This essay was authored by Bruce P. Frohnen for Nomocracy and Politics. Professor Frohnen is a Nomocracy in Politics contributor.
The answer to this question should be obvious: The Declaration of Independence declared and made official the American colonies’ determination to be independent from Great Britain. This recognition of the distinct limits of the purpose of the Declaration can be taken too far, of course. Characterization of the Declaration as “a love letter to the French” is cute, perhaps even funny, but fails to fully capture the document’s importance. Securing funding and military support from the French government was no small or unimportant goal, but the colonists had a tradition of making declarations and resolves as they sought to settle their differences with the British, and such declarations were considered important precisely because they stated goals and reasons.
For example, the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress in 1774 had stated colonists’ grievances against Great Britain, focusing on violations of traditional due process rights, as well as on statutes that established direct taxation and imposed numerous penalties on Massachusetts in retaliation for unrest there. These Declarations and Resolves not only listed the colonists’ grievances, they also declared the rights which the British were not only violating, but even denying the colonists possessed. These rights included both natural rights to life, liberty and property, and the statutory and common law rights of Englishmen. Only after having presented colonists’ reasons for complaint do these Declarations set forth a plan of action, which condemns British conduct, calls for preparation of a “loyal address” to the king and an address to the people of Great Britain, and sets the terms for a non-importation agreement to block trade between the colonies and the mother country.
This brief summary of a previous set of Declarations and Resolves should make clear that the Declaration of Independence was no unique document, but rather part of a tradition of declarations and actions rooted in a public discourse that was fundamentally legal in character. That is, the Declaration of Independence, like its predecessors, was a “constitutional” document in the sense that it was part of an argument over the nature of public arrangements, in particular between Great Britain and her American colonies. As such, it “spoke” in the language of rights and duties, because it was part of an ongoing argument between parties who disagreed about what each owed to the other. But this means that the general arguments presented, declaring Americans’ natural rights to either “life, liberty, and property” or “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” are just that, general arguments, intended to frame and buttress the more central arguments concerning particular violations of particular rights. In both declarations, the bulk of the text deals, not with abstract rights, but with concrete violations of customary understandings. Thus, it is to these charges, more than to the general, prefatory statements, that we should look if we are to learn what Americans were seeking at the time of independence, as well as what assumptions, traditions, and institutions formed their expectations and demands.
For those who have read through the Declaration of Independence (a sadly small number, though the document rewards close reading by experts and general readers alike), that document shows an admirable simplicity in its construction. A statement of the Declaration’s purpose (to “declare the causes” impelling the Americans to separation from Great Britain) is followed by a statement of principles intended, not as grand philosophy, but as argument establishing the capacity of Americans to judge their British rulers and to take the step of declaring independence. Here we see the general rights language and, at least as important, its linkage to a more central and concrete political right, that of self-rule. Governments must rest on the consent of the governed, and the governed have a right, at the extreme, to “alter or abolish” their government when it has too frequently and too heavily violated the people’s secure enjoyment of their other rights.
But what are those rights, in actual practice? Are the rights themselves abstract principles based directly and in their details on the declarations of philosophers? Such is not the message of the Declaration of Independence, read in terms of its actual, limited purpose. For that Declaration is not a statement of the purpose of government or the origins and nature of all human rights, either in the abstract or in all its details. It is, rather, a statement of the violations by the British of Americans’ customary rights, rooted to be sure in more general principles—for all rights have their ultimate root in the dignity of each person as created in the image and likeness of God.
Particular human rights are historical constructs; to be made real and effective they must be rooted in practice and in reasonable expectations developed over time. Thus the Declarations and Resolves made a point of defending the applicability of the English common law to the American colonists, arguing, as colonists had done for a century and a half, that they brought with them the rights of loyal English subjects as well as their other customs and traditions. Thus the Declaration of Independence makes clear in its list of charges against the king that the king’s own actions have constituted an abdication of his right to rule his American subjects on account of his, in essence, waging war against them.
By violating traditional rights of due process, even taking those accused of smuggling to be tried in Admiralty courts in England; by refusing to allow long-established colonial legislatures to exercise their long-accustomed powers of self rule; by quartering troops in American homes and subjecting his subjects to martial law; by imposing taxes without colonial consent; and by myriad other acts asserting absolute control over a people accustomed to wide exercise of the powers of self government, the king had put himself outside the role of a rightful governor. And, by refusing to hear the entreaties of his subjects, but instead sending troops to force them into submission, he had rendered himself an illegitimate ruler and his people free to separate from him and maintain governments of their own.
All of our actions have purposes, public actions no less than private. But it is important that we begin with a recognition of the limits of these purposes, and in particular of their proper limits, if we are to understand the nature of public life, particularly in a nation born from a dedication to ordered liberty. For such a nation cannot be “dedicated” to abstract propositions without undermining its real purpose, which is the protection of more fundamental associations—family, church, and local community—in which we become virtuous citizens, who alone are capable of exercising political liberty and self government.