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considered “the Americans as standing at that time, and in that controversy, in the same relation to England as England did to King James II. in 1688.” 1 In their earlier struggles with king and parliament, the colonists contended for their “rights as English
against the encroachments of arbitrary power. In his examination by the House of Commons, Franklin testified that they resisted the Stamp Act by virtue of “the common rights of Englishmen ; and the “ Declaration of Rights” made by the first Continental Congress in 1774 was based mainly upon the English Constitution, and asserted, that, by derivation from their ancestors, the colonists were “ entitled to all the rights, liberties, and immunities of free and natural-born subjects within the realm of England.”
But the Declaration of Independence advanced beyond all charters, customs, grants, laws, heritages, to the natural and inalienable rights of man as the foundation of liberty and the sacred trust of government. As a purely philosophical conception, this was not original with Jefferson. In 1764 James Otis had said, “ The first principle and great end of government is to provide for the best good of all the people.” “ Nothing but life and liberty are actually heritable.” “ The colonists are men: the colonists are therefore free-born; for, by the law of nature, all men are free-born, white or black.” “ A time may come when Parliament shall declare every American charter void; but the natural, inherent, and inseparable rights of the colonists as men and as citizens would remain, and, whatever became of charters, can never be abolished till the general conflagration.” 2 It is highly probable that Jefferson had read the tract of Otis that made so great a stir on both sides of the Atlantic. But these sentiments were not new with Otis: a century before, Algernon Sidney had gone to the scaffold for the right of the people to govern themselves; and Jefferson owns to having read Sidney on Government. In the letter that Sidney prepared as his dying testament, he re-affirmed the principles of his “ Discourses of Government,” 6 that God hath left nations to the liberty of setting up such governments as best please themselves; ” and “ that magistrates are set up for the good of nations, not nations for the honor or glory of magistrates."
The same doctrine was taught from the Scriptures by the early divines of New England. These devout students of the Bible learned from that book, more than any other, the first principles of civil and religious liberty. In May, 1637, Thomas Hooker, first pastor of Hartford, preached a sermon on the foundations of civil government, in which he laid down these positions :
“I. That the choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people by God's own allowance.
“II. The privilege of election, which belongs to the people, therefore, must not be exercised according to their humors, but according to the blessed will and law of God.
“III. They who have power to appoint officers and magistrates, it is in their power also to set the bounds and limitations of the power and place unto which they call them.”
1 Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs.
But these had been the scattered utterances of individuals, — food for reflection in the closet, but not yet the basis of action in affairs. Now, that which the Declaration did was to put the doctrine of the natural equality of men in their essential rights, and the duty of government to secure these rights, into the form of axioms as the basis of political society, and to enforce these self-evident truths by the will of a whole people. The people came to the consciousness of holding their rights, not as Englishmen, but as men. In defence of liberties which the crown and parliament were seeking to revoke or suppress as mere chartered privileges of British subjects, they had been driven back upon those natural and inalienable rights which were antecedent to all charters, and which made them as men superior to governments, which could have lawful existence only as the servants and guardians of these personal rights in the collective interest of society; and the consciousness of these rights they declared not as a thesis in political philosophy, nor a theory of government, but by embodying the personality of the nation in these self-evident truths. This, too, in words so few, so clear, so exact, so just, so strong, so glowing, that nothing can be added to or taken from their original statement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.” Here stands forth a people clothed with rights in its proper personality, and therefore entitled to clothe itself with a form of government according to its own nature and will. There is no going behind this statement, and there is no going beyond it. I must repeat with emphasis, that the equality and rights asserted in the Declaration are personal and natural endowments, and not political claims nor concessions. All men, as individuals, are equal in the right
to life, to liberty of personal action, and to the pursuit of good. The function of the State is defined by this normal equality of rights; but these rights are not in their origin or nature political. Bluntschli 1 has shown, that, strictly speaking, political equality can come into existence only within the organized community of the State ; and also, that if, in the strict meaning of political equality, all individuals were simply and exactly equal, the State could not possibly exist, since the conception of political inequality is necessarily involved in the fundamental distinction of the governing and the governed. Equality by nature, equality before the law, and equality of treatment by government, are not political equality; and political equality is not affirmed by the Declaration. The most ignorant and imbruted man in the United States has the same right that I have to live, to choose his place and mode of living,
1 Allgemeinen Statsrechts, b. i., c. 9, $ iv.
to make his way in the world, and to share the good things of life to the fullest measure that he can attain by the free use of his powers. The government is bound to see that he has these rights to the largest degree compatible with the same rights in others. If the government tramples upon his rights, it tramples also upon mine; and I am bound to make common cause with him against any encroachment upon rights that by nature are “equal” to us both. But whether these rights can be best secured to the community and to himself by making this'ignorant, imbruted creature the government, or a partaker in the government, is a question that the Declaration leaves to political philosophy and the experience of society.
No doubt, as Mr. Evarts has clearly shown," as to the Constitution of the new State, its species is disclosed by its existence. The condition of the people is equal : they have the habits of freemen, and possess the institutions of liberty. When the political connection with the parent State is dissolved, they will be self-governing and self-governed of necessity.” But, at the same time, we must be careful not to confound the declarative act of 1776 with the creative and formative act of 1789. The Constitution was the product of consummate wisdom as to the form of a free government, — “a new State of a new species;” but the Declaration stands supreme as a declaration of political ethics. The Constitution has been, and may yet be, amended; the Declaration never.
The Constitution, and the government established under it, may even be subverted, and pass away; but the truths of the Declaration must remain “self-evident” so long as civil society shall exist on the earth. The forms in which truth is embodied may change or perish ; but truth as thought is immortal. The Constitution is a form : the Declaration is a thought. It is the felicity of American liberty that it combines the highest philosophical thought of liberty with the best structural forms of liberty as yet devised. The strength of English liberty is, that it is a thing of growth, and possesses at once the vitality drawn from the soil, and the veneration inspired by transmission from ancestors. It lives on from generation to generation through inherited institutions, without the guaranties of a written constitution. French liberty, on the other hand, began with the revolutionary proclamation of natural rights, and has always attached a special virtue to the formula of a constitution. Now, American liberty combines the advantages of both, and thus counterbalances the defects of either. All that was valid and vital in English liberty was carried by the earlier emigrants across the sea. The common heritage was theirs; and they took with them the institutions of law and custom by which this was guarded and transmitted. They built society upon that foundation. When, at length, this hereditary freedom was assailed, they at first shored it up with charters and precedents, then laid underneath it the broader, surer foundation of the rights that God had given to all men alike, and afterward built about the whole structure of liberty, natural and institutional, the strong buttresses of the Constitution. No principle of liberty has yet been thought out that is not already in the Declaration; no ordinance of freedom has yet been devised that is not already in the common law and the Constitution.
I trust that this analysis has redeemed for the Declaration its true glory, showing how, as a philosophic thought, it stands above the Constitution, which is a political form. The Constitution did indeed create si
a new State of a new species : ” the Declaration proclaims how every State, of whatever species, must be ordered, if it would justify its claim to be. It formulated human personality, as by the will of God, the chief factor and concern of civil government. But, while we assert for the Declaration the foremost place in the political thought of mankind, we should be careful not to claim too much for it in the line of direct, visible results. Mr. Adams thus sums up “ the results arrived at by the enunciation of the great law of liberty in 1776 :
“1. It opened the way to the present condition of France. “ 2. It brought about perfect security for liberty on the high and
“3. It led the way in abolishing the slave-trade, which, in its turn, prompted the abolition of slavery itself by Great Britain, France, Russia, and, last of all, by our own country too.”2
This statement is marked by the judicial clearness and fairness so characteristic of Mr. Adams; and it is, in the main, borne out by the history of the century. Yet, in tracing a connection between the movements of freedom in the first century of our national life and the Declaration with which that century opened, we should be upon our guard against the logical fallacy, post hoc propter hoc. In the closer contact of nations induced by modern civilization, influences are so ramified, and there is so much simultaneousness as well as consentaneousness of movement, that it is not easy to trace single events to a specific antecedent. At the first, the successful achievement of independence by the United States, and the inauguration of a republican government, stimulated in other lands the fever of popular government. For a time, a declaration of rights and a constitution were regarded as the panacea for the woes of political society. By and by experience showed there were cases in which the remedy might be worse than the disease: still, for long, the example of a thriving, peaceful nation without royalty, aristocracy, establishment, or army, and almost without taxes, was the envy of foreign peoples, and the standing argument for government by the people. Then, by degrees, the blot of slavery grew so large and dense, that it overshadowed the lustre of free institutions. Next came internal commotions and a civil war, that at first revealed weakness, and the possibility of disruption. The old charm of peace and union was gone. nificent uprising of the nation, the development of military resources and capacity, and the final success of the war for the Union, together with the overthrow of slavery, not only revived confidence in the republic, but lifted it into admiration. Then followed the era of taxes, extravagance, paper-money, official corruption, and of universal depression in finance and trade, which has suddenly turned popular government into a political scandal. Through all these phases of
1 See Speech at the Centennial Dinner in London.
American influence upon foreign affairs, it is difficult to trace with calmness and certainty the results for good of the Declaration of Independence upon the destiny of mankind. Still those results are even now greater than we can measure. On the one hand, we must free the Declaration from all failures and delinquencies of the American people under it; and, on the other hand, we should remember that it is too soon to look for its results in corporate forms in human society. It required seventeen centuries for Christ's doctrine of the divine birthright and brotherhood of man to work itself up to the point of public proclamation as the foundation of the State. Other toiling, groaning ages may yet attend the realization of that Declaration in emancipated, self-governing peoples. But the day of redemption is sure. Science has taught us the conservation of energy through the transformation of work into heat, and of heat into work. The blows the men of '76 struck upon the anvil of liberty did not cease with the sparks that then set the Colonies aflame: they generated a heat that has passed into the atmosphere of the globe, that has kindled in millions the hope of liberty, and that, taking on the form of work, has given energy and potency to movements of popular reform, and shall yet start the mighty enginery that shall regulate all social and political institutions in harmony with the good of the people.
It has been proposed that Americans shall henceforth discontinue the reading of the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July. So far as the indictment of George III. is concerned, the suggestion has some practical value; since it is hardly worth while to keep in remembrance the petty tyrannies of a very petty sort of tyrant, whose chief title, indeed, to a place in history, is, that his will was stub orn enough to cost him an empire. But the Declaration stands high above the grounds of separation; and, while other nations are proclaiming by monuments and festivals the triumphs of military force, it were an injustice to posterity, and a shame to history, if that nation should be silent that first proclaimed the dignity and worth of man. Never, never let the American people cease to magnify the day which declared that “all men are created equal ; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.'