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A Libertarian Analysis of the Declaration 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,”

We see immediately that this declaration finds it’s justification not in the laws of man or tradition. This is an extra-constitutional act. As you may be aware, the colonists used the term unconstitutional, as we do today. However, since England’s constitution was not a single written document (as is ours), what they were referring to was the body of case law and jurisprudence that had evolved over time, heavily tempered with respect for tradition. What this introduction plainly indicates is that it was not appealing to that constitution for justification. The appeal is made to Natural Law and God’s Laws. While those concepts are so frequently scoffed at today, it is in those bodies of truth that the country's framers found the truths and precedents that guided their course, and vindicated their choices and methods. It is to those same bodies of absolute truth that we should look when calling on our fellow Americans to review and question the current body of jurisprudence that so often runs contrary to basic human rights and liberties.

“…a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

This indicates the motivation for the formation and proliferation of the document. We might do well to make it our motivation for neglecting so many of the temporal pastimes that we currently engage ourselves in.  Note that the document does not say that it’s obligation is to the laws in force at the time, or continued submission to previous charters. Their justification lay in the “Laws of Nature and of Nature's God,” and if there be any true and moral obligation beside that- is is an obligation of conscience in regard to a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”

So, again we see that the evidence of the innate morality of these actions lies not in reference to compacts or contracts, nor in any discourse of legalities, but in immutable Truth.

“…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.”

(Here let us pause and acknowledge for a moment the fact that the contemporary man-made laws of every colony institutionalized the abominable practice of human slavery. That would indeed tend to belie a universal understanding of the truth that “that all men are created equal.” Americans now generally recognize that practice to be wrong, but that was not necessarily the prevalent understanding of the time. There were those (among them the man who drafted the document we are discussing) who understood slavery to be evil, and there were many who did not. The ramifications of that evil being institutionalized during the same period this declaration was adopted are thoughts worthy of their own discussion; but, for the sake of clarity and brevity, we will not to digress entirely into that subject in this analysis.)

Why say this? 

The answer is: to make clear that- more important that allowing the concerns of tradition, partisanship, prevalent legalities, contracts & compacts- separation (the term used at the time in place of secession) has it’s roots in universal human rights. By inference, the only considerations that cannot be overlooked are those which recognize inherent human rights, apart from the laws of man. This is not necessarily to say that the laws of man should not be obeyed when those laws are just. The necessary conclusion is that there is something more fundamental that must be held up above those civil obligations- put on a pedestal, if you will. What “fundamental something” might that be? It is the fact that the laws of man (and all social compacts and associated affiliations) are only justifiably created (and followed) for one reason- to serve mankind. When man’s laws are rather serving to reduce man to the status of a servant to the law (government) itself- it is man’s moral right, duty and obligation to be at enmity with that law.

Put another way, it is our right and highest goal (and, verily, the intent of our Creator) to foster “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” All just laws reflect this. All laws that run contrary to this are in enmity to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature's God.”  It is in this light that we should view all of what we consider to be our own justifications and motivations for any civic views, activities and discussions.

An additional note: the common libertarian thinking of the day espoused these ideals as "life, liberty and the pursuit of property." Jefferson was making a deliberate change to this phrase, in order to make it more all-encompassing. He knew the definitions of the words "property" and "happiness," and was not using them as interchangeable terms. It would seem an excellent choice of words.

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed,…”

Now we have gone from reasonable inference to direct expression. That is the sum of what we just drew from the previous thought.  A just law, verily a just government, can only be one thing: an institution that protects and serves the purposes of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

“— That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends,…”

Note the indication that the next thought is true, regardless of the methods of a government’s formation or other factors.  Many tout our Constitution's 'supremacy clause' as precluding any moral action towards secession, nullification or revolution.  This declaration makes clear that these thoughts supersede any written compacts.

“it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it,”

Once a government becomes destructive to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” it is no longer just, and has no moral claim to the allegiance of its citizenry. This is an absolute truth, and supersedes civil compacts. The decision, therefore, to “alter” or “abolish” that government can only be made by those being governed. The government itself is but a form, and not the substance. The people themselves- each individual- are the substance. To make an idol out of the government or its charter can only serve to inhibit the life liberty and happiness that we are seeking. There is, furthermore, no moral obligation to only “alter” [and not abolish] the government, if that alteration is not enough to return its existence to the just position outlined. The ultimate goal can never be preservation of government for its own sake- the goal, according to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature's God,” is the preservation of liberty for its own sake.

“…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.”

Herein we arrive at the answer to the next most commonly asked question. “Who gets to decide when and how to do this?” The answer is “them.” “Them” is the people who are being governed. This can only be defined as each individual person, since each person is the only one who has the right to decide what is actually best for him. There is no such thing as a collective entity that can ever be empowered to make this decision for each individual. To accept any premise to the contrary is to lay the very foundation for every empire that has ever been built (and subsequently become another manifestation of the very spirit of oppression America was fighting to free herself from).

Should we need proof of this, there is an abundance of real world evidence all around us. Looking at the economic, social, spiritual and other impacts of any of our current government “programs” should give us ample proof that the decisions as to how to regulate our own pursuits of industry and improvement are best left to each individual. The frequent (and seemingly logical, at first glance) objection to this concept is that naught but chaos could ensue from acceptance of this principle. This is not a new objection. Lord George Lyttleton, who passed away just before this document was drafted, commented on this objection eloquently:

“To argue against any breach of liberty from the ill use that may be made of it, is to argue against liberty itself, since all is capable of being abused.”

Freedom does entail the latitude to make mistakes, and we as humans all certainly make them. However, the laws of Nature account for this problem, and show why this phantom of a perpetual bloody anarchy moreover does not materialize. The next clause of the document touches on this subject:

“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

Here is where we ought to stop and ponder.  The realization so close to the surface here is that we do not have to simply continue to suffer oppression.  While we should not effect revolutionary upheaval (which brings it's own forms of death and destruction, for a time) for "light or transient causes," neither should we suffer for fear of change.  Furthermore, based on this frank observation of human nature- if a secession movement (for example) gains enough strength to attract the followers necessary for it to be a 'force to be reckoned with,' that would quite possibly be reasonably considered prima facie proof that the movement was justified, else the movement would remain the ramblings of a few malcontents.  For further proof of this, and to belie the thought that we must suffer for fear of change, we may ask ourselves a question. 

Do you want a bloody, lawless anarchy, where every day is a fight by tooth and nail to scratch out an existence?

Admittedly, there are the mentally or spiritually ill among the world’s population who may prefer this, but the overwhelming majority, will always- and always have- preferred to ease their existence.  Arguably, that majority would be even further maximized in a healthy society where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are put on a pedestal, rather than one where institutionalized inequity is prevalent.  Doing something the hard way gets tiring. It is in each person’s best interests to make concessions in order to create a societal equilibrium that returns to them an existence that facilitates their own happiness. The only limitations we need place on this practice are to prevent the infringement on the rights of others. 

Are you willing to help your neighbor work on his house (blood, sweat and tears you would not otherwise choose to shed), in return for his help working on yours, thereby accomplishing more than either could do alone through the inherent benefits of cooperation?

Experience will cause us to choose these things. Cooperation is the natural tendency of man. While the “Laws of Nature and of Nature's God” dictate that it is each man’s decision whether or not he gives his consent to be governed, our inherent self-serving desire to cooperate for our own good is what prevents this specter of bloody anarchy that we (who are accustomed to our current status quo) tend to imagine to be the inevitable result of maximized individual liberty. We can be assured that, if we would but give ourselves the permission to realize and accept the inherent right (regardless of charters of forms of government) to choose whether or not we give our consent to be governed- there will never be- can never be- such a thing as true lawlessness. Man’s law can be disobeyed, and at times absolutely should be disobeyed, but there is no cheating natural law. A person or a group of people may run contrary to it for a time, but it will always regain it’s equilibrium.  We should look to this fact to steady ourselves when contemplating the ideals of independence.

    "To say that a bad government must be established [or maintained! -editor's note] for fear of anarchy is really saying that we should kill ourselves for fear of dying." – Richard Henry Lee (1732- 1794), Member of Continental Congress, Signer of the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Senator

“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, and to provide new guards for their future security”

Who is the judge of whether the abuses in question are enough to coincide with this phrase?

Is it the very government initiating the abuses? No.
Is it people in a far away place? No.
Is it the unanimous consent of the whole people constituting the nation in question? It can’t be that either- never in history has an entire nation been able to agree on any subject, much less one as complex as this one. Taking the instance in question as an example, considering we were British subjects at the time, we would have needed the consent of the entire Empire to meet that requirement, if indeed that is what was necessary. We did not have (or need) the entire populace of even the colonies in the New World to agree.

The only moral answer is that each person has to decide this for himself.  It is a simple question- is living under the current government facilitating your “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” or impeding it?  Government, remember, is justifiably created for only one purpose- to serve the people. If the answer to that last question is “impeding” my life/liberty/happiness- you have every moral right not to consent to it.  It then becomes your “right” and “duty” to work, by all moral means at your disposal, towards throwing off such Government and pragmatically to provide new guards for your future security.

The rest of the document (beginning with "Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies") deals with the specific infractions of that time.  Certainly, one could write a much longer document comparing the abuses listed in the rest of the document to the “long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism” that we are going through today (via the numerous arms of our bloated government, upheld by painfully strained constructions of- and outright deviations from- its compact).  That will have to be a study for another evening. One must ask, though, if there is really much help for a person anyway, if that person cannot see that this government no longer fits this description (taken from Federalist # 45):

“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected.”


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