July 8, 2020


A Declaration of Interdependence: Rereading the American Declaration of 1776 (Jonathan English, July 8th, 2020, Imaginative Conservative)

First, while engaging in social and political initiative, the Declaration expresses a sense of humble human dependence on divine providence for assistance. In its closing sentence, it asserts that the representatives act with "a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence." Further, the Declaration conceives of ultimate authority and justice as belonging to the Supreme Judge, as the Declaration "appeal[s] to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions." Finally, and most famously, the Declaration locates the source of inalienable human rights firmly in the Creator, declaring, "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." (Martin Luther King, Jr. would later identify this text as the American creed, essential to the American dream.[4]) Thus, the Declaration expresses a dependence on the Creator or Supreme Judge, an understanding that equal dignity and respect for rights are required by God, and a conviction that violations of those rights, through action or "intention," are ultimately subject to divine judgment. The sense conveyed is that recognition of this authority counsels respect for human rights and dignity.

Second, the Declaration stresses empathetic, energetic dependence on one another. In its first sentence, the Declaration speaks of the people of all thirteen colonies as being "one people." In the second paragraph, they are referred to as "the People," in the last paragraph as "the good People." Most explicitly, in the final sentence of the Declaration, the signers "mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." They were highly dependent on one another--economically, politically, and psychologically for support and continued existence. To state the obvious, the signers put pen to paper; they did not adopt the Declaration anonymously. Thus, if captured, they could have faced execution as traitors to the British crown. So, to say they mutually pledged to each other their lives was not overstatement. It was a sober statement made in the context of war. Finally, it was a unanimous declaration. Every state eventually approved the resolution for independence. While not every state was ready to approve the Lee Resolution when it was first introduced on June 7th, by the following month, all states agreed. This feeling of mutual dependence resonated in pithy existential expression with republication of Franklin's political cartoon of a severed snake, representing the ultimate consequence of disunited colonies/states. Its caption: "Join, or Die."

Of course, while the Declaration articulates and models interdependence in this way, where each citizen depends on others but also has a corollary responsibility to contribute to society, this is not to negate the strong current of individual initiative and freedom constitutive of the United States. One source of this strength and initiative came from America's continuous stream of enterprising immigrants. America was built largely by immigrants, individuals who fled persecution in search of freedom, who often possessed great initiative and entrepreneurialism. (Which makes the current administration's general antipathy toward immigrants and aversion to refugees so remarkable, counterproductive, and inconsistent with American principles, in many respects.) Another reason for this significant role of individual responsibility in America relates to its democratic and limited form of government. In order to protect freedom and rights, the government of the United States was always understood to be a limited government, with only enumerated powers. Thus, citizens within society bore a moral responsibility towards others. Regarding the duty of charity inherent in morality and justice, John Locke's influential treatise had strong words: "it would always be a sin, in any man of estate, to let his brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty."[5] And as John Adams wrote, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."[6]

Third, the Declaration emphasizes the dependence of government on both the just exercise of power and on the consent of the governed. In other words, government is dependent on its relationship with the governed--its treatment of individuals and its respect for rights--for both legitimacy and survival. And, as a corollary, it is dependent on its respect for higher natural law, "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God." One of the self-evident truths asserted in the Declaration is the idea that "to secure these [unalienable] rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." From this follows the Declaration's next assertion: "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 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." This point about government legitimacy flowing from justice and consent is central to the document's argument.

Posted by at July 8, 2020 5:32 PM