Tuesday, February 19, 2013 – Essay #2- The Declaration of Independence Part II – Guest Essayist: W.B. Allen, Dean Emeritus, James Madison College; Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Michigan State University

Reading the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence bears the heading, “in Congress, July 4, 1776, a declaration by the representatives of the United States of America, in general Congress assembled.” At the outset we see the practice of a “congress” — it reads: “in Congress July 4, 1776.”  This act taken in a solemn assembly was called for specific purposes “by the representatives of the United States of America.” This is ambiguous, for the American states were previously colonies, not states.  Nor was there something called the United States as a single entity (although in 1775 George Washington — who had been appointed commander of the “Army of the United States” — had begun to speak of the United States as a single Union and of developing, strengthening and perpetuating it).

Nevertheless, if the Declaration makes united states in America the United States of America, then the title expresses the end accomplished through these very words.  Moreover, the Americans democratically appointed representatives to enunciate these principles.

Thus “in a general Congress” they wrote:

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.

“In the course of human events” invokes the fact that things happen; people undergo the various accidents and sometimes deliberate effects that unfold in the course of history. And in the course of such specifically human events — not world history or local events, not geological events, not astrophysical events —there arose a parochial moment in which a part of the British Empire (which may be called British North America) proceeded to dissolve existing political bands.  The words “political” and “bands” convey a very significant and special meaning; they did not “dissolve all human connection,” they did not “dissolve moral connections,” they did not “dissolve commercial or economic connections,” they did not “dissolve religious connections.”  They dissolved the rules, the principles, the practices, the operations, the procedures and the institutions through which they governed themselves.

While they acted self-consciously, they did so on the basis of lawful rights or claims.  Their rights derived from the laws of nature and of nature’s God.  Further, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”  In other words, they have a duty —referred to here as “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” — to declare these principles and to state their case before a jury of all mankind.  Any objective intellect will understand the justice of their claims.  Finally, not only are they entitled to revolt, but it was necessary for them so to do. Moreover, if it were not necessary, it would have been imprudent to separate.

We readily understand how it could be imprudent. Any people, deciding suddenly to separate from the superintending and protecting care of a larger entity that had protected and secured them against the dangers of the world, while also themselves lacking resources sufficient to obtain like security, would act most imprudently.

Continuing, “We hold these truths to be self evident.”  That is only the first clause of the second sentence!  We hold certain things as truths and these truths do not require proof.  Self evidence does not mean obvious to every self. It is a term that is borrowed from the language of geometric axioms, definitions and propositions.  Self evident means that the truth of the axioms is contained within the terms of the axioms themselves. When we say that two things each equal to a third are equal to each other that is an axiom that is not subject to demonstration (which does not bar pedants (PED-nts) from laboriously re-enacting the truth!).[i]

“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal”.  They used the term “men” in the general sense, which means therefore all human beings.  This refers to all human beings, because it is based on an universal axiom; but we do not depend on that logical and grammatical distinction in order to see the relevant significance of this.  We remember that the term “equal” already appeared in the first paragraph when we referred to a people assuming a separate and equal station.  That equal station or nationhood is not the same equality that is invoked when we say all men are created equal.  The first paragraph refers specifically to peoples or nations as equal. In the second paragraph we say rather that all men are created equal.  The authors of this document understood when they wrote “men” that they intended human beings and not this or that particular grouping of humans.  We have many testimonies to this effect from the era itself.  Elected representatives in the State of New Jersey[ii] refer to these words and their universal significance.

“They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Followed by a dash, the sentence has not yet finished. What unalienable rights derive from human equality?  “Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  It is not necessary to list them all; it is only necessary to establish that reasonable and rational human beings will agree that what makes human beings human conveys upon them title to certain rights.  If we could shed our humanity and be something else, something not human, then we would not have these rights.

That first sentence of the second paragraph continues, “to secure these rights governments are instituted among men.” Notice the passive voice; “among men” has precisely the same value as “that all men are created equal.”  Certainly nobody means to say that women, children, slaves or any particular subsections are ungoverned.  It may be, as the exordium makes clear, that the governments are instituted among groupings of human beings; so that differing groupings have differing governments; but everywhere that there are human beings governments are instituted among them.

That governments are instituted among men is a passive construction, because there are differing ways in which governments may come to be.  Some of the ways are legitimate and some not.  We can not move from the passive voice to the active voice, where we actually identify who institutes the government, until we understand what the rule of legitimacy is.  The first sentence of the second paragraph continues, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  Observe the direction; the process works through time and it works through moral authority.  Those subject to the government are the men among whom the government comes to exist.  They have a right to consent (the moral dimension) and it becomes just when they consent (the temporal dimension).  Only at that point may we then switch voices and, instead of speaking passively, say that men institute government.  For their consent is the agency, the power, that creates the government.

The Declaration next reads, “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends,” any people may “alter the government” or “abolish it” — i.e., withdraw consent — thereby stigmatizing powers exercised without their agreement as powers unjustly exercised.  Moreover, it continues, “and to Institute new government.”

Here emerges the active voice; these men — the consenting individuals, the people of the nation, — will institute new government just as they had a right to institute the prior government, “laying its foundation on such principles” — i.e. they do not act arbitrarily.  They act rationally; they have preferences to be sure, but the preferences consult the principles; the principles guarantee the unalienable rights.

Once they proclaim such principles they are able to continue “organizing” the government’s powers “in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness”. There the sentence ends.

All previous political arrangements that assert the superior claim of some few to rule the many (whether those few were monarchs or feudal barons or despots or tyrants or any kind of minority rule) are “illegitimate and therefore based on some kind of superstition.”[iii]  The unalienable rights mentioned in the Declaration are those from which obligations can be inferred or deduced. [iv]  For the Declaration is a statement of when some men might and might not be rightfully regarded as the rulers of other men.

We understand man and his rights as much by understanding what he is not as by understanding what he is.  In fact, we understand the latter only by understanding the former, for man is neither beast nor God.  To prove that God exists is not necessary to the argument; it suffices that divine nature would be of a certain sort.  Such a nature would carry to absolute perfection those potential perfections perceivable in man, such as reason, justice and mercy, without the corresponding imperfections, such as the passionate self-love that corrupts the perfections.  The conception of a being in whom reason is not or cannot be affected by desire is the conception of a being in whom just power naturally resides.  It is a conception of a being in whom the different powers of government can safely be collected.  Thus the God of the Declaration combines three roles besides that of creator: legislator; supreme judge; and finally, executive power or divine Providence.

It is an absolutely necessary condition of the rule of law that these three powers of government never be united in the same human hands — legislative, executive, and judicial.  For them to be so united, whether in a singular or collective body, is the very definition of tyranny.  For the equality of mankind is an equality of defect as well as an equality of rights.

These fundamental questions of political life go into determining whether any particular institutions, operations or practices can not only be received as legitimate but also actually accomplish their ends.  The body politic arises from fundamental rights and claims that give scope to the greatest potential of human enlightenment. [v]

Read The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America here: http://www.constitutingamerica.org/blog/?p=3136

W. B. Allen is Dean Emeritus, James Madison College; and Emeritus
Professor of Political Science, Michigan State University


[i] Cf., “Political Arithmetic: Social Science, Scientific Revolution, Political Innovation,” in Statistics Science and Public Policy. IX. Government, Science and Politics. edited by  A. M. Herzberg and R. W. Oldford (Kingston, ONT: Queens University, 2005).

[ii] Merrill Jensen, ed., The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. Vol. I  “Constitutional Documents and Records, 1776‑1787,” (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976). p. 116.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Harry V. Jaffa. The Conditions of Freedom: Essays in Political Philosophy.  Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975. Chapter 7, pp. 151-152.

[v] W. B. Allen. “Machiavelli and Modernity.”  In Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince.  Translated by Angelo Codevilla. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.  edition translation of Machiavelli’s Prince]

 

 

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13 Responses to “Tuesday, February 19, 2013 – Essay #2- The Declaration of Independence Part II – Guest Essayist: W.B. Allen, Dean Emeritus, James Madison College; Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Michigan State University”

  1. Dave says:

    Some thoughts:
    Every time I read the Declaration of Independence I discover new ways of understanding it, especially with the help of a noted scholar. What an interesting point of emphasis—that it was merely the political bands that were to be dissolved leaving the economic bands, religious bands, and moral bands intact.

    It can never be stressed enough that governments are instituted among men to secure rights and not to provide benefits.

    One of the ideas I struggle with is making the case for the connection between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. To what degree, and in what respects, does the founding document, the Declaration, inform our understanding of our governing document, the Constitution.

    • Ron says:

      @Dave, my understanding, and I’m not an expert, is that the Declaration defines the Principles (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, consent of the people, etc) and that the Constitution defines the Structure of government to ensure that the Principles have the greatest possible chance of occuring. Basically, the structure is designed to minimize the opportunity that we sinful people have of regaining control over other people and making them servants to the government or to a ruler.

      • Dave says:

        Thanks Ron. I’m probably out in left field, but my concern isn’t with the documents as stand-alone documents and what on their face they purport to do. I’m concerned that since the Constitution didn’t come with a thorough explanatory guide on how to read it. The preamble begs more questions than it answers–“Perfect” in what sense? Whose “Justice”? Will promoting the general welfare yield to liberty, or will liberty yield to promoting the general welfare? And who decides?
        Behind the structure of the Constitution there have to be some values and principles the Framers and ratifiers wanted to further with their new constitution. If the Declaration provides some of the values and principles, what’s the legal process by which they get “incorporated” into the Constitution? Maybe this worry of mine isn’t important, but I don’t have an answer to the Marxist who wants to “discover” Marxist values and principles in the Constitution.
        Thanks again for taking the time to offer me your thoughts.

        • Ron says:

          Hi Dave, to know what the founders were thinking, the best source is the Federalist Papers, which were articles written by some of our founders published in the NY and other newspapers to let the colonists know what the thinking was behind each of the articles in the Constitution. The first course here on Constituting America was on the Federalist papers and you can still access them here.

          • Dave says:

            Hey Ron, by your suggestion I think your approach is like mine—If one wants to gain a legitimate understanding of the Constitution, it would seem necessary to get an idea of what the Founders were thinking. And since it’s a little difficult to read the minds of our long-since dead Founders, Framers, and Ratifiers (Requiescant in Pace); we need to examine the artifacts they left behind. I agree, The Federalist Papers are a great place to start. In my humble opinion, what Madison, Hamilton and Jay have given us is not only an explication of the Constitution, but also a treatise on human nature and how the structure of the new government was consonant with that understanding of our nature. In a broader sense, I picture the whole project as one long conversation over the centuries attempting to answer one of the fundamental questions of philosophy—How ought we to govern ourselves? The Hillsdale Reader is an awesome, albeit abbreviated, transcript of that conversation. And it is only fitting that of the Ancients, we start with the man who was called by Dante “the Master of the men who know.” On to Aristotle.

        • yguy says:

          The preamble begs more questions than it answers–”Perfect” in what sense?

          The exact wording is “more perfect”, and I submit that your omission is not trivial. It seems intuitively obvious that life should not be a treadmill, so that I ought to be a better person today than I was yesterday and a better person tomorrow than I am today. Similarly it seems reasonable to expect America to be constantly improving, as has generally been the case for most of its history.

          Whose “Justice”?

          Seeing not one of us would know what justice is absent the voice of conscience, surely the answer to your question is none other than the Owner of that voice.

          Will promoting the general welfare yield to liberty, or will liberty yield to promoting the general welfare?

          Since there is no conflict between the two, I fail to see the point of the question.

          And who decides?

          Since, as a sovereign nation, We answer to no higher authority than Our Creator, We the People as represented by 3/4 of the states decide; and if We think We can act independently of HIs authority, We may expect to reap the whirlwind, as We did during the Civil War.

          Behind the structure of the Constitution there have to be some values and principles the Framers and ratifiers wanted to further with their new constitution.

          Not to disrespect them, but taken collectively they are not unimpeachable sources in this regard, witness the 1808 and fugitive slave clauses.

          If the Declaration provides some of the values and principles, what’s the legal process by which they get “incorporated” into the Constitution?

          Remember that the Framers affirmed in the Constitution that the country was already in its twelfth year, which clearly implies that the DoI is not just a founding document, but THE founding document. This being the case, no constitutional provision may be justly construed so as to allow anyone under a constitutional oath to act in contravention of any of the principles stated in the DoI.

          • Dave says:

            Hey yguy, what I was trying to get at with my comment was that documents like our Constitution, by their very nature, contain gaps, generalities, abstractions, and vague terms. Such documents when put into effect seem to require interpretation at every turn. I highlighted “perfect” because it describes the ambiguous, abstract quality of perfection. The adjective “more” doesn’t seem to be fraught with the ambiguity of “perfect.” Everybody probably has a good idea of what “more” of something is. I’m in no position to quibble with modifying “perfect” with “more.” (Pleonasm?) It does seem to me to be analogous to such uses as “more pregnant” or “more dead”—you’re either pregnant or not; you’re either dead or not. So, back to “perfect” and my intimation that the word requires a context for it to mean anything. What exactly would we be forming when we form this “more perfect Union”? What criteria do we use to judge the success of our endeavor? What words (meta-language) do we even use to talk about something being “more perfect”? Would it help if we judge our success using such ideas as “liberty,” “order,” “justice,” or “equality”? Let’s say we got it right and these four criteria exhaust the list of attributes used to describe our “more perfect Union,” now it must be determined what the proper proportion of the attributes is. Are they all equal? Is there more liberty than the other three? Or more justice? Who decides? Your using words such as “better” and “improving” brings up the same types of issues.
            Whose “Justice”? [An aside, check out Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality? the sequel to his highly regarded After Virtue] OK, let’s take as given John Rawls’s idea of “justice as fairness,” it seems to me that ever since we were little kids we understood that there was much disagreement about what’s fair—households since the beginning of time (I’m guessing) have been filled with the child’s cry of “that’s not fair!” Adults in modern society disagree about what is fair—I don’t think it’s fair to saddle future generations with $16 trillion in debt; I don’t think it’s fair that some duly-enacted federal laws are not enforced. Yguy, you seem to be advocating a sort of moral sense theory with your mention of “voice of conscience” and its having a divine source. I’m interested in how that could be reconciled with the possibility of some individuals’ recognizing different “Owners.”
            Modern society is rife with conflicts between the general welfare and individual liberty. ObamaCare is a paradigmatic case that could be offered up. How ‘bout the recent gun debate? The whole founding of our constitutional, federal republic can be seen as the surrendering of some of our individual liberty to the general welfare and to the rule of law within a civil polity, thereby enhancing our chances of accomplishing the end or goal (Greek, telos) of man, i. e., happiness or flourishing (Greek, eudaimonia). TBC

  2. I highly recommend Hillsdale College’s Larry Arnn and his book “Founders Key” on the relationship of the Declaration and the Constitution. A very fine, beautifully written book.

    • Dave says:

      Thanks Tony. After reading the subtitle to Dr. Arnn’s book, I said to myself, “Duh!” With a subtitle “The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk by Losing It”, the book is of course a perfect recommendation. It is now off the bookshelf and on my desk, next in line to be read. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.

  3. For the inextricable link between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, I would highly recommend Larry Arnn’s “Founders’ Key,” a beautifully-written and very fine book.

  4. yguy says:

    I highlighted “perfect” because it describes the ambiguous, abstract quality of perfection.

    That is an illusion which arises from the fact that no generalized term has meaning outside of a specific context.

    It does seem to me to be analogous to such uses as “more pregnant” or “more dead”—you’re either pregnant or not; you’re either dead or not.

    Those analogies are hopelessly superficial. Bearing in mind that the Constitution was proposed as an improvement on the Articles of Confederation, and that the original Constitution contained an instrument by which it may be improved further still, I see no reason to reconsider anything I’ve said on the subject.

    What exactly would we be forming when we form this “more perfect Union”? What criteria do we use to judge the success of our endeavor?

    Only one is necessary: common sense, without which the DoI and the Constitution aren’t worth the paper they were written on.

    What words (meta-language) do we even use to talk about something being “more perfect”? Would it help if we judge our success using such ideas as “liberty,” “order,” “justice,” or “equality”?

    Given that we are discussing the Preamble, which gives us all the “meta-language” we need, we can dispense with the last.

    it must be determined what the proper proportion of the attributes is.

    This demonstrates a misunderstanding of what the “attributes” are in the first place, as there is no conflict between any two of the objectives stated in the Preamble. In fact, since liberty and justice are just different manifestations of the same thing, we can hardly have one without the other.

    it seems to me that ever since we were little kids we understood that there was much disagreement about what’s fair—households since the beginning of time (I’m guessing) have been filled with the child’s cry of “that’s not fair!”

    Children are immature, which is why they need not just tutors, but monarchs – a dictatorship of the proletariat, if you will, which expires when they can be expected to be mature enough to govern themselves…

    Adults in modern society disagree about what is fair—

    …but of course there are adults who never reach that level of maturity, and who are therefore unfit to participate in the governance of a republic, wherefore they must be politically disempowered.

    Yguy, you seem to be advocating a sort of moral sense theory with your mention of “voice of conscience” and its having a divine source. I’m interested in how that could be reconciled with the possibility of some individuals’ recognizing different “Owners.”

    Impossible – which is presumably why the DoI, while it is not the least bit sectarian, never comes within light-years of acknowledging the existence of more than one Creator.

    • Dave says:

      My main point is quite simple: It is possible for reasonable people to disagree about what particular words mean, signify, denote, or connote. When words are put together to form sentences, it is possible for reasonable people to disagree about the meaning of those sentences. When sentences are put together to form documents . . . .

      I wish I could proceed with such certainty as you, but then again maybe the understanding of any legal text is not so cut and dry as you seem to believe. Heck, why would Scalia and Garner need over 400 pages to present a method, textualism, and the canons of the interpretation of legal texts. [BTW, a great read.]

      Acknowledging that your concerns appear to be very different from mine, here’s what concerns me: I would like to justify my intuition that textualism is the most rational, logical, and just approach to determine the meaning of any legal text, our Constitution included. Textualism involves text and context. The text (the words) of the Constitution is given; the meaning is not. I highlighted words in the Preamble because it, although not a part of the Constitution, uses words that provide a context for how the Constitution may be read. Take 100 educated people and ask them to define and provide the limits or contours of the words perfect, justice, welfare, and liberty; and you’ll get 100 different answers. Unfortunately, no sense in common there. If the words in the preamble are up for debate, then the context of the Constitution is up for debate. And we know there is debate, there is disagreement—thousands of cases and controversies per year tell us so. Five of nine justices will decide. Some random words from the text of the Constitution also illustrate the point: regulate (as in commerce), needful, necessary, absolutely necessary, proper, excessive, unreasonable, just, etc.

      How much external to the Constitution can be used legitimately to provide context? Even with a conservative or judicious limitation on the use of external sources, I think the list of acceptable sources is quite extensive, hence Aristotle, Cicero, Sidney, Locke in the Hillsdale Reader. If what the founders wrote reflected a certain world view that was presupposed and often not expressed, they must have acquired that world view from somewhere. And reading what they read and were influenced by might just help us in understanding what Gladstone called “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”

      Some quotes on language that make me smile:

      “Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on. “I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.”

      “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

      Vizzini: HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE.
      Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

  5. yguy says:

    My main point is quite simple: It is possible for reasonable people to disagree about what particular words mean, signify, denote, or connote. When words are put together to form sentences, it is possible for reasonable people to disagree about the meaning of those sentences. When sentences are put together to form documents . . . .

    That is certainly true enough if the document is drafted incompetently, or with deceptive intent, in which cases amendment is indicated. Otherwise, even in a best case scenario where all the Justices are honest people whose knowledge is so extensive that the average citizen could never equal it in two lifetimes, the only alternative is governance by black-robed Ephors.

    I wish I could proceed with such certainty as you,

    Suuuuure don’t look like it from here, pilgrim. 🙂

    but then again maybe the understanding of any legal text is not so cut and dry as you seem to believe.

    As of this moment I have no belief whatsoever about your understanding of any legal text.

    Heck, why would Scalia and Garner need over 400 pages to present a method, textualism, and the canons of the interpretation of legal texts.

    Not having read it I wouldn’t know, but it would not surprise me to find that no small portion of their verbosity was motivated by an unconscious predilection for overcomplication, probably cultivated in them by their legal education.

    Take 100 educated people and ask them to define and provide the limits or contours of the words perfect, justice, welfare, and liberty; and you’ll get 100 different answers. Unfortunately, no sense in common there.

    Well of course not, because modern education is to common sense as the Nazis were to Jews. That’s why in the last 20 years we have four times elected as President individuals who can be most charitably described as spectacularly incompetent.

    How much external to the Constitution can be used legitimately to provide context?

    Assuming the meaning of the provision is not patent, as much as is necessary to determine what it meant to those who ratified it.

    Even with a conservative or judicious limitation on the use of external sources, I think the list of acceptable sources is quite extensive, hence Aristotle, Cicero, Sidney, Locke in the Hillsdale Reader.

    Acceptability is one thing, necessity another. After all, if there can be a multitude of reasonable interpretations of a few pages of text, the same obviously applies to any of the thousands of pages one might appeal to in support of that interpretation.

    Beyond that, there is not a doubt in my mind that there are people who have read all that and more and who, to speak with the dispassionate precision of a physics professor reciting the First Law of Thermodynamics, don’t understand the first thing about the Constitution

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