The radicalism of the Declaration

Signing 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

==In Congress: the unanimous Declaration of the 13 united States of America, July 4, 1776

These words are among the most radical statements ever written.   It denies that government is established by divine right or ancient custom, and that subjects have no choice but to obey.   It affirms that people have the right to form a government by free decision, and proceeds to do just that.

It is a philosophy that is hard for many people to accept—including, as I have found through experience, many supposedly well-educated 21st century Americans.

Our Declaration.inddI have believed in the basic ideas of the Declaration’s since I was old enough to understand them.  My interpretation of American history is that it consists of (1) a series of events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of the Constitution and (2) a playing out of the consequences of those two actions.

Recently I read a book, OUR DECLARATION: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality by Danielle Allen which both reinforced and clarified my understanding of the Declaration.

What, Allen asked, does it mean to say “all men are created equal”?  Obviously people are not the same in virtue, or ability, or wealth and social standing.

As she pointed out, we are all equal in the desire to live, in the desire to live free of subjugation to someone else’s will and in the desire (this is more controversial) to define for ourselves what we need to make us happy.  If I demand these rights for myself, I have no standing to deny these rights to you.

The Declaration gives two possible sources of these rights – “the Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God.”  The first reflects the ideas of the 18th century Enlightenment; the second of radical Protestant Christianity.

All Christians believe that human beings are made in the image of God, and are in some sense descended from Adam and Eve and then from Noah.  Protestants believe that human beings can have a direct relationship to God without the need for a priesthood to serve as intermediary.  Radical Protestants such as the Congregationalists, Baptists and Quakers practiced democracy in their congregations, and in town meetings.

The rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment thought in the same manner, except without the Biblical scaffolding.  They held that all human beings, regardless of their other differences, had a moral sense.   They thought people should think of government as a social contract—a mutual agreement based on mutual benefit.

The social contract was only a theory for John Locke and other 18th century philosophers.  But social contracts were made by the American colonists—first in the Mayflower Compact of the Pilgrims as they voyaged to Plymouth Rock, then of various frontier communities, and finally the Constitution of the United States.

The most radical of the Declaration’s affirmations is the right of revolution.  The United States of America is founded not on a principle of authority or national unity, but on principles of freedom and equality to which the government itself must submit or risk dissolution.


The Founders believed that the truths they affirmed were self-evident.  Gabrielle Allen agreed.   By this she meant that if you read the Declaration with close attention, and think about it carefully, you will see that its affirmations are true.

This is true for me.  It is not true for everyone.   I can think of at least three alternative theories that many people find plausible.

  •  One is that the mass of human beings don’t have rights, only the duty to obey those who exercise legitimate authority.   The basic idea of the Great Chain of Being is that all authority comes from God, who delegates it to Kings and Archbishops, who sub-delegate it to other agents.  Other philosophies say that right to rule is reserved for hereditary aristocrats, or a superior race, or adherents of the one true religion or the one true political ideology.
  • Another is that human rights arise not from some basic principle of humanity, but from the customs, traditions and history.  The great British statesman Edmund Burke said thee is no such thing as the rights of man, only the historical legal rights of Englishmen.  He defended the American colonists not on the basis of inalienable rights, but that it was wrong to attack existing institutions of self-government.  He attacked the French revolutionaries on the grounds that they conjured their idea of human rights out of thin air, not from law or historic practice.
  • Finally there is the utilitarian-pragmatic philosophy that says that the purpose of government is to accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number, and that liberty and equality are a question of trade-offs, not of rights.  To the pure pragmatist, there are no such things as “inalienable” rights, only practices that do or do not contribute to the common good.

All those philosophies have merit.  All civilized societies need some basis of authority.   Custom and tradition cannot be ignored.  Circumstances alter cases.

My problem with the first is that I see no individual or group that I would consent to have absolute rule over me.  The problem with the second is that it is an argument against human rights anywhere except where they are already well-established.  My problem with the third is that there is always some plausible excuse for attacking freedom, such that, without a concept of inalienable rights, pragmatism can become a slippery slope to despotism.

It is a radical experiment to found a nation on the basis of inalienable human rights and the right of revolution rather than on a principle of national unity and unequestioned obedience to authority.

Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address said it was an open question as to whether a government conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, could long endure.

I think it is still an open question, but it is an attempt worth making.


In Congress: the unanimous Declaration of the 13 united States of America.

A Different Idea of Our Declaration, a review of Our Declaration by Gordon S. Wood for the New York Review of Books.

It’s Time We Called the Declaration of Independence’s Bluff by Charles P. Pierce for Esquire.


The Declaration of Independence says that “all men” and not “all people” are created equal.  I do not read great significance into this.  English usage in those days, and well into my own lifetime, gave the word “man” a double meaning – a member of the male sex and a generic human beings.   I had a world history textbook in junior high school entitled Man’s Great Adventure.  That was an unfortunate and awkward phrase, but was intended to include both males and females.

Danielle Allen

Danielle Allen

One thing almost all my acquaintances know about the Declaration of Independence, however little else they know, is that its authors were thinking of the rights of white male property-owners and nobody else.   But their words meant more than they intended.

Citizenship rights were extended to property-less white men, to African Americans and to women based on the principles of the Declaration and the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.   If it hadn’t been for the power of the ideas contained in the Declaration, I believe American history would have taken a very different course.

I do not claim that we Americans are the only people in the world who believe in liberty and equality for all.  At different times in history, and at the present time, there have been other nations with greater respect for human rights than we Americans.  My argument is that the affirmation of human rights is the foundation of American national identity, and that, if we lose this, we Americans are nothing.


The following links are to a scholarly symposium on the Crooked Timber web site.

The craft of interpreting the Declaration of Independence by Heather Gerken

To Carry the Past Around With You by Gabriel Winant.

Reading Our Declaration in Support of Black Radicalism by Chris LeBron.

Responses to Gerken, Winant and Lebron by Danielle Allen.

You might have to believe in God to take the Declaration of Independence seriously by Sam Goldman.

The Declaration as Patrimony by Henry Farrell.

The Declaration of Independence isn’t egalitarian enough by James Lindley Wilson.

What Is To Be Done? by James Miller.

Problems of Consensus: Reponses to Goldman, Farrell, Wilson and Miller by Danielle Allen

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2 Responses to “The radicalism of the Declaration”

  1. beenculverted Says:

    Excellent piece. I’ll argue we’re a nation of pragmatic-utilitarians. What’s the best for the economy? What makes the most of us ‘better off’? How do we stop terrorism? Communism? Lone-wolves? We’ll cast any notion of liberty aside for temporary safety and wealth.


  2. williambearcat Says:

    Well written as per usual. I admit thought that at times I would like to be ruled by an oligarchy as long as I was part of that oligarchy.


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