The Declaration Demystified
Yesterday, I posted the Declaration of Independence, in its entirety. I hope you have had a chance to read it. If not, please do – it is our republics founding document. The principles laid out by Thomas Jefferson and agreed to by the other founding fathers represent more than why the United States came into existence. Those principles are the very lifeblood of our nation and the primary reason that for the past 234 years, millions of people have risked everything to call the USA “home.”
What are those principles, those core beliefs that identify what it means to be an “American?”
I’ve decided to write a series to cover what are best called “The American Principles.” Today begins the lesson.
First and foremost, an American believes the core phrase from the Declaration: “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” That is a heck of phrase, outlining the four tenets of Americanism in only 27 words. Yet, those 27 words are the key to understanding every vital document that came before and after. Let’s break them down and truly understand the meaning.
The first thing to understand is that while the Founders were deeply spiritual men, they did not all conform to the same religion. While most were Protestant, at least two were Catholic and two were Jewish. Additionally, there were deep divisions in terms of what types of Protestantism were observed by the rest. There were Quakers, Shakers, Baptists, Calvinists and Anglicans. So, while all of these men agreed in principle that there is a God, not all were comfortable with using the word. (It is sacrilegious for some to mention the name of God). Additionally, none felt comfortable in obligating the rest to a specific observance, since one of the major impetuses leading to settlement of the colonies was the pursuit of religious freedom and tolerance. And so, in our founding document we see the result of the tension between government and religion (or more precisely, government and multiple religions): the idea that the government should not endorse a particular religion. This creed was later adopted and formalized in the First Amendment to the US Constitution (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…). However, it should be pointed out that while the Founders did not believe the government should formally recognize any particular religion for fear of giving it privileged status (in effect, creating a state religion), they also did not believe that government should be devoid of any spiritual context. As a result, the founders inserted the generic “Creator” into the Declaration, although each member of Congress interpreted that to mean God as understood in the typical Judeo-Christian ethos.
This is crucial to understanding this phrase. Men are created and given rights by that which created them; therefore, their rights are divinely formed. It follows that governments, which are institutions of men, cannot supersede a divinely given right. So, therefore, the rights that are expressly enumerated – Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness – are divine rights, granted to men by God and inviolable. No legal government can usurp those rights and if it attempts to, then it is the right of the people to overthrow the government.
Where do the people derive the right to overthrow an unjust government? We’ll cover that in the next part…