The Declaration of Independence is the most revolutionary document ever written.
When we celebrate Independence Day, we are certainly celebrating the fact that the Second Continental Congress finally, after more than a year of hostilities, finally declared “That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.”
That statement comes near the very end of the document. It is the conclusion reached after citing “a long train of abuses.” There was precedent for citing a list of complaints against the Crown, going all the way back to the Magna Carta in 1215.
That list of abuses might have been enough justification if we simply wanted to replace King George on the throne, as the English replaced James II with William and Mary in 1685. Indeed, upon the publication of the Declaration in 1776 those complaints were the most commented-upon part of the document. British writers made light of our enumerated reasons for wanting independence.
The assertion that we ought to be free was not enough. The list of complaints was not enough. Something more was needed. The writers of the Declaration recognized the need to explain themselves in the opening sentence: “…a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
What gave them the right?
There’s a great scene in the movie Cromwell where Sir Alec Guinness, playing Charles I is given the death sentence by the Parliamentary court. He asks, “By what authority do you kill your king?” What he meant was they had no authority, only power. The monarchy was eventually restored, although after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, British monarchs shared their power with Parliament.
And now, less than a century later, these upstart American colonists declare that they are free of both king and parliament. Again, what gave them the right?
This is the key to the revolutionary nature of the Declaration of Independence.
The fact is that when the second paragraph of the Declaration opens with “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” it was anything but self-evident “that all men are created equal,” or “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”
Up to this point in history, government had all the rights. Whether through conquest or inheritance, the people belonged to the government and the rights they had were those the government chose to give them. This is still the way it is in most parts of the world today.
The Founders’ assertion of basic human equality is part of the fundamental break with the past. It is the acknowledgement that, in the words of Col. Richard Rumbold, an old one-eyed Cromwellian soldier executed for treason in 1685: “I am sure that there was no man born marked by God above another; for none comes into this world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.”
This basic belief in human equality was revolutionary because it was the opposite of human experience. People were subject to their rulers. Aristotle believed some people had inherited qualities that made them fit to rule. The Catholic Church supported the divine right of kings. Even the Protestant reformer Martin Luther sided with royalty in the Peasant Revolution of 1525.
What gave these upstart Americans the idea that they had the right to revolt?
It was their uniquely Protestant understanding of the Bible: that our rights come from the fact that we are all created by God in His image and thus have inalienable rights. It is in our very human nature. In the Declaration is it worded “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
The truly revolutionary conclusions that necessarily follow from that basic statement of natural right come next:
Therefore, government exists solely to protect our rights.
Therefore, government cannot take our rights away.
Therefore, when government tries to take our rights, we have the right to revolt.
Furthermore, we have not only the right to revolt; we have the positive duty to revolt.
This is what makes the Declaration of Independence a truly revolutionary document. This is what makes the American people a revolutionary people.
Let the government fear the people lest we revolt.