The Declaration: a persuasive argument

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These are the opening words of THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE.

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 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.

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.

Bert Likko, writing for the League of Ordinary Gentlemen web log, said the importance of the Declaration was that it was A Persuasive Argument.

The proposition that things are or even can be self-evidently true is something that it seems to me philosophers debate to this day.  But who among the readership — a readership consisting of English colonists in the Americas and Europeans — would deny that people should have life that not be taken arbitrarily from them, and that people ought to be happy, or at least be able to pursue happiness? Who would not want life, liberty, and happiness for themselves, and not recognize a similar desire in others? Jefferson frames these unquestioned social goods as rights, and universalizes those rights.

What is radical, or at least radical enough, for 1776 was to do so on an individualized basis, claiming all men as equals to one another.  In a world still steeped with and ruled by hereditary nobility, it was a relatively well-accepted proposition that some people were just plain better than others by virtue of the accident of their births.   To say that all men are created equal denies the very concept of nobility and calls into question the concept of even a social elite.  […]

Another argument advanced, and again one that packs a whole lot of work into dense but appealing phrases.   Governments derive their powers from the governed. Governments exist to secure the rights of their citizens.  Governments that stop doing that lose their legitimacy.  Illegitimate governments should be displaced and better ones, more true to their mission of securing the rights of the citizenry, should be erected in their place.  […]

So having framed the rule — governments exist to fulfill the rights of the individual citizens to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — Jefferson fills in that rule with facts. King George disrespects the rights of his colonists to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by kidnapping them, imposing taxes without their consent, disbanding their local legislatures, taking them to Canada or Britain to be tried before juries unsympathetic to them and not giving them lawyers, refusing to prosecute murderers, issuing general warrants and writs of assistance to search as his agents please, inciting Indian attacks, and sending soldiers to generally run amok amongst people who would really prefer to just be left alone to make money peacefully.  […]

The American Revolution remains one of the oddest, longest-odds fights in all of human history.   Britain should have won. […]  The reason Britain didn’t fully commit was that British people understood, or at least some of them did, that Americans were arguing for the rights of Englishmen, rights that they enjoyed themselves but that their own establishment just couldn’t (or more likely, wouldn’t) find a way to provide. […]

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

It was a fight about law, a fight about legal rights.  And the reason the Declaration stands the test of time is not only Jefferson’s elegant composition, but his mastery of the substance.

True, the revolution was won on the battlefield, in places like Brooklyn, Ticonderoga, Trenton, and ultimately Yorktown.   But it was also won in the hearts and minds of the British public, the French aristocracy, and the Dutch oligarchy.  Something persuaded the home crowd in Britain that there was justice to the Patriots’ cause; the American rebellion was unpopular in England and most of the people there wanted the war to end as soon as possible.  Something persuaded the hard-nosed Dutch that more than tactical advantage could be gained by supporting the American independence cause.  And something persuaded the roughly one-third of the colonists themselves who were sitting on the fence to go along with the Patriot cause rather than the Loyalists, despite the privations war brought.

And for that persuasion, to which the United States of America owes its very existence as much as it owes the debt of blood paid by the soldiers and the misery of the people in whose back yards the war was fought, I suggest that you raise a toast today to the man who would become our third President.  Not for nothing did he select his authorship of the Declaration as a greater accomplishment for his epitaph than his Presidency.

via A Persuasive Argument.

Let me anticipate an objection by acknowledging that Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder, a racist and a male chauvinist who thought women intellectually inferior to men.   Maybe he thought it went without saying that “all men” meant all white male property-owners.  Even so, Jefferson’s great statements provided a platform for Elizabeth Cady Stanton to speak for equal rights for women and Frederick Douglass to speak for equal rights for African-Americans.

The great principles of the Declaration of Independence are not limited by the limitations of the men who wrote it—not that blind spots of Americans of the present generation are any less than theirs.

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