Fouding father and author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson
In Little Town on the Prairie, in the chapter on the "Fourth of July," the Ingalls family goes to DeSmet for the annual celebration. That celebration begins with a man giving a patriotic speech lauding the Declaration of Independence and it ends with the reading of the Declaration aloud. As the crowd hears "and for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the Protestion of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor," it feels too solemn to clap, and so Pa begins singing "My country 'tis of thee." Then, suddenly Laura has an insight.
The Declaration and the song came together in her mind, and she thought: God is America's king. She thought: American won't obey any king on the earth. Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences. No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself. Why (she thought), when I am a little older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn't anyone else who has the right to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good. Her whole mind seemed to be lighted up by that thought. . . . The laws of nature and of Nature's God endow you with the right to life and liberty. Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God's law is the only thing that gives you a right to be free.
The thought sinks in as Pa says "This way, girls! There's free lemonade.
In this chapter, it is mentioned casually, in passing, that "Laura and Mary knew the Declaration by heart, of course, but it gave them a solemn, glorious feeling to hear the words." How many of us today know the Declaration by heart? How much better were the poor but upright and honest schools that taught Laura and Mary the Declaration than today's? Every homeschooler knows the answer to that question. And how much better our nation would be today if more of us took the Declaration to heart.
So, as the beginning of another year approaches, Practical Homeschooling has asked me to provide, in installments, a commentary on the Declaration. It will be designed to help us take it to heart, even memorize it, as Laura and Mary once did, and as all my American Government students have over the years. During the coming year we in our home school will be memorizing it. As you will see, this commentary will also be a celebration of the Declaration. It is right that it should be.
The Declaration, Part I
America began with the word. Mere independence did not begin us and its announcement did not either. American independence was actually declared on July 2, 1776. That evening John Adams wrote his wife Abigail that the day just concluded might be celebrated forever. This prediction was premature. What we Americans celebrate is not the day we declared independence, but the day the Declaration of Independence was declared. Often we celebrate the annual return of that Fourth of July by reciting the Declaration. We are right to. Its words have made us what we are. Its truths contain, as the tree the seeds, all that has come after - our liberty, our prosperity, our strife, our strength, and our potential perpetuation.
Fair as our portion of the earth is and bounteous as it has proved to be, we are more what we are because of our principles than any other people on the face of the globe today. To be an American is either to grow up with these principles ringing in your ears, from your parents, your teachers, your playmates, at home, in school, at recess, forming a line, at meals, in your games, your stories, and your songs, in all your practices of association, and all your expectations of justice. Or, if you come from elsewhere, to become an American is to study these principles, in the documents and the history of America, to pass examination in them, and to pledge solemn, public allegiance to them. To be a native of America means to be born in the land of these principles, and to become naturalized in America means to learn the truths of Nature and Nature's God. No other country is so much what it is because of a creed. Americans are the people of the Declaration.
It is no wonder Americans read it, appeal to it, recall it, memorize, and recite it. It is succinct, sober, and beautiful. It speaks of all men, it calls all mankind, and it has been heard all over the earth.
Let us turn to the Declaration then and see what it says. Since it was written not only to be read, but to be read aloud - immediately after it was adopted Washington had it read to the troops - I shall do that as we go along. (Or if you are reading this, please do so yourself.)
The Declaration is divided into seven parts, the first devoted to separation; the second to revolution; the third to prudence; the fourth, much the longest part, is devoted to twenty-eight charges against George III; the fifth part is devoted to relations with fellow subjects of the monarch; the sixth to the declaration itself; and the seventh, to the signatures of the representatives of the United States in Congress assembled.
The beginning is familiar:
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, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.
The first thing we notice about these words are their reasonableness. If this were a mere declaration of separation, the Declaration need have said no more than, "Now we separate." True, the opening sentence speaks of necessity, and necessity is ever both the tyrant's and the coward's plea, but the plea the Declaration offers differs. Although it speaks of the necessity of separation, it does so only to bring forward the "causes" that impel separation. These causes are not material or efficient, but formal and final causes. They are reasons.
The Declaration begins by saying reasons need to be given; it will soon give those reasons; and throughout it will appeal to reason in the world. Even its tone will be reasonable. Thus, the first paragraph says nothing offensive, it does not even declare independence; instead, it acknowledges that any declaration of independence requires the declarers to give their reasons. By doing so, it implies that those with good reasons will not mind disclosing them to others. And the Declaration credits others with being reasonable. It regards all men as reasonable creatures, or capable of reason.
Is this the optimistic faith of the Enlightenment? Over-optimistic? Or could it be flattery? Perhaps of the French, a potential ally? Or is it meant to support the self-respect of the people. Probably all of these in some measure, but also something more fundamental. The Declaration measures itself by reason, it submits to reason, and it even, as it were, believes in reason. It knows some things are true and that human beings can know them, well enough to act well. It holds, then, that human beings can act from reflection and choice. Events have not disproved this conviction. On the whole, the success of the people formed by the Declaration has increased the amount of reason in the world. Even the terrible events of this century, so animated by will and blood, not reason, have not disproved the Declaration, for the people of the Declaration have prevailed.
The recognition of reason in this paragraph accords with the highest principles it recognizes: "nature and Nature's God." In this yoking phrase all the long struggle of our Western forefathers to understand the relation of reason and Biblical revelation seems epitomized. The Declaration understands this relation harmoniously. What is this harmony? In the phrase, "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," Nature comes first and then God, and the God who comes second is the God of Nature. Who is this God? Is this the God who creates Nature, who is above Nature, and is known to all pious readers of Genesis as the Creator? Or is this the God that belongs to Nature, that issues from Nature, or even the God that really is Nature, as Spinoza might say? It is hard to say. Closely examined, the phrase is ambiguous. Thus it may make for a big tent, one that shelters most the Christian sects, the Jews, perhaps the Muslims, probably most deists, and even many an Epicurean, or skeptic, if he be not dogmatic and bold, and, thus out of a decent respect for mankind, hold his tongue. It might include, then, Franklin and Hamilton, as well as the many preachers who supported the Revolution and the multitude of the people, not always certain or steady in their knowledge of God, who rallied to the cause of the Declaration. Certainly the nearby phrase 'the powers of the earth" by bringing to mind the "powers of heaven" and the "powers of hell" inclines one to believe that the God of Nature and of Nature's laws, here referred to, is the Christian God. Certainly the broadness of the phrase gives ample shelter to a skeptic.
The first paragraph speaks of "a people." What is a people? What makes a people a people? Blood, territory, language, customs, shared experience, or principles? Or all of these in some measure? But what measure? And how does a people come to be a people? By recognizing itself as one? If so, by what marks? Or does a people become a people by some deliberate act? If so, what kind? And when does a people, once a part of another people, become new and separate? Are the American people already a people, before their declaration, or do they only become a people when they declare they are one, and thereby assume the station of a separate and equal power? The opening paragraph seems to say both. The American people already exist and yet it seems they will get to be more what they are by separating from Great Britain.
Later sentences will also speak of forms of government and of "our constitutions." Apparently then a people is not the same as a government. A people is primary. A people may exist through changes of government, and it may change its government. (Would all changes of government leave it the same people?) And what does a people include? All humans within its territory? Within its jurisdiction? Need it have a territory at all? Or a jurisdiction? Need it have a government, a political life at all, to be a people? What does this people include? Does it include the Indians mentioned later? (Charge 27: "he . . . has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages.") Does it include the African slaves unnamed but alluded to later? (Charge 27: "He has excited domestic insurrection amongst us.") Perhaps one must acknowledge that a people is not wholly a thing of reason, or even much constituted by reason, even as its actions will not always and may not often be reasonable at all.
The Declaration also speaks of "colonies" and "states." Apparently there can be one people with more than one government. Should one people not have one government as well? Are these new states soverign or is the Union of them, herein called United States? For now, the Declaration does not seem to decide. The Articles of Confederation will be one answer to that question and the Constitution another.
What is it then that holds a people together? This paragraph answers with a word it is easy to miss. It mentions the bands [bonds] that unite a people. It is not a contract or even a compact that makes a people; it is bands [bonds]. Bonds are stronger and more natural than contracts; those connected by bonds stand in a fuller relation than those connected only by contract. In a contract, the parties may not be otherwise related to each other than as free adults, free so long as they fulfill the contract, and when they do, free to go their way, but those bound to each other by bonds are connected by affection, by duty, and perhaps by divine command to stand in mutual aid and charity to each other and with no limit in time. What has no ending seems also to have no beginning, or no discrete one. Bonds are already there, before anybody reflects on them, or chooses them. They spring from something more fundamental than will, or choice, or reflection. And they may last forever.
Such is the implication of the exact words of paragraph one: "to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another." Political bands are about to be dissolved. They can, with good reason, after patience has been exhausted, and prudence tried, be dissolved. But the bands that are not political, bands in the primary sense, cannot be dissolved. They are like family relations, and indeed the Declaration's fifth part will speak of Englishmen as brothers. These bonds of blood cannot be dissolved. Such is the implication of the Declaration's careful distinction of bands and political bands. The latter can be dissolved, the former cannot. The bands of natural connection can only be cut. Although they can be cut, they cannot be cut without injury. Cut these bands and you cut your brother. Cut these bands and you cut yourself. Not so the political bands.
Although the first paragraph speaks only of the separation of one people and another, nevertheless, more than separation is already advanced here. The spine of the sentence (which sentence is this whole section) says when a people separates from another people, they ought to give their reasons, but the parenthetical matter, "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," already begins to give the reasons. A people, so this clause says, is entitled by the Laws of Nature and Nature's God to assume a separate and equal station among the powers of the earth. That this is asserted indirectly, in a subordinate member of the sentence, is itself a claim of strength. It is as if we readers should already know what the laws of Nature entitle a people to. And in truth that is a characteristic of something natural, that the evidence is already there, and available to all. So available that if you didn't see it, you are probably guilty of oversight.
However, the Declaration is not so unwise as to think that everything a people (or a person) is entitled to, it can do, nor that everything it can do, it should do. More than entitlement is needed to justify so momentous a thing as separation.