The concept of personal rights being separate from the power exerted by government was by no means a creation of the late 18th century, however the single phrase most often cited as the underlying basis for liberal political philosophy, “all men are created equal”, comes directly from the United States Declaration of Independence, penned in the month leading up to the 2nd of July, 1776. The authors of this renowned piece of history, Jefferson, et al., have alternately been placed upon pedestals and demonized for the details of their lives and their roles in creating not only a nation, but the enduring framework for a grand experiment in democratic government.
Unfortunately, many people today blindly follow political leaders who, understanding the necessary element of faith involved in accepting such first principle arguments as appear to be made in the Declaration and Revolution era works, take advantage of that faith and assert without regard for honest discourse that their claims are derived from the same source as the core doctrine of American political philosophy rather than from mere lust for power over others. Not only are these demagogues misleading through their false claims of equivalency, they also fail in their analysis of the core arguments which they attest to defend. Even the most cursory examination of the original work within an historical and philosophical context reveals that Jefferson and all the men from the Second Continental Congress who signed the Declaration were fallible, political, and relatively ignorant. That being the case, they were also responsible for a set of some very good ideas, many of which have subsequently proven not only to be inspirational, but defensible by modern evidence.
A great deal of the Declaration is written as a list of charges against the British King George III and his Parliament, but the heart of the document is a single sentence with four clauses: “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, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Each of the four clauses of this sentence should be examined if the full meaning of the sentence is to be understood.
The first clause has three keywords, “we”, “truths”, and “self-evident”. Originally, “we” referred only to the undersigned, those who put their names to a document that would be considered treasonous if the war for independence from Britain was lost. That is not to say that a more universal consensus was not desired, rather that the Congress was in dire need of legitimacy during the Revolution, and sought to gain it both within colonial America and abroad by showing Americans that the representatives attending the Congress were willing to put their lives and reputations on the line, while simultaneously showing the British (and potential European allies such as the French) a nation unified in its resistance to foreign rule. It is very easy for Americans today to think that because things turned out the way they did, that Americans during the Revolution knew or even just felt confident about how things would turn out. Mostly they hoped, gambled, and fought.
The “truths” listed in subsequent clauses of the sentence are declared “self-evident” largely as reference to the body of British legal precedent which formed the original common law. A somewhat implicit set of guiding principles underlay the trends in jurisprudence of the day, often derived just as firmly from the arguments of famous philosophers as from the decisions of judges in previous cases. The rights of freeborn British subjects were “self-evident” not only because of the writings of a few authors defending the idea of the social contract, but because a combination of legislation and judicial case law agreed that such rights existed. Consensus and a priori logic are very different things, though, and without context it is not difficult to conclude that the only argument being made was one of first principles, and that it had no defense beyond faith and solid rhetoric. Law and philosophy were relatively intertwined at the time, and while they still are to a degree today, the legacy of reliance upon logic seems to have become somewhat separated from the modern creation of laws. The other inheritor of the logic and reasoning of philosophy, science, has led to spectacular advances in technology and the understanding of the physical world while only infrequently being used to inform the lawmaking process.
The second clause, “that all men are created equal,” is quite possibly the most significant concept ever written by an American. So many people believe this so unquestioningly that anyone who dares to publicly doubt it is shunned by their peers and anyone else who happens to hear of it. Equality is the single underlying principle which has driven American political theory for hundreds of years. The concept of equality has been very selectively applied throughout history, however. Typically, it hasn’t even meant the same thing to different people living at the same time. Even while the Declaration was being written, there were dissenting schools within the Congress. Some thought that “men” should only include free citizens, others that it should only be free men of financial means who owned a certain minimum amount of land.
The hypocrisy of a slaveholding gentleman declaring that all men were equals was not lost on the people of the 18th century. Nor was the misogyny inherent in referring only to men, and thus implying through omission inequality for women. Flawed though it was, it is important to remember that the claim of even limited equality was revolutionary. Not because it was an original idea, but because an old idea was being taken to a radical new extreme. Although it is a far cry from declaring universal suffrage, “all men are created equal” was written to refute the idea that special privileges should be afforded to any person merely due to their inherited “nobility”.
Modern interpretations of equality are more radical, and deservedly so. But if the foundation of universal equality does not lie explicitly within the philosophical arguments presented within the Declaration, where can it be found? Textually, civil equality is written out in the Bill of Rights, the Civil Rights Amendments, and the 19th Amendment, but they are hardly what could be called a philosophical foundation – more the consequence of a series of arguments being codified only after significant debate (and open war, in the case of the Civil Rights Amendments).
The true foundation of universal equality is an interwoven jumble of idealism, cynicism, and utility. Humanity is an umbrella of diversity and individual complexity, and consequently any group of people will inevitably face conflict. The larger the population, the more opportunities there will be fore conflict between individuals. Conflict of any stripe threatens a person’s homeostasis (homeostatic equilibrium being one of the proven psychological goals of essentially all persons), so it follows that when individuals interact, the best way to stay balanced and alive is to abide behavioral guidelines which facilitate other members of the population staying balanced and alive as well. In short form, it’s a good general rule not to take actions which would affect other people in such a way that you wouldn’t want affecting you. The iterative nature of social interactions coupled with the formative conditioning by which the human mind learns, provides a viable mechanism whereby such behavioral limitations reliably result in significant mitigation of personal risk.
In the third clause of the sentence, “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” special focus should be given to the words “Creator” and “unalienable rights”. The Christianity of the authors and signatories of the Declaration is not in doubt. For centuries in Europe, and then in America as well, the study of religion and philosophy went hand-in-hand. Many of the arguments best associated with western liberalism come directly from the analysis and criticism of early Christian scholars like Augustine of Hippo.
By the time of the American Revolution, while many ancient religious claims had been tested through long debate, the precept that an omnipotent deity had played a direct role in the existence of humankind on Earth was essentially unquestioned. Jefferson himself was an outspoken deist, believing that an all-powerful God had established the world and the laws of nature, then allowed them to play out like a magnificent clockwork towards the fruition of a grand plan.
The concept that people are created is not unsupported by secular theories which do not rely on the guiding hand of an all-powerful God. In fact, people are literally created biologically by their parents and psychologically by their interactions with social and environmental factors throughout their lives (the nature vs. nurture debate is decidedly more nature and nurture than just one or the other). The meaning of the third clause translates best into modern English as “they are endowed by [virtue of their humanity]…” Itself a very broad statement that shares with the original an acknowledgement of the diverse nature of the human population. As with the claims of equality, this was something which was originally fairly limited in meaning, but when carried to its logical conclusion it is necessarily inclusive and universal.
When it comes to the “unalienable rights” people are endowed with, there is significant modern debate over precisely what rights are – and thus what it means for a government to protect them. Given the forms of taxation contemporary to the beginning of the American Revolution, the forced extraditions, and the animus tensions between colonists and the British military, it makes contextual sense for “rights”, which might have been seen more as privileges to the British government to be dispense by their authority, to be deemed “unalienable” in the Declaration as protest against the perception that such dispensed privileges were being infringed upon. Between this language and the subsequent debate after the Revolution between the authors of the Federalist Papers and the Antifederalist Papers, which lead to the passage of the Bill of Rights as explicit restrictions placed on the powers of government to protect the governed, the debate about what a “right” is has begun to assume, at least in form, that the powers granted to the government come at the people’s expense paid in freedoms. The insistence that there are “unalienable rights” that need protecting appears to have come to serve the growth of government powers to a degree that has gone far beyond the original issues the Revolution was supposed to have been fought to overcome.
Taken to its logical conclusion, the “unalienable” nature of certain rights should, in a philosophical sense, make such practices as incarceration untenable. The Due Process clauses of the 5th and 14th Amendments provide a legal argument against the logic, constitutionally providing governments with the tools to target specific parts of the populace and deprive them of rights otherwise considered “unalienable”. Like a grand game of bait-and-switch, Constitutional “rights” are held out to dazzle even the most adept observers while the authority of government has expanded into the spaces between explicit protections. It turns out that all rights are alienable, and the meat of the third clause was merely protest rhetoric.
Enumerated in the final clause of the sentence are the key unalienable rights, “that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” This phrasing bears striking resemblance to the protected rights described by John Locke just under a century before the Declaration was drafted. Locke’s list included “life, liberty, and property”. If there had been any question regarding which side of the contemporary social contract debate the Continental Congress was arguing from, so directly referencing Locke would have provided a firm answer. Thomas Hobbes’ depiction of the social contract as a king holding absolute power for the protection and welfare of his subjects was what the American Patriots wanted the British Crown to be seen as, so it made sense to portray themselves as part of the philosophical school that opposed Hobbes’ ideas.
Having a right to “life” is pretty straightforward; a claim that people are their own and not merely resources for exploitation. So, too, is the right to “liberty”; not only were arbitrary imprisonments common during the period of time before and during the Revolution, but the idea of restricting how colonists could interact economically both internationally and between colonies was a major threat to the planters and mercantilists throughout America who relied on their margins of profit to maintain not only their stations in society, but their livelihoods.
But why should the right to “property” used by Locke be replaced with a right to “the pursuit of Happiness”? Property is much more straightforward, and does a good job rhetorically pounding home the resistance against the myriad taxes which had been placed on the American colonists after the North American campaigns of the Seven Years War. Indeed, many academics today have argued that “property” and “pursuit of Happiness” are synonymous, somehow claiming that the pursuit of property is the more proper phrasing and that the Declaration is only worded differently from Locke so that it would appear more original. A common counter argument is that Jefferson in particular among the group who drafted the Declaration was advocating for an early form of the American Dream – that people should by right be free to live by their conscience so long as they do not prevent anyone else from doing the same.
The two sides need not be treated as diametric opposites, and they both describe part of a broader principle of human psychology: the desire for homeostatic equilibrium. It is unlikely that “the pursuit of Happiness” was somehow a deliberate anticipation of a psychological theorem only developed some two hundred years after the Declaration was written. But it does stand to reason that because both Jefferson and modern psychologists examined the same human condition, they might well have come to similar conclusions despite vastly differing methods. Regardless, the form of the Declaration has long-informed the way people think about the opinions and motivations of early American political philosophers and actors.
The Declaration of Independence was a significant work in the tradition of American political philosophy, and it has long been held up as evidence of a valid a priori depiction of how people should be governed. At best it shows how the political elites of the Revolutionary era wished to frame their support for war in the language of the English legal tradition. Any honest attempt to discern true first principles underlying human behavior must not be tied to a political rhetoric of any period in time, and instead focus on objective scientific studies of how people behave and interact both across the globe and throughout history.