Update 7 April 2010: To encourage the moving on from this conversation, I am closing the comments to this blog post. Thank you for your interest and continuing support, my readers.
Why the Declaration of Independence Was and Still Is a Revolutionary Document That Changed the Way We See the World
“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.”
This one-sentence paragraph gives preliminary background, providing 1) the occasion of the declaration — one people are politically separating themselves from another, 2) some axioms, such as “Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God” exist and give people “the powers of the earth” — i.e. political power, and 3) the audience “mankind.” One must remember that, in the eyes of the world, the American colonists who were pro-revolution were illegal rebels, traitors and seditionists within their legal government, the British crown. They had to persuade “the opinions of mankind” that they weren’t traitors, weren’t, to use the modern term, terrorists, but a people who were betrayed by their government.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,”
That is, once you hear of it, it is so obvious, that you go, “Duh!” and slap your forehead for not realizing it in the first place.
“that all men are created equal,”
This assumes that humanity is created by a Creator — a strongly theistic stance shared by many in the world which the writers of the Declaration (the “Framers”) appealed to as a way of sharing at least one thing in common — American revolutionaries and the rest of the world, all believing in a Creator God who made everything. Also, equality is part of our being, as part of us as, say, our DNA. If anything, we are equal because we are all equally homo sapiens, born naked, squalling, and helpless.
“that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,”
Just as the Creator gives us our equality as part of being human, another part of being human is having rights that are native — “unalienable” — to us and, therefore, are a natural part of us as our skin, hair, and eyes.
“that among these are Life,”
We have the God-given right to exist. If somebody tries to kill me, I have the right to defend myself. If I’m starving, I have the right to eat. If I’m freezing to death, I have the right to clothe myself and keep warm.
We have the God-given right to act on our own free will. My will is my own, not owned by others. I have the will to choose what my body, my mind, and my spirit wills to do. My body, my mind, my spirit is mine to control. I am not born a slave. I am born free. My society may deny my acting on my free-will, but my free-will exists, even when oppressed. Oddly enough, I can even *choose* to submit my free-will to others, but that submission is my choice, not another’s. Even if I was born in a society that oppressed my free-will, I will know that oppression is happening because I will feel restless, feel that something is not right, and will start to rebel, if only in my heart and mind, against this violation of my natural right to think, act, and feel on my own.
“and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We have the God-given right to try to be happy. We *do not* have the right to happiness. If we were, then why would we need free-will if we were already born happy, in perpetual bliss? In Lockean (political philosopher John Locke), we do not have the right to be wealthy, but we do have the right to *try*.
“–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,”
Human beings create governments all over the world as tools to safeguard their God-given rights to exist, to have free-will, and to try to be happy.
“deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”
Governments, which are tools manned by men, just like a lever is operated by a human hand, get their powers from the people. Governments get their kinetic energy, so to speak, from the potential energy of the people who create the governments. Notice the plural “governments” — all forms of government — for examples, monarchy (rule of one), oligarchy (rule of a few), democracy (rule of the many) — are just if, at the original creation of these different forms, they began with people agreeing to be ruled by either 1) one person, 2) a minority of people, or 3) a majority of people. Why they agree doesn’t matter, as long as they agree to lend their powers to govern themselves to the governments who become extensions — like that lever — of themselves.
“–That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends,”
That is, when *any* form of government (remember that the American colonists were under the British crown) forgets that it is only a tool to safeguard the governed people’s rights and actually starts to destroy the rights of the very people it is supposed to protect — instead of life, it gives death; instead of liberty, it gives slavery; instead of pursuit of happiness, it gives the imprisonment of immobility, of being stuck in one miserable state.
“it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it,”
This is the fourth unalienable right. We have the right to change (within the same form of government, usually by voting/ running for office/ civil disobedience/ suing in courts) or to abolish it (by destroying the form of government, usually by revolution/ civil war if the current form of government is just *that* broken).
“and to institute new Government,”
If altered, then “new Government” means a new administration, new terms office, a new king; if abolished, then an entirely new form of government (from, say monarchy to democracy, or, in the case of America, to a mixed republic — oligarchy mixed with democracy).
“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.”
Whatever form of government the new government is (monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, or some mixed permutation), the people will create a government in which that government’s prime goal is to safeguard their right to exist, their right to exercise their free-will, their right to try to be happy.
“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes;”
But people aren’t *stupid*. They won’t activate the extreme form of this fourth right of theirs — revolution — for petty or temporary problems in their government, especially if their government has been around for a long time.
“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.”
People are willing to put up with a lot of crap from their government if they’re used to working with the government that they find themselves under, that they can still live, make choices, and try to be happy, even if their government is kind of crappy but not crappy all the way through.
“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism,”
That is, over time, when lots of people — not just a few, not just friends and family, but even complete strangers, people you don’t even like — realize that 1) their life is miserable because of what the government has done, 2) they have no right to refuse orders and in fact have no voice at all in what they can or cannot do, say or cannot say because of what the government has done, and 3) have no opportunities to better themselves, have no place to go, are locked, in their miserable life because of what the government has done, then the government is no longer *their* government but a Frankensteinian monster, a dead thing that thinks it is alive, which has turned against its creator, trying to destroy it, namely, the people.
“it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
When government goes so bad that it no longer acts like one’s government anymore, in fact acts like a foreign enemy to its people, then the people has the responsibility to get rid of such a monster and put in new operators of a real government, a government that remembers why it is there in the first place — to create an environment such that the people can live, act on their free-will, and try to be happy. In other words, vote, run for office, demonstrate, lobby, be an active member of the citizenry.
“—Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain [George III] is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”
This is a transition paragraph; the previous paragraphs have been premises to a long syllogism, with the conclusion that people have the right to change their government, because governments (whether that be monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, or mixed) don’t give them rights — they’re born with them. This paragraph applies the conclusion of the syllogism to the specific situation of the American colonists’ broken political relationship with their broken government, the British Empire, as manifested in American soil. The subsequent paragraphs is a laundry-list of the “long train of abuses and usurpations” of the British monarchy towards the American colonies, serving as evidence of tyranny and, therefore, a government-turned-monster.
“He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us, in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
End of laundry-list of evidence, damning the British monarchy of tyranny.
“In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”
This is the first part of the refutation, answering the unspoken question, “Well, you didn’t try hard enough. Why don’t you petition the king, the governors, your representative?” The answer: “WE DID. IT DIDN’T WORK. IN FACT, WE GOT PUNISHED FOR IT.”
“Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity.”
This is the second part of the refutation, answering the unspoken question, “Well, you didn’t try other avenues. Why don’t you ask those you know who’s close to government, your friends, your family members, who are insiders to help you out?” The answer: “WE DID. THEY IGNORED US, SAYING, ‘SORRY, YOUR PROBLEM, NOT OURS.'”
“We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.”
Conclusion: we’re on our own.
“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,”
“We” represents the American colonists willing to go to war, and the “Supreme Judge of the world” is the Creator God.
“do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies,”
This government of “the united States of America” is aware if its status as having its powers lent to it by the people.
“solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved;”
Enactment of the fourth inalienable right.
“and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.”
For the individual, one’s individual rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness becomes, lent to and magnified in power by the government, the “Power to Levy War, conclude Peace,” — that is, have a foreign policy and a strong military to enforce it; “contract Alliances” — that is, have international ties of mutual benefit with foreign governments; “establish Commerce” — that is, create an environment for a strong economy, an exchange of goods, services, ideas, etc.
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence,”
God is with us.
“we mutually pledge to each other our Lives,”
We’re willing to die for these rights.
We’re willing to spend our wealth for these rights.
“and our sacred Honor.”
We’re willing to sacrifice our public reputation for these rights, because absolutely, we know what we are doing is honorable.