(Notes and queries at the end)
“We hold these truths to be self-evident (1), that all men (2) are created equal (3), that they are endowed by their Creator (4) with certain unalienable rights (5), that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (6), that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men (7), deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed (8), that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it (9), 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 (10)”
(1) Obviously these “truths” cannot be proved in any way, however desirable they might be!
(2) What about women? Are they included?
(3) The obvious question that arises here is “what about the slaves in Virginia?” Thomas Jefferson, who wrote most of this document, was a slave-owner, and it led Dr. Johnson to remark in his anti-American pamphlet “Taxation no Tyranny”, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” Indeed the whole question of slavery was buried for the time being, for how else could slave-owning Virginia unite with free New England against British rule? But there is more to the question than just the slavery issue. In what sense is everyone equal? It is quite obvious that some people are bigger and stronger than others, some are cleverer than others, some have more musical talent than others, and so forth (for that matter, women as a class are physically smaller and weaker than men as a class. It is no longer accepted that black people as a class are less intelligent than white people, though there may be empirical evidence that they are better at certain sports). How much do these differences matter, and what should result from them? It is generally accepted that people of superior talents may justifiably claim commensurately greater rewards, such as higher pay, and it would be wrong for untalented people to earn the same rewards as the gifted (“Equality of outcome“). But all should have an equal chance to make the best use of their talents (“Equality of opportunity“), with all forms of racial or sexual discrimination being inherently wrong. Furthermore everyone, regardless of race, gender, wealth or talent, must have an equal claim to justice, and in principle no-one without good cause may claim preferential treatment, or natural authority over another person. (The last political creed to deny fundamental equality was Fascism) How far real equality can ever exist is debatable: the Marxists, for instance, maintained that equality was a sham as long as society was divided into rich and poor - especially since both riches and poverty tend to be hereditary. Thus, how can there be equal justice for all when rich people can afford better lawyers? How can there be equality of opportunity through education when rich people can afford to send their children to expensive fee-paying schools?
(4) There is virtually no mention of God in the entire document. The 18th century was not an age of faith. Thomas Jefferson was at best a Deist rather than a Christian believer; that is, he accepted the likely existence of a God, but not any more detailed religious doctrines. The USA was from its inception an entirely secular state. At the same time, however, it does seem that these human rights stem ultimately from God. This revives the famous mediaeval doctrine of "Natural Law". So a philosopher like Thomas Aquinas might have put it this way: it cannot possibly be in accordance with God's will that innocent people should be executed or imprisoned, and states which behave in this unjust fashion are clearly going against God's command. John Locke (see below) derived his doctrine of "Natural Rights" from "Natural Law", and therefore ultimately from God.
(5) This means “rights which may not legitimately be taken away from you”. (But see note 9)
(6) Most of the rest of the paragraph is lifted directly from John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government”, written in England a century before. Locke’s three basic human rights were life, liberty and the possession of property; the Americans changed the last one to the rather vague phrase “the pursuit of happiness”.
(7) As the European explorers ventured overseas in the 16th and 17th centuries they discovered Stone Age tribes who had no towns, no metals, no written languages and even no agriculture. This was something new to the Europeans: nothing in Classical literature, or the Bible, or their contacts with the Islamic world had prepared them for this. It set the intellectuals wondering whether their own ancestors had once lived like this, and they coined the term “State of Nature” for life before civilisation. But how had the first governments emerged from the State of Nature? It could only be through the people getting together and agreeing to have a government, because they believed that their lives would be better as a result. This hypothetical agreement was called the “Social Contract”, or the “Original Contract”. The most famous writers on the Social Contract were Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.
(8) “Government by consent”. Governmental authority is only legitimate insofar as the people agree to it. As one 18th century radical, John Wilkes, put it, the people only “lend” their rulers the authority to govern. This loan may be recalled! But notice also that the word "democracy" appears nowhere in the document. This is because it was not then a word in common use. Rousseau revived the word in his "Social Contract", but used it to mean a type of government where the mass of the people take all the key decisions, and pointed out that this was extremely rare and probably impractical. He called our system of government "elective aristocracy". (See my essay on "Rousseau definitions" for more on this point)
(9) The sole justification for government, Locke argued, is that the people’s right to life, liberty and property is better protected under government than in a state of nature. For this reason we agree to restrain our natural freedom by living under laws. Those who break the laws may justly be deprived of some of their natural rights: for instance, those who commit crimes may thus forfeit their right to liberty (suffering imprisonment) or to property (fines) or even their right to life (execution). This is necessary in order to protect the rights of the peaceful, law-abiding citizens. But it is quite different if a tyrannous government imprisons or executes citizens without good cause or due process of law, because in such a case the citizens are worse off than they would be in a state of nature, which is illogical. A tyrannous government has broken the social contract, and the citizens have every right to rebel and institute a new social contract in the place of the old one. In answer to the crucial question, “Who decides whether the government has broken the social contract?” Locke gives a truly radical answer, “The people shall decide” The American Declaration of Independence follows this doctrine. The remainder of the document consists of a long series of complaints against King George III personally (“He has done this” …. “He has done that”) in order to justify the argument that the king has broken the social contract and his American subjects therefore have the right to renounce their obedience and start again.
(10) In Britain, theories of natural rights, a social contract and the right to resist were the basis of the political creed of Whiggism, in opposition to Toryism, which stressed the duty to obey the king and the established church. Dr Johnson, a lifelong Tory, once said that the first Whig was the Devil!
There is a story that, some years ago, an airline security guard heard a hippy-looking passenger reading out loud something about the right to rebel. Fearing that this man might be a terrorist or hi-jacker, the guard confronted him and asked, "What's that Commie trash you're reading?" and was informed that the man was reading the United States Declaration of Independence! The guard spoke truer than he realised!