We Hold These Truths: Equality, Natural Rights, and the Consent of the Governed
A Declaration of Independence
A second continental congress convened just one month after fighting had broken out at Lexington and Concord, and only days before the Battle of Bunker Hill. War was now upon the land. One of the delegates’ first acts was to recognize the various local militias that had instinctively surrounded the British at Boston as a Continental Army and appoint George Washington of Virginia—the only one among them with any real military experience—as its commander. The appointment “fills me with inexpressible concern,” Washington wrote his wife, Martha. “But as it has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this service, I shall hope that my undertaking is designed to answer some good purpose.”
The Continental Congress sent to the king one last attempt at reconciliation, called the Olive Branch Petition. To make sure there was no confusion about its absolute seriousness, though, the congress also issued a “Declaration of the Causes and Necessities for Taking Up Arms,” avowing that, if necessary, the colonists were “resolved to die Free men rather than live slaves.” King George III refused to receive the colonial petition, issuing instead a Royal Proclamation of Rebellion regarding his disloyal subjects and promising “to bring the Traitors to Justice.” The break was now complete and irreparable.
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in January 1776 issued the first clarion call: “Everything that is right and natural pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ‘TIS TIME TO PART.’” The sentiment for independence was building, and hostilities made the decision all the more imperative.
And so on June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia, proposed a resolution to declare that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states,” to establish a formal confederation of the colonies and to seek alliances between the united colonies and other nations. Each of these matters was referred to a select committee; the last two would lead to the Articles of Confederation and the Franco-American Treaty of 1778, which was crucial to fighting and winning America’s War of Independence.1 “We must be unanimous, we must hang together,” the body’s president, John Hancock, is reported to have said, to which Benjamin Franklin quipped: “Yes, we must indeed hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Congress extensively debated and eventually passed Lee’s resolution in favor of independence on July 2, and then took two more days to debate and amend a committee’s draft declaration, approving it on July 4. The separate consideration of Lee’s resolution of independence and the committee’s language to declare that independence suggests that more was required than a simple announcement of withdrawal from the British empire. Had that been the objective, Lee’s resolution itself would have been sufficient. A “decent respect for the opinions of mankind,” however, demanded a broader statement of the principles that justified their actions.
The Declaration of Independence is structured in the form of a common-law legal document: preamble, statement of principle, indictment, and conclusion. The stated purpose is to “declare the causes” that impelled the Americans to separate from the British. The document’s famous second paragraph is a succinct and powerful synthesis of American constitutional and republican ideas. All these years later, its familiar opening words remain striking:
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.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The bulk of the document is a bill of indictment accusing King George III of some thirty offenses: some constitutional, some legal, and some matters of policy. In general, these grievances not only track the colonial complaints but also foreshadow many of the protections included twelve years later in the United States Constitution. A perennial favorite: “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their substance.” But the key charge was that the king had conspired with parliament to subject America to a “jurisdiction foreign to our constitution.”
At this point in their constitutional development, the Americans argued that a common king with authority over each of the colonies was their only binding legal connection with Great Britain. Parliament was not a party to the various original compacts with the individual colonies and thus could not tax them or regulate their internal affairs. This explains why the colonists’ final appeals—and the Declaration of Independence itself—were addressed to the king and not to parliament. Through his own actions (and inactions) leading up to the American Revolution, intentionally violating those agreements and explicitly placing America outside his protection, George III had himself rebelled, thereby dissolving the colonists’ obligations of allegiance.
The combined charges against the king were intended to demonstrate a history of repeated injuries, all having the object of establishing “an absolute tyranny” over the colonies. And while the previously loyal subjects were “disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable,” the time had come to acknowledge that the relationship had come to an end: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.”
As a practical matter, the Declaration of Independence announced to the world the unanimous decision of the thirteen American colonies to separate themselves from Great Britain. But its greatest significance— then as well as now—was its enduring statement of the limits of political authority and the proper ends of government, and its proclamation of a new basis of political rule in the sovereignty of the people. The Americans’ final appeal was not to any positive law or evolving theory but to rights inherently possessed by all men and “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” entitled them as a people.
The Declaration of Independence is revolutionary not because a particular group of Americans declared their independence under particular circumstances but because they did so by appealing to—and promising to base their particular government on—a universal and permanent standard of justice. As such, the Declaration’s meaning transcends history and the particulars of the time. Self-evident truths are not restricted to any one era or nation; they are as true today as they were in 1776. It is in this sense that Abraham Lincoln in 1859 praised the author of the Declaration as “the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”
The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God
Although Congress had appointed a distinguished committee to draft the Declaration of Independence—including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston—the document is chiefly the work of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson originally proposed that John Adams draft the Declaration, but Adams made the case to Jefferson that he must be the writer: “Reason first—You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second—I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third—You can write ten times better than I can.”
By his own account, Jefferson was neither aiming at originality nor taking from any particular writings but was expressing what he called the “harmonizing sentiments of the day.” The basic theory of the document reflected English Whig thought as it had been developed in the preceding century and a half. By 1776, the ideas of the Declaration—about nature, rights, and government—were well established in the colonies. George Mason had anticipated much of its substance in his draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights one month earlier. Jefferson stressed that he had written the Declaration to be “an expression of the American mind,” and used language so as to “place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.” He did his job well.
So what did the Continental Congress mean in asserting—going so far as to say it is “self-evident”—that all men are equal? This seems to make no sense. Ordinary experience tells us the exact opposite: There are innumerable differences—in size, shape, color, intelligence, you name it—and no two individuals are exactly alike. But these kinds of differences are not what Jefferson (or the Continental Congress that approved the Declaration) had in mind. Let us try to understand the matter as they understood it.
The Declaration of Independence makes its claim for American independence based on “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” In looking to nature, the Founders did not mean the outdoors—the trees, lakes, and animals that make up the natural environment. They meant nature as in the design or purpose of things, as birds by nature fly just as fish by nature swim. Different things have different natures. Man has a distinguishing nature as well; it has to do with distinctive capacities and characteristics. Other species follow instinct and, as a result, are not responsible for their actions. Wolves, for instance, cannot be said to be responsible for killing sheep—that’s what wolves do. But human beings are different: They are capable of imagination, deliberation, judgment, and choice in their actions and so can be held morally accountable. It is this ability to contemplate right and wrong and to act accordingly that distinguishes men from other animals. In this sense, man is by nature unique among animals, and alone has the capacity for liberty.
That “all men” are created equal is not a reference to males as opposed to females but means the whole human species. Indeed, the observed inequalities of individual men and women (such as size, shape, and color) are insignificant and dramatically underscore the ways in which all human beings, as a species, are equal in their nature.2 It says in the Declaration of Independence that this equality is “self-evident.” In what sense? To say that something is self-evident does not mean that it is obvious, but means that something is evident in itself once one understands the terms involved. Once we understand that “man” has a certain nature, for instance, it becomes self-evident that all men, by sharing the same nature, are equal. We can understand this to be “self-evident” regardless of whether we believe nature to have been created (as in “all men are created equal”) or observed by reason, as in the language of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (“all men are by nature equally free and independent”).
This understanding of human nature reaches back to both classical philosophy and biblical theology—as in “the Laws of Nature” as well as “nature’s God”—and represents a profound agreement between reason and revelation about man and the proper ground of politics. The Founders understood the argument for natural rights to be a continuation of both the English republican tradition—in writers such as John Locke and Algernon Sidney, whose Discourses Concerning Government was widely read and admired in America—and a natural law tradition dating back to medieval thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and further to classical thinkers such as Aristotle and Cicero. The “harmonizing sentiments” expressed in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote, could be found in conversation, letters, essays, and “the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.” One can also see these arguments woven together in religious sermons of the day, associating human nature and natural rights with theological views of creation and moral obligation, pointing out that God created man and is the author of the laws of nature.
Because of this nature, each man is his own natural ruler, with the capacity to govern himself. Unlike an animal, man can make decisions about how to live his own life and conduct his affairs. Because man is rational and seeks relationships with others to fulfill that nature, men can live in communities based on agreed purposes and common understandings of justice. At the same time, man is a bundle of desires and emotions, and is prone to allow his passions to overrule his reason. It is with this inclination in mind that Madison famously wrote in Federalist 10 that “the latent causes of faction are sown in the nature of man.” And recall his memorable observation from Federalist 51: “It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
The Founders’ view of nature was by no means wholly negative. “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust,” Madison observed in Federalist 55, “so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.” The choosing of moral actions shapes habits and gives rise to virtue. But it was a sober view consistent with classical philosophy as well as the Christian concept of man fallen from divine grace. The givens of human nature—the highs, the lows, and the in-betweens—had to be accounted for in forming government, and its weaknesses moderated and corrected by moral education and character formation.
The emphasis on nature is profoundly significant, as it provided the philosophical mooring for everything else.3 It was the concept that defined the grounds and legitimate ends of politics and political community. As such, it is the necessary premise of the foundational and operational first principles of American liberty.
The idea of grounding the first principles of liberty on the equal human nature of all persons has great implications. The natural relationship between man and horse, for instance, is that of master and servant, because in the order of nature man is rationally superior to beast. But no such relationship exists, by nature, between man and man. Jefferson once described this relationship using a powerful analogy from Algernon Sidney: “[T]he mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”
That man is unique in the scheme of creation also means that man is entitled to certain rights that result from that common humanity.4 A right is something that justly belongs to someone and creates a claim against those who deprive one of that right. One person’s right implies an equivalent duty in others not to interfere unjustly with that right. In terms of these fundamental rights (called “natural rights”), we are all equal—no one has more and no one less—and equally free.
While there are, of course, dramatic differences in abilities and talents, all persons are equal before the law and are to be given equal protection of the same fundamental rights. John Adams articulated this case in his Discourses on Davila when he wrote that “among men, all are subject by nature to equal laws of morality, and in society have a right to equal laws for their government, yet no two men are perfectly equal in person, property, understanding, activity, and virtue—or ever can be made so by any power less than that which created them.”
Two things should be noted in this context. First, it is important to understand that the philosophical grounding in natural rights does not create a radical and unlimited sense of freedom, as some claim today. The argument of the American Founders is of rights derived from a human nature understood in accord with the classical or traditional view of man. The Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” These are the truly fundamental things, not just anything or everything we want or claim. You may want a better job, but that does not mean you have a natural right to it. Rights are those things that are self-evident from an understanding of man and his place in the nature of things. Foremost among these are the right to one’s own life and the right to pursue the purposes or ends of man’s nature—that is, the pursuit of happiness. As we will learn, two other very important core rights that stem from our nature are the right of conscience or religious liberty, and the right to property. We also have a natural right to govern ourselves as a sovereign people.
Second, these rights are not the creation or indulgence of government. While additional positive or civil rights (more correctly termed civil liberties) are enshrined in the Constitution—like the rights of free speech and freedom of the press recognized in the Bill of Rights—and Congress can legislatively create “civil” rights, natural rights preexist the institution of government, precisely because they arise out of the natural equality that is the essence of human liberty. Congress (or more likely today, the courts) can’t just make up rights as it sees fi t. Nor can these rights be taken away—they are “unalienable” and can’t be given over (alienated) to someone else. In the end, it is this sense of rights that ultimately limits government. The law of nature, as Hamilton explained, is “an eternal and immutable law, which is indispensably obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever.” Jefferson was more to the point when he wrote that the colonists claimed “their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their Chief Magistrate.”
The Consent of the Governed
Having considered the philosophical principle of equality, and of natural rights that follow from that concept, let us return to the other first principle that develops practically in parallel over the course of the American Revolution: the consent of the governed. This follows from man’s natural equality and equal rights. If we are all equal, and no one (king, a ruling class, intellectual elites) possesses a right to rule by nature, then we must proceed in a way that gives everyone as much as possible an equal say in how political rule is formed and operates. Because of our status as equals, it is also the case that legitimate government—that is, government that respects that fundamental equality—must be based on common agreement or consent.
Americans understood government not as a relationship between the ruler and the ruled but a voluntary agreement among the sovereign people about how they shall govern themselves to secure the rights they possessed by nature. This was referred to as the “social compact.” The idea was espoused by (and came to Americans through the writings of) John Locke and others. Americans saw much of their own history in terms of contract and compact—from the religious view of covenant theology applied in the context of political governance, to the fact that individual colonies began with charters between the king and the colonies. For well over a century, Americans developed and became accustomed to the idea of government as having been created through fundamental agreement authorized by popular consent.
The concept can be seen in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which declares: “The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals; it is a social compact by which the whole people covenants with each citizen and each citizen with the whole people.” But it is summarized very simply in the words of the Declaration of Independence, which posits as a self-evident truth “that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
In addition to the formation of government in the first place, consent also gives guidance concerning the processes by which legitimate government operates. Among the charges lodged against the king in the Declaration of Independence is that he assented to parliament’s “imposing Taxes on us without our Consent” and “has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.” Indeed, the first six charges against the king address interference with local legislation and legislatures, violating “the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.”
Consent does not necessarily mean pure democratic rule, but it does require some sort of process of popular agreement to lawmaking and governance. In America, this was understood to mean a popular form of representative government. Only a government that derived its power from “the great body of the people,” according to Federalist 39, was compatible with the “genius of the American people,” “the fundamental principles of the revolution,” and a determination to “rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”
On the other hand, consent does not mean mere majoritarianism— that anything and everything the majority demands is right. Lawmaking by consent is not the simple translating of majority will into public policy but is the product of settled public reasoning consistent with a proper understanding of the first principles of liberty. Consent is the legitimate or just means for securing equal rights, but in the end it remains the means rather than the end of democratic government.
Just because a government is based on consent does not mean that it is incapable of violating equal rights. In 1934, for instance, 90 percent of German citizens officially approved Adolf Hitler as Führer of Germany. To itself be legitimate, popular consent must understand and respect the rights and the responsibilities of constitutional government, often despite the passions of the temporary majority. “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle,” Jefferson wrote in his First Inaugural, “that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” We are bound to accept the rule of the majority, but consent is always limited by the higher principle that the rights of all must be equally respected and enforced.
While the Declaration of Independence supports a wide range of choice in the form of government, those choices must ultimately be judged in terms of the ends of government. Prudence may dictate otherwise for a time, but that does not weaken a profound preference for popular government as the form most consistent with the principles of equal rights and consent of the governed. We can see the principles of consent reflected in the creation of government and in the institutions of representative democracy, as well as in the ability of the people to amend their constitutions to better reflect their sovereignty.
One last consideration here, underscoring the connection between rights and consent. The Declaration of Independence says that whenever government becomes destructive of its ends (that is, does not secure our rights), the people have a collective right “to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such forms, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
This ultimate form of consent is called the “right of revolution” and was the final justification of the colonists in their case for breaking away from Great Britain. The right is immediately qualified, mind you: Governments should not be changed for “light and transient reasons” and problems must be insufferable before “abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” It is not the right of any individual to use force or unjust means outside the legitimate political process to change or destroy the government; as much as one might dislike Congress, the Supreme Court, or the president, no one has a natural right to use violence to alter or abolish the rule of law. And the right to abolish government is connected to the obligation to institute new government; it is not a right to create anarchy. Nevertheless, it is a clear and powerful reminder that, in the end, it is the people who are sovereign, that each person possesses equal natural rights, and that the enlightened consent of the people— and not the opinions of presidents, congresses, or courts—determines the legitimacy of government. •
This text is excerpted from Dr. Spalding’s book We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future, published in 2009.
1. Samuel Flagg Bemis’s The Diplomacy of the American Revolution (1935) remains the standard work on this aspect of American history.
2. Hadley Arkes’s First Things (1986) investigates this concept in greater depth.
3. On the importance of foundational concepts in American political thought, see James Ceaser’s Nature and History in American Political Development: A Debate (2006).
4. On the unique American understanding of rights, see Charles Kesler, The Nature of Rights in American Politics: A Comparison of Three Revolutions (Heritage First Principles Essay #18).