While the Declaration of Independence may be linked in the popular imagination with notions of unfettered freedom and autonomy, in reality, the Declaration is greatly concerned with relationships, interrelationships, mutuality, and obligations. These relationships are governed by preexisting, inalienable natural rights and justice.

In the beginning, the title was not the Declaration of Independence. Though that is how the Declaration of July 4, 1776 would come to be known in the shorthand of history. While it did declare independence from Britain, nevertheless, looking back at the Declaration with fresh eyes, it is possible to say that in many ways the Declaration is a Declaration of Dependence. Or at least of Interdependence. And Rights and Obligations. The following brief reexamination offers readers entertaining historical diversion. Yet more than mere diversion, it aims to offer illumination, and an impulse for rehabilitation, renewal, reweaving of frayed familial ties.

As far as titles are concerned, the title of the Declaration in the engrossed parchment copy signed by the fifty-six signers (in August 1776) is The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America. The title of the earlier Dunlap Broadside copy printed on July 4th, 1776 is A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress Assembled.

The colonies had already declared independence. Before July 4th, the Lee Resolution of July 2, 1776 had already declared, or resolved, independence. Thus, the Declaration was intended not simply to announce independence but to justify it legally and philosophically, to gain greater consensus for it, and to act as a diplomatic appeal to the international community.

Declaration Reexamined

While the Declaration may be linked in the popular imagination with notions of unfettered freedom and autonomy, in reality, the Declaration is greatly concerned with relationships, interrelationships, mutuality, and obligations.[1] It conceives of individuals and states as positioned among relationships that involve ethical and legal obligations, requiring honor and respect.[2] Moreover, these relationships are governed by preexisting, inalienable natural rights and justice. No one may justly declare independence from that higher law.[3] A government may not do so to tyrannize its citizens. A citizen may not do so to unjustly rebel. Notably, in its articulation of these rights and relationships, the Declaration speaks of dependence on or interdependence with several specific entities.

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.

In a sense, the Declaration’s enactment of a legal right “to alter or to abolish” an existing form of government when it becomes destructive of natural, inalienable rights marked a new development in history.[7] Yet in another sense, the assertion had quite ancient underpinnings across the world. In ancient China, and through its long history, the ruler could lose Heaven’s mandate through unjust treatment of his subjects. As Mencius said, “Heaven does not create people for the sake of the sovereign. Heaven made the sovereign for the sake of the people.” And before Mencius, when the Shang dynasty was replaced, the Duke of Zhou announced, “Now look at the Shang; Heaven guided them, nourished them, so that they would strive to comprehend what Heaven favors; but now they have let their Mandate fall to the ground.” In ancient Israel, too, rulers at times were subject to divine judgment for gross injustice, according to reports of biblical prophets and historians. In 1 Kings, for example, because Solomon repeatedly violated God’s decrees and covenant, God promises, “I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates.”[8] Though, the prophecy adds, for the sake of Solomon’s father David, this would not occur until Solomon’s own son came to the throne.

Fourth, the Declaration recognizes international obligations, within an inevitable context of international relationships. In its first paragraph, the Declaration affirms an obligation to treat with respect international opinion. It asserts, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind require that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” Significantly, the Declaration is largely framed as speaking to an international audience. It states, immediately before its litany of the British government’s “injuries and usurpations”: “To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.” Thus, the first declaratory act of the new people and nation was a diplomatic one. In part, this was a practical choice, as the new nation sought aid and allies. But it also reflected legal and ethical considerations as well, as the people sought recognition “among the powers of the earth” of their “separate and equal station.”

Thus, in the Declaration’s foundational vision, the people of a nation are to some extent interdependent on one another, the governed and the government bear related obligations, and all ultimately depend on the creator, being answerable to the supreme judge of the world. Indeed, to an extent, the Declaration is actually a constitutional and rights declaring document for the United States.[9]

Declaration as Education and Inspiration

Almost two centuries later, Martin Luther King, Jr. echoed these themes of the Declaration when he wrote:

We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.[10]

Properly understood and informed by the Declaration, the American dream is not one of wealth, though economic opportunity and freedom are bound up in it. The American dream is one of fully honored equal rights and dignity.[11] According to Dr. King, as noted earlier, the American creed and the American dream are located in the famous words of the Declaration: “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.”[12] About this hope-filled dream of equal rights and equal justice, Dr. King wrote, “With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”[13]

As Dr. King suggested, reexamination of and rededication to the Declaration’s principles can unite all Americans in mutual respect for our equal dignity and rights. They are “saving principles,” as Frederick Douglass said; “cling to this day—cling to it, and to its principles.”[14] Achieving this, as Lincoln said, requires a rededication “to the proposition that all men are created equal,” which in turn requires a renewed understanding and appreciation of that Declaration.[15] With this renewed study of the Declaration, we can discern how the remarkable moral power of the Declaration works in several ways. In closing, consider just two.

First, the Declaration is unique in its ability to balance both conservative and liberal tendencies. On one hand, it seeks to preserve rights. It defends what were seen as longstanding rights under English constitutional law from encroachment by the government (though framing the rights more broadly as natural rights and part of natural law, given the nation’s newfound separation from England). Similarly, it anchors these “unalienable” rights in the eternal, in God and the equal dignity given by God.[16] And it soberly recognizes that in the long term, governments and nations or peoples are accountable to God for violations of rights and justice.[17] In this framing, the Declaration appealed to agreed-upon principles and values.

And on the other hand, already faced with war, the Declaration daringly ventures to declare independence, putting into practice a right that before had primarily only been articulated in theory. Likewise, the Declaration declares an equality and inalienability of rights that the founders inevitably knew had yet to be fully realized and protected. The “peculiar” hypocritical institution of slavery was a national shame, the country’s “original sin,” as some have called it. Inalienable rights were regularly alienated and denied. Tragically, long years of struggle were required to end slavery and begin realizing the dream of equal rights, dignity, and justice. But the self-evident aspirational principle was always there, resounding in eloquent oratory, in the beginning.

Finally, the Declaration offers exemplary power in its pledge of sacrificial mutual support founded on a recognition of equality. To protect their nation, the signers pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. (Admittedly, this pledge came in the midst of war, yet it is probably safe to say the founders’ sense of responsibility to the nation outlived this wartime context.) Behind this pledge, as noted earlier, lay the “obligation to mutual love amongst men” founded on the self-evident “equality of men by nature.”[18] In short, love one another, as Jesus said.[19] “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not want,” as Confucius said.[20] Or, as in the maxim of the Apostle Peter, “Honor everyone.”[21] And in the saying of the Apostle Paul, “Outdo one another in showing honor.”[22] “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”[23]

In other words, the Declaration calls us to question and elevate our own character, so we can better respect others. Do we treat others with dignity and equality? Do we protect rights? Do we hear and care for others? Do we fulfill our own responsibilities? As we celebrate American independence, not only should we appreciate the historical and philosophical foundations of the Declaration, along with its inspired language, and the rights recognized therein; we should also, as an inextricable part of that celebration honoring the Declaration, recognize and remedy ways we as a nation have failed to honor those fundamental natural rights. To take one example, we should come to understand the particular suffering and infringement of rights inflicted on African Americans through the course of American history—slavery, family separation, religious persecution, lynching, segregation, redlining, double-consciousness, voter suppression, and unequal policing and prosecution.[24] Or to take another example, we would do well to acquaint ourselves with the Trail of Tears and the trail of broken treaties and broken promises handed to Native Americans over the course of American history. At a minimum, by knowing what others have faced, as America only partially and unequally fulfilled its dream, we can grow closer together as a nation, better positioning ourselves to know and love others. In doing so, we can then realize the American dream and the Beloved Community, achieving a freedom (self-)bounded and bonded by brotherly love.[25]

Clearly, declarations are easier to voice than live out. But, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, with faith in the American dream, “we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will [all] be free one day.”[26]

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Notes:

[1] For example, John Locke clarifies in his highly influential (particularly for Jefferson, the Declaration’s principal author) Second Treatise of Government: “Freedom then is not what Sir Robert Filmer tells us, Observations, A. 55. a liberty for every one to do what he lists, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws: but freedom of men under government is, to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, where the rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man: as freedom of nature is, to be under no other restraint but the law of nature.” Two Treatises of Government, 2.22.

[2] Locke credited Richard Hooker with enunciating a basic “obligation to mutual love amongst men [founded on the self-evident “equality of men by nature”], on which he builds the duties they owe one another, and from whence he derives the great maxims of justice and charity.” Two Treatises of Government, 2.5. To borrow from Martin Luther King, Jr., the founders were “cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states,” though they (hypocritically) did not all honor and protect all communities and individuals equally. Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963.

[3] As Locke wrote, “Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm.” Two Treatises of Government, 2.202.

[4] “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream, Aug. 28, 1963.

[5] He continues: “As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty, as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise: and a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity, to force him to become his vassal, by with-holding that relief, God requires him to afford to the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and with a dagger at his throat offer him death or slavery.” Two Treatises of Government, 1.42.

[6] John Adams, Letter to Massachusetts Militia, Oct. 11 1798.

[7] John Locke, for one, had articulated this legal right almost a century earlier. See Two Treatises of Government, 2.202. In this sense, America did not articulate something new in its Declaration; it simply put this right into practice.

[8] See I Kings 11:11-13, 29-39.

[9] The Constitution itself refers back to the originating or constitutive act of the Declaration by dating the nation and the signing of the Constitution from the July 4, 1776 Declaration—i.e. dating the signing of the Constitution as occurring “in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth” (emphasis added). And the Constitution achieved ratification in large part due to an agreement during the ratification process to enumerate specific protected rights in a Bill of Rights, rights which were largely contained explicitly or implicitly in the Declaration of Independence. Though it was also thought that the Constitution already protected the natural rights inherent in the Declaration. According to Jefferson, “The Declaration of Independence… [is the] declaratory charter of our rights, and of the rights of man.” Letter to Samuel Adams Wells, 1819.

[10] Martin Luther King, Jr., Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, March 31, 1968.

[11] President Calvin Coolidge made this point as well. “It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man—these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause.” Speech on the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 5, 1926.

[12] Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream, Aug. 28, 1963.

[13] He continued: “With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.” Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream, Aug. 28, 1963.

[14] Frederick Douglass, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, July 5, 1852.

[15] Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, Nov. 19, 1863.

[16] An idea echoed in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon, Rediscovering Lost Values, Feb. 28, 1954.

[17] An idea Abraham Lincoln famously contemplated in his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, a month before the Civil War ended.

[18] John Locke (paraphrasing Richard Hooker), Two Treatises of Government, 2.5.

[19] John 13:34.

[20] Analects, 15.24.

[21] 1 Peter 2:17.

[22] Romans 12:10.

[23] Philippians 2:4.

[24] Frederick Douglass makes a similar point in his speech What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? “While drawing encouragement from ‘the Declaration of Independence,’ the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions,” he spoke with “blasting reproach” and “stern rebuke”, asserting that “the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.” July 5, 1852.

[25] Again, in this endeavor of self-restraint and binding people together, religion and morality were considered critical. (The word religion itself comes from a Latin word that means to bind together.) The earlier quote from John Adams expressed this conviction. Likewise, Washington’s Farewell Address (drafted by Alexander Hamilton) stressed the essential role of religion and morality as the “firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.” Contemporaneous with the Constitution, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 stated that because “[r]eligion, morality, and knowledge” are “necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Closer to our own time, Dr. King similarly appealed to the philosophical and religious principles of the Declaration in extolling the American dream and the Beloved Community. For similar practical reasons, it remains important that we all, whether students or citizens, study the minimal philosophical principles supporting the rights in both the Declaration and the Constitution.

[26] Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream, Aug. 28, 1963.

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