The Declaration 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, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to Separation.”
Most wars in human history were fought to determine who would be king over some subject people. It was one would-be Caesar, feudal lord or tyrant versus another. But the Americans were doing something different. They were fighting not only to determine whether they would be ruled from England but also why they should be ruled at all. The United States was established, by conscious decision, on the principle that only a regime comprising certain moral percepts, not one based on force, was fitting for man. Thus the Founders wanted not only to prevail on the battlefield but to articulate the reasons for rebellion, and to win the hearts and minds of men.
So what are those principles on which the country is based? The Declaration continues: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal.” Certainly the Founders understood that each individual differs in particular abilities and capacities. So how are we “equal?” All men share with one another a rational capacity that raises us above lower animals. We can think, we can understand the world around us, we can learn from one other, we can plan for the future. We survive and flourish only through the use of that capacity. Thus it is just that we be equal before the law.
So to what does our rational nature entitle us? The Declaration states that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” In other words, each individual owns his or her own life. Your life is not the possession of a king, government or any political authority. You should be free to do what you want and live as you please. But since we are equal in our rights, you must deal with others on the basis of mutual consent, not force. This means you have the right to the “pursuit of happiness,” including the acquisition of property through your own efforts and exchanges with others, but not through theft, and certainly not with government aiding in such theft, that is, redistributing wealth.
Why then do we need a government? The Declaration states: “That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” The British thinker John Locke was correct to maintain that the people give the government limited powers to establish objective laws, to maintain police and armies to protect us from criminals, foreign and domestic, and law courts to impartially adjudicate disputes. Note that civil institutions such as families, churches and fraternal organizations are not created by or beholden to governments. Governments are created to perform limited, protective functions that allow individuals and institutions to flourish.
Based on its other principles, the Declaration rightly concluded “that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” That is why brave citizen-soldiers stood with their guns on Lexington Green and why so many others risked or lost their lives to secure liberty.
The Founders created a country like no other in history, one that recognizes the dignity of each individual and allows each individual to live free. The normally dour Declaration signer John Adams exhorted that the anniversary of the country’s founding “ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”
America has strayed far from the vision of the Founders; liberty has been eroded and should be restored. But in the meantime, it is fitting that on July 4 Americans celebrate and enjoy a precious day in their own lives, with their families and friends, for it was just such freedom that the Declaration established.