Two Hundred and Twenty Seven Years Later, Declaration is Still Revered—and Threatened

Andrew E. Busch

July 1, 2003

The 227th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence gives Americans an opportunity to reflect on the fundamental principles of the American republic. While there are numerous important propositions advanced in the Declaration, three stand out as primary. On Independence Day, 2003, all three face a challenge of some magnitude. British Grenadiers are no longer the threat. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

1. Equality. The Declaration of Independence contends, in perhaps its most famous phrase, that “all men are created equal.” Contrary to revisionist mudslinging (which can be traced back to Stephen Douglas), the Founders did not mean simply all males, much less all white males or some subset of white males. They did indeed mean all humans. It was on the basis of this proposition that most of the original 13 states abolished slavery between 1776 and 1800, and that the Congress under the Articles of Confederation banned slavery in the Northwest Territories. It is also notable that when figures like John Calhoun and Alexander Stephens, the Confederate Vice President, sought to defend slavery, they felt compelled to reject the Declaration as flawed. But what exactly did the Founders mean by equality?

Certainly not equality of condition, either as a fact or as a goal. Certainly not equality of abilities, merit, or strength of moral character, which they recognized to be glaringly absent from the human condition. Rather, they meant foremost an equality of rights flowing from the state of nature, a certain equality of moral standing before God and man, which ought to translate into a fundamental equality under the law. This included the prohibition of artificially produced or maintained social inequality of the sort found in monarchies and hereditary titled aristocracies.

While this principle has never been perfectly attained, it has always served as a guiding inspiration for Americans and those who risked much to become Americans: Here was a country where what you did mattered more than who your father was. Today, this principle—while given lip service by almost all—is under consistent assault. Within the last two weeks, a bare majority of the U.S. Supreme Court declared that who your father was (the color of your skin) can properly be considered a more important factor in university admissions than what you do (the grades you achieve as a student). More insidious is the fact that this new vision of America—where equality under the law is supplanted by systematic racial discrimination—is now extolled by the intellectual and communications elite as progress.

2. Individual rights. The Declaration goes on to proclaim that people are “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men. ” Several key points can be gleaned from this passage. Fundamental rights are endowed by God, not by the state; governments can recognize and protect these rights, but governments can neither create the rights nor justly take them away. Indeed, the protection of these rights is the very purpose of government. These rights inhere in “men” (people) as individuals, not as members of particular groups. And liberty consists in being protected from the forceful depredations of others or of government itself.

Two associated dangers threaten this principle, and have for many years. First, just as affirmative action and the elevation of “diversity” (defined always by racial categories) undermine equality under the law, they also undermine the primacy of individual rights in favor of group rights. Second, since the onset of the New Deal, an alternative vision of rights has competed with (and sometimes dominated over) the vision laid out in the Declaration. That new vision advances the theory of “positive rights, ” in which the primary role of government is not to protect the lives, liberties, or property of citizens, but to give citizens a “right” to certain economic goods like income security, housing, or health care. At this moment, Congress is debating whether and how to create yet another costly entitlement program to provide seniors with a “right” to prescription drug coverage, paid for with other people’s work. It is not at all clear that Americans understand how incompatible the two visions are. Since there is no “right” to government provided health care in the state of nature, such a notion is completely alien to the Founders’ view of individual rights. Furthermore, such “rights” depend on massive redistribution of income, and thus cannot be enjoyed without infringing on the rights of others to be secure in the fruits of their labor. This zero-sum tendency of “positive rights” stands in marked contrast with natural rights like freedom of speech, freedom to be secure against invasions of one’s home, or freedom of religion, which can be exercised without negatively affecting anyone else’s rights. Both of these challenges—the rise of group rights and the continued strength of the notion of positive rights—stem from a single source, the powerful (and manifestly disastrous) current of collectivism that defined much of the twentieth century both at home and abroad.

3. Consent of the governed. Finally, the Declaration urges that the government which is formed to secure rights derives “its just powers from the consent of the governed. ” This principle also flows from equality, since no one can be governed by an equal except through his own agreement. To the Founders, this meant that government must be grounded in the great body of the people, even if many officers are derived from the people indirectly rather than directly, and must be accountable to them. There can be, of course, a tension between individual rights and consent expressed as majority rule, a tension which the Framers of the Constitution understood and worked hard to reconcile.

In 2003, the principle of consent also faces a multitude of challenges. The regulatory power of unelected and largely unaccountable bureaucracies and the unchecked power of a federal judiciary run amok are two of the greatest threats to self-government in America. One largely unaddressed feature of the affirmative action and sodomy cases is the degree to which their reasoning makes it inevitable that the power of the courts will continue to grow. In the affirmative action cases, the line between what is permissible (racist admissions policies that are sufficiently subtle) and what is not permissible (racist admissions policies that are not sufficiently subtle) is a purely subjective one that only the court itself can divine. It is not clear if, in 50 years, there will be anything left of American self-government when the law schools get through with it. Yet the elected branches refuse to stir themselves in the defense of the principle of consent.

These three principles—equality properly understood, individual rights undergirded by limited government, and consent of the governed—are what Americans fought a revolution to uphold. They are what Americans have fought Nazis, communists, jihadists, and (during the Civil War) other Americans to defend. As thoroughly etched as they are in our national history, it would do us well to remember that they are never more than one generation from extinction. As the Founders themselves observed, the ultimate defense of our liberty must rest not on any parchment but on the vigor of the people themselves.

Andrew E. Busch is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver, where he specializes in American government and politics. Dr. Busch is the author of Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom. He is also the co-author of The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election.