The Declaration of Independence Was More Radical Than Any of the Men Who Signed It

Detail of Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, 1819 (Architect of the Capitol)
For most of human history, the strong ruled over the weak. Enter the United States.

This week the United States of America will celebrate the 242nd anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. If the weatherman is to be believed, this July 4th will be an especially hot one for most of the country — but I have no doubt we’ll still brave the high temperatures to enjoy hot dogs, hamburgers, and a parade or two. It is part and parcel of being an American.

Usually, when we think about the Fourth of July, we think about our liberties. We recall Thomas Jefferson’s stirring statement that all people are “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” What a great line! Nobody in contemporary discourse comes close to having Jefferson’s facility with words.

But there is something else undergirding the Declaration of Independence that is often overlooked: the notion of popular sovereignty.

Who should rule the body politic? We take for granted the answer to this question, that the people should. Yet for most of human history, government has more or less been premised on the rule of the strong over the weak, the rich over the poor. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Christendom tempered the rapacious quality of government, by inculcating the notion that rulers are God’s anointed and should act accordingly. But that did not stop many sovereigns from being, as James Madison put it, “detestable pictures of tyranny and cruelty.”

During the Enlightenment, there had been sparks of revolt against this longstanding system of abuse. The Florentine republicanism of Machiavelli, the Commonwealth tradition of Bolingbroke, the liberalism of Locke and Hume — all of these pointed in the direction of the idea that government is supposed to be conducted for the benefit of the people, who should have some role in the matters of state.

But it was in America that the idea flourished that only the people should have control over the government. There should be no power-sharing agreement between the many and the few, between the well-born and the commoners. The legitimacy of a government is derived solely from the consent of the people — full stop.

We can appreciate this in the argumentation of the Declaration. Jefferson begins with a sweeping pronouncement of the rights of individuals, not only to personal liberty, but to enjoy a government that operates on the basis of consent, not force. Then, he pulls back a bit. “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes,” he writes. So the colonists have to have good reasons. And boy, do they. “Let Facts be submitted to a candid world,” Jefferson declares, then he is off to the races, enumerating the many “repeated injuries and usurpations” of George III. It is these abuses, too many to enumerate in a column like this, as well as the refusal of the Crown or the Parliament to redress colonial grievances when they were peacefully and patiently presented, that justify the people in concluding that the king no longer represents their interests, and that they therefore have the right to establish a government that does.

In Jefferson’s telling, the king governed not because he was God’s anointed but because the people consented to his rule. Therefore, it is the people — and only the people — who are the fount of legitimacy. As Madison put it in 1791, “public opinion sets bounds to every government, and is the real sovereign in every free one.”

Eliminating property restrictions for voting, and then abolition, women’s suffrage, and voting rights for African Americans — the justification for each of these revolutions was grounded in the philosophy of the Declaration.

Did the United States of 1776 live up to this premise? Assuredly not. The men who signed the Declaration tended to be from the commercial and planter classes, and enjoyed vast political and social privileges thanks to their economic status. Slavery was widespread throughout the colonies and not limited to the South. And women were not allowed to participate in politics. The disconnect between words and deeds is no more apparent than in the life of Jefferson himself: The author of the Declaration was also the father of a child with one of his slaves.

While it is true that the Declaration was a statement of revolt by men of privilege against those with even more privilege, that is hardly the full story, and it elides why we still mark the occasion annually. The argument that the signers made to justify their revolution was an argument against all forms of governmental privilege. And in this way, the Declaration is more radical than the individual men who wrote it or signed it, for it let loose upon the world a new way of ordering society itself.

Eventually, the logic of the Declaration would be used to help tear down most of the privileges that its signers had enjoyed. Eliminating property restrictions for voting, and then abolition, women’s suffrage, and voting rights for African Americans — the justification for each of these revolutions was grounded in the philosophy of the Declaration, that government is meant to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln famously put it.

Jay Cost is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College.


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