Why the Declaration Still Matters for All Americans

Visitors view the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., in 2013. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Our equal creation, rather than our sex, skin, or group, is necessary to ground human dignity and our respect for every individual.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A mid our national dialogue over race and justice, my family’s reading of the Declaration of Independence will be even more meaningful than usual this Fourth of July. At the core of the Declaration — the founding political document of America — is the principle that the consent of the governed is the foundation of the moral legitimacy of government.

That principle follows from three preceding propositions in the preamble: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. . . . ” By appealing to self-evident truths, the American Founders relied on an extensive philosophical heritage which affirmed certain moral truths that flow logically from their premises once the terms of the proposition are understood. While a belief in moral truth is dismissed today for promoting intolerance, the foundation of tolerance is not moral skepticism, which fosters the will to power, but the humble recognition of transcendent truths that bind all of us, as human beings, equally.

The Declaration declared the objectivity of human rights by affirming that human beings are “endowed” with rights by their Creator. All human beings have been created equal “in the sense of having been given the same nature,” as a historian of the Declaration, Morton White, put it. The Declaration recognized a standard, rooted in that equal creation, by which even the authors of the Declaration and subsequent generations can be judged.

Abraham Lincoln powerfully used the Declaration and its truths to make the case against slavery in the 1850s and during his presidency. In his 1854 speech against the Kansas–Nebraska Act, Lincoln declared, “The doctrine of self-government is right — absolutely and eternally right.” It was this principle that Lincoln relied on to attack slavery: “The relation of master and slaves,” he said, “is . . . a total violation of this principle. The master not only governs the slave without his consent; but he governs him by a set of rules altogether different from those which he prescribes for himself. In his Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln returned to the principles of the Declaration, noting that, by the Declaration, the nation was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Two hundred and forty-four years after their publication, the Declaration’s principles remain the moral foundation of democratic government. Despite the critics, the arguments today against the Declaration have not proved conclusive and the principles of the Declaration remain trustworthy.

Materialism has also failed to erase the foundation for the equal dignity of human beings. The renowned philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his 2012 book, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, wrote that “it is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection.”

Nagel argued that “the dominance of materialist naturalism is nearing its end” because “the various reductionist programs about mind, value, and meaning” suffer from “inherent implausibility.” Materialism cannot account for human consciousness or the existence of human beings who can govern themselves.

Then there are the arguments from human reason, developed over the past century by a succession of philosophers, including C. S. Lewis, Elizabeth Anscombe, Victor Reppert, and Alvin Plantinga in his 2011 book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism. Naturalism undermines the reliability of human reason. Darwin himself saw the problem: “With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy.” Yet the foundation of scientific discovery and any thinking about justice assumes the reliability of our reason.

Lincoln taught that the authors of the Declaration “meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life of all people of all colors everywhere.” Our equal creation, rather than our sex, skin, or group, is necessary to ground human dignity and our respect for every individual. The challenge to Americans is that each generation must gain a renewed appreciation for the truths of the Declaration.

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