So, what does the Declaration of Independence do? What kind of writing is it, and what does it seek to accomplish? The documents begins:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another
We start with the occasion for the Declaration. “When. . . .” The language is strangely universal—as if this sort of thing happens all the time—but we’re going to find that the Declaration is part manifesto. That is, it wants to make real and proper something which is a bit unprecedented and unlawful.
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,
Here’s a bit more conjuring. The precise nature of the “station” of the colonists has been subject to debate for 150 years at this point, and there certainly is no clear consensus that it is “separate and equal”—or that further separation is in any way justified by the “Laws. . .of God.” That, of course, is what the separation is all about. The colonists want a change of rules, which they will present as an appeal to a higher authority. And, perhaps, it is also an appeal to a different authority than, say, the God of Winthrop’s Modell. “Nature’s God” apparently does not require that we stay in our places, the better to glorify Him.
a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
The conceptual revolution has already occured. This is not the Liberty of 1620. Now comes the Argument:
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. —
This is not only a first premise, but a premise held to be “self-evident.”
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —
And now the nature of government is defined, against all theories of divine right, guardianship of elites, etc.
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.
Next up, the Right of Revolution! This is the right which all democratic governments wrestle with. It is a logical extension of the notion that government flows only from the consent of the governed, but institutions, by their “natures,” find it hard to leave themselves open to radical revision and reconstruction. Does the current US government simply safeguard the rights of equality, life, liberty and happiness? Is it ever “destructive of these ends?” Listening to commentary—from whatever end of the political spectrum you choose—you might believe that some sort of revolution was authorized right here and now.
Or are we like the Puritans in their approach to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, feeling that these radical arrangements were fine for another time, but no longer apply?
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. 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. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
Jefferson knows he’s playing with dynamite, and stresses that the current situation is no trivial application of the rule. He’s going to argue what we know from the history—that the conflict with England has been going on a long time. And he’s going to make his case with specifics:
He has refuted his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world: For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies :
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering
fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
It’s a remarkable list of grievances. And the colonists haven’t been quiet about the problems, but they feel their concerns have not been given a fair hearing:
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. 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. Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred. to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity.
The language of “brethren” is important here. The societies of England and the colonies are connected in all sorts of basic and intimate ways, in part, of course, because the Crown would allow it to be no other way. But this is not, perhaps, the typical colonial insurrection, where an alien, subject people rise against an outside, ruling power. This is a family affair. But the circle will be broken:
We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
The final step is the bootstrap-maneuver by which the “United States of America” bring themselves into being by declaring it to be so. First, there is the separation, the breaking of special ties with England:
We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. —
And then there is the assertion of international connection, the assertion of a strictly separate identity shared by all who will pledge in support of the Declaration:
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
All that remains is the signatures—signatures of men who are way out on a limb, asserting rights which they hope to make real in the inevitable struggle to come.