The Transformative Rhetoric and Ideology Behind the Declaration of Independence

By: Dr. Karl Leib

This Fourth of July, amidst barbeques and fireworks, I encourage everyone to take time to read the document behind the holiday. At one level, the Declaration of Independence is a straight-forward text, spelling out an impressive list of grievances against the British government and officially, if not effectively, establishing American independence. The true genius of the Declaration however lies in its famed second paragraph, quoted and requoted so frequently that its power can be lost by sheer repetition.

“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 -- That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to 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.”

This long sentence is the heart of what makes the American independence movement not merely a revolt but a revolution. If Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues did not invent this “social contract” philosophy, they did establish the classic expression of it.

The Eighteenth century’s “Age of Enlightenment” may have provided the basic philosophical framework but the Declaration of Independence forged the capstone: popular sovereignty. The radical notion that “all Men are created equal” does more than justify American independence, it marks a rejection of feudalism’s ancient insistence that the human person could only exist as the subject of a higher authority. However, if every person is morally and politically equal, then everyone’s claim of “unalienable Rights” replaces the idea of the subject with that of the citizen. Governments therefore exist for their people, not the other way around. People create governments to serve their interests and legitimate governments govern by consent. It follows that citizens have a right to change their governments as they see fit. In 1776, with the world still dominated by the ideology of divine-right monarchs, this is truly radical.

However, I think the most revolutionary aspect of the Declaration is its universal tone. “Self-evident truths” cannot apply only to one group of people or one moment in time. This is the great power of the Declaration: liberty and dignity are not only for the powerful or the self-proclaimed superior, but for all Humankind. This great principle echoes through modern history, from the U.S. Constitution to the international principles of human rights and national self-determination, to innumerable movements for social justice and freedom everywhere. 

Signing of the Declaration of Independence by Charles Édouard Armand-Dumaresq

Of course, ideals often represent promises that are not self-fulfilling. Despite the demand for government by the consent of the governed, the American Revolution ignored the humanity of women, African-Americans, and Native Americans. In the years following 1776, many states still discriminated against religious minorities and the property-less. Sadly, even the Constitution would not initially address these inequities. It would take a Civil War, protest movements, court rulings, and constitutional amendments to advance the American project as far as it has come.

Yet it was the very universality of the Declaration of Independence that provided the seeds of change. In 1848 in Seneca Falls, NY, the Declaration of Sentiments re-framed familiar words to express a long-denied truth: “all men and women are created equal… endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

In 1963 in Washington DC, Dr. Martin Luther King channeled the language of the Declaration of Independence to demand that America live by its hallowed values: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’" These words are true and must be treated as living principles, not historical artifacts. This is the challenge of our time, to bring these words into action, not just as a holiday recitation but as a reality for everyone in our diverse nation and world. As a half-fractured, increasingly-intertwined Humanity marches towards its unknown future, “all human beings are created equal” is not a bad road map to follow.

Dr. Karl Leib is an associate professor at Christian Brothers University. 

Posted by Josh Colfer at 8:40 AM

The Galleon is curated and managed by Christian Brothers University, a Memphis-based university founded in the Lasallian tradition (a sect within the Catholic faith). Part of our founding mission is to uphold respect for all persons-regardless of political, religious, or social beliefs. As an institution, we take no stand on political matters; to do so would undermine our commitment to intellectual inquiry and thoughtful response to events taking place in our World by members of the CBU community.

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