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The Truths We Hold Self-Evident

By Dr. Michael Platt
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #28, 1999.

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Dr. Michael Platt


In the last issue of Practical Homeschooling, I invited homeschoolers, children and parents alike - for we parents were not as well brought up as previous generations - to begin memorizing the Declaration of Independence, just as Laura and Carrie in Little Town on the Prairie did.

To help, I offered a close reading of the first section of the Declaration. Implicit in that reading was the assumption that the Declaration is well written, that every word was well chosen, in the right place, and so fundamental that taking those words to heart will elevate our souls and illuminate our self-understanding. Let's see if I can carry that endeavor forward into the second, and most famous, section, which you can read in the red box to the right.

The theme of the first section of the Declaration was Separation, such separation as leads to "a separate and equal station" or constitutes it. The theme of the second section is Revolution, or what justifies changing the form of government. What is the relation of Separation and Revolution? Is one desired for the sake of the other? Is it Separation for the sake of Revolution, or Revolution for the sake of Separation?

The war that followed the Declaration was not called the War of Separation. However it was called the War of Independence. It was also called the Revolutionary War. The double name suggests the people of the United States did not distinguish the two, Separation and Revolution. And perhaps in the circumstances it is hard to separate them, since either would seem to entail the other.

Nevertheless, the Declaration puts Separation before Revolution. The act of separation requires the reason of revolution to justify it. Thus, in the first section we hear that a people may separate only if they have cause, a cause that can be stated to the world. That cause, as we soon see in the second section, is that they may change the government. Revolution, just Revolution, prudent Revolution, Revolution after long, patient suffering, is what justifies separation.

Thus, for the people of the Declaration, Revolution seems more fundamental than Separation.

Might the people have chosen Separation without Revolution, separating from Great Britain, but retaining a monarchy, perhaps by substituting a good George, say George Washington I, for the bad George III, much as their British ancestors had substituted the good William and Mary for the bad James II? The Declaration does not declare on this point; in asserting that a people has a right to change the government, it does not insist they must change to a republic. (Later of course, in the Constitution, this people will secure to itself a republic and guarantee to its future States a republican form of government.) Perhaps a constitutional monarchy would satisfy these former colonies. Thus, in the array of charges against George and the appeal to our British brethren, the Declaration will imply that had George governed according to the old constitution, the colonies would not now be declaring for independence.

However, that time has passed, and in section VI, the people will exclude George and any of his scions forever as rulers. ("Reject and renounce all allegiance and subjection to the kings of Great Britain and all others who may thereafter clam by, through or under them.") It is to secure a regime more conducive to safety and happiness, a regime partly old and partly new, that the Americans, a free people, have declared for separation.

What would justify a Revolution? Whereas in the first section we heard of the relation of a people and the laws of Nature and Nature's God, in the second section we hear of a relation among a person, God, and government. The first section spoke of the equal station of sovereign nations; the second has recourse to a more fundamental equality, the equality of all persons.

Thus, if we think back along the lines of the first section, we come to the enigma of a people, and if we think back with the second section, we come to the reality of a human being.

For both we have some evidence. That is, as we grow up, we somehow know we belong to a people, something larger than our family, larger than our village, a wider community, one with a past, perhaps shadowy as it disappears into the abyss of time, yet with an identity, and, we hope, a future. Likewise, we have evidence about what a human being is, first of all in ourselves, in our parents, in our family, and then in all the human beings around us.

However, if we compare the knowledge we have of a people with the knowledge we have of a human being, we see that it is the latter, the knowledge of a human being, that is clearer and firmer, more nearly certain. It is no wonder that the Declaration regards this knowledge as self-evident. And no wonder it does not say the same of a people.

What would justify a revolution? In answer, Section Two of the Declaration holds that there are four truths that are self-evident. First, all men are equal. Second, they have unalienable rights. Third, government exists to secure those rights. And, fourth, when government is, instead, destructive of these rights, it may be changed. Two of these self-evident truths mention rights, the second and the fourth, but these rights differ; those mentioned in the second truth and then enumerated ("among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness") are called unalienable, but the right mentioned in the fourth truth, the right to change the government, is not said to be inalienable, though it may be inferred that it is (of which more later).

These four truths are also well arranged. As we read them, they make a story. Ordered any other way, they would be disordered, perhaps even chaotic. (Try it.) Each truth springs from the previous one. Each is built upon all the preceding ones. Thus, all are founded upon the first.

The first, that all men are equal, was called by Lincoln an abstract truth. He praised the Declaration and its drafter, Jefferson, for introducing it. It was introduced, he said, more for the future of America than for the immediate purpose of the Declaration. One wonders if Lincoln is right. Could the Declaration achieve its immediate purpose without this first truth?

We must grant that a justification for revolution might have been based solely on the common good rather than on a principle. There had certainly been revolutions in the past that were so justified (as well, of course, as ones based on the good of one class, especially in antiquity, or the good of one person, as in modern monarchies), and most of these, except the English in the Seventeenth Century, had not mentioned rights, but this Declaration does mention rights. The right of the people to change government stems from their reason for adopting government in the first place; their reason is to secure certain rights; and these rights are unalienable, for they are natural; they inhere in each human being; and if they inhere in each human being, then each human being is equal with respect to them. Likewise, is not the truth "all men are equal" implied in the "consent of the governed"? Why must the consent of all the governed be obtained, if each is not in some pertinent sense equal to all others?

But perhaps Mr. Lincoln meant that the abstract truth was to be praised for being explicitly stated, that it was already implied in the other three. In any case, it is better to assume what the Declaration claims, that in its eyes, these four truths go together, that their order is deliberate, and even nearly self-evident, than to claim to know better what it says or means than it does.

The Declaration says all men are equal. Surely Lincoln is right to say that this did not mean equal in all respects, only equal in such respects as make us recognize each other as belonging to the same species, with the same needs, with similar aspirations, and, allowing for individual differences, as well as defects, with the same capacities, of sense and intellect, for speech, action and love, and thus both capable of and in need of government.

It is this equality, an equality founded in our nature, in the laws of our nature, that makes for the second self-evident truth; that we have certain rights and that these rights, since they inhere in our nature, are unalienable. What we have in our nature we cannot give away. These rights are as much us as our heart, our head, and our soul. (Meaning by soul, whatever makes the difference between us alive and our corpse, no more, although there is more, as the people of the Declaration believe.) Such things cannot be given away.

The Declaration names some of these natural rights, presumably the ones most pertinent to its purpose, the justification of Revolution and Separation. They are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." In these all men are equal. There is a sequence and order in their listing. (Try to order them any other way.) Each depends on the previous one. To pursue happiness, you must first have liberty, and to have liberty you must first have life. Yet the two "must-haves" connecting these three are not quite the same. The "must" that links liberty to life is absolute, logical, without exception. The "must" that links the pursuit of happiness and liberty is qualified. It must be qualified. The authors of the Declaration, the men who would pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honors, by signing below, knew of some of the senses in which happiness may be had without liberty, for example after fighting for it and losing, losing honorably, courageously, muskets blazing as you fall. Thus, in linking liberty and happiness, they did not ignore the truth that either may exist without the other; it is only that they had in mind the general truth that very much that makes men happy is impossible without liberty, for example, the happiness to associate with others, in worthy endeavors, in just actions, in politics, in correspondence, in conversation, in thought, in affection, and in family, for all of these can be restricted, impeded, and even destroyed by tyranny.

The sequence from life to happiness is an ascent. Life is the minimum, the base, the foundation; without it we cannot (at least in this life) go on to liberty and from it to happiness.

What is happiness? In documents that precede the Declaration, in Locke for example, and in the Virginia constitution, in place of happiness, property is mentioned. It is good that the Declaration wrote happiness. Property, while important for human life, and certainly within the scope of government to protect (or to threaten), is surely included among the things that liberty may secure on its way to happiness. But happiness offers more. And thus it encourages a people to look higher. It reaches to the very skies.

The pursuit of happiness includes contemplation and salvation as well as property. It includes the practice of thinking and the worship of God. It includes the thinker and the believer, the philosopher and the saint. This, especially the latter, is much more in accord with the experience of the American people than Mr. Locke's comfortable minimum, in which civil society is made up of fundamentally needy, not very brave, and rather calculating individuals, bound to each other by contract and convenience only.

We come now to the third self-evident truth of the Declaration. We come to government. Gifted by God with unalienable rights, such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, persons will combine with others to make a government. They do so for the sake of achieving certain ends, whose ladder runs from Safety to Happiness. Thus both what we might call a negative and a positive, a low and a high test, of government is discerned by the Declaration. But this description must be made more exact, for the rights run from life to the pursuit of happiness and the ends run from safety to happiness.

It seems then that we have two ways of describing the same standard. But why two ways? Do they differ in any significant way? And why is the one, rights, mentioned first, and the other, ends, mentioned second? And what is their relation?

To answer these questions, let us first observe that though happiness appears in both continuums, it is not the same. In the first we find "the pursuit of happiness" and in the second "happiness" itself. Obviously, the Declarers did not think happiness was a right and thus something a government could ever guarantee. Only the pursuit of happiness could be such a right and thus a reason for instituting government.

And yet the Declarers did not leave it at that. They went on to mention happiness as an end of government. From this we learn that although governments are instituted to protect unalienable rights, such as the pursuit of happiness, they also exist to promote ends, such as happiness. In other words, although governments come into existence for one purpose, once in existence they may have additional purposes, ones not achieved by the government itself, but by individual persons living in it, yet encouraged by government. Such is happiness.

This double line has consequences. One difference between rights and ends is that rights are more revolutionary than ends, for to say that a government does not protect an unalienable right is to take away all, or almost all, of the authority it rules by, while to say that a government has not achieved one of its ends, may not delegitimize it at all. To deserve obedience, a government judged by ends does not have to be the best conceivable by man. It does not have to be better than any government in the long history of man. To be legitimate all it has to be is better than any alternative likely enough to be worth the cost of change.

Now as the Declarers probably knew and could certainly have learned from their studies, ancient polities and thinkers and also Christian polities and teachers talked all about duties, not rights; it was the moderns, first the late scholastics or the apologists of "divine right" absolute monarchy, still later Hobbes and Locke, who talked all about rights. The ancients and Christians judged political life, indeed all life, by high ends; the moderns judged all life, or at least political life, by admittedly lower but also allegedly stabler minimums. Apparently the Declarers judged life by both standards, for they use the language of rights and the language of ends. In some way, then, they unite or mix the themes of ancient and of modern political philosophy. (We shall return to this unity, or this mix, later.)

Of course, the minute you judge political life by either rights or by ends, the possibility of action to secure those rights or action to more nearly achieve those ends is authorized. As Goethe said, everything that smacks of an idea is revolutionary. By being based on an idea, the Declaration could not be more opposed to all those theories of government, be they ever so conservative, that stress things other than reason, be they tradition, culture, blood, or race. (While distinguishing a people, these things do not make a government, as the Declarers understand one.) Indeed, the third self-evident truth of the Declaration, that government is instituted to secure unalienable rights, leads very directly, almost without a breath, to the fourth, that when a government become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.

The Declaration that founded America is a Revolutionary document. It should come as no surprise that in the Tenth Amendment to their Constitution, the people of the Declaration will reserve certain powers to the People, to themselves.

Nevertheless, the Declaration is prudent and even moderate. The Declarers could have just left it at saying, it is their right to change government, but they go on for several phrases about instituting new government: "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." These phrases limit the reasons for a revolution, limit them to principled government, government by principle, and perhaps by new principles only. One wonders if these phrases reveal a sense of how new the new government based on these new (however self-evident) principles would eventually be. Certainly the Declarers were looking to the new State governments that would soon be, or had already been, formed, and probably also to the Articles of Confederation that would see them through the War of Independence.

A right to Revolution is, however, in the eyes of the Declarers, not yet a duty to revolutionize, and thus the Declaration moves to the next section, as we will in the next issue of Practical Homeschooling.


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