciate this. Think of it as the common law doctrine. There’s a preamble. There’s a statement of principle. Indictment. And now they’re driving towards a conclusion. Every stage of this, “we’ve been humble in our terms. We’ve been answered only by repeated injury.” There was an olive branch petition right before this. And the king has put out a royal proclamation of rebellion, treating them like traitors, wanting to bring them to justice. The break has been made. This is their conclusion.
So The Declaration builds a case for legitimacy among the world’s nations. As Hugh Hewitt puts it, “a recipe for how to go about establishing legitimacy in revolution.” That long list of grievances has a particular purpose.
Larry Arnn, in The Founder’s Key, says this about the “long middle section, which is generally ignored today”:
It was not ignored at the time, however, because this section contains the charges against the king and Parliament that give specific justification for the act of revolution. This part puts the responsibility directly on the British government. It builds a case against that government, specifically, in one of the monumental controversies in all history. At stake is the loyalty of a whole people to the king. And at stake is the vast land upon which they live, at that time still unknown in extent, but the prize possession of one of the greatest empires in the entire human story....
The charges against the king name the specific practical ground upon which all this is to be taken from him.
Jefferson brings this point forward when, after the list, he says,
“A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.”
The ruler has been a tyrant. A free people must act to end the oppression. America is the particular example of the general principle.
The vote on Lee’s proposal actually took place on July 2nd, and some predicted that would be the celebrated day of independence. But the signing actually took place on July 4th, so that’s what now gets our attention.
And it deserves our attention, 241 years later. Any freedom that exists in the world today owes its thanks to those daring enough to sign The Declaration. That’s worth celebrating.
As a bonus, here are some musical friends of mine singing "The Star-Spangled Banner":