That is an excellent essay. -
Great essay! I’ll include info in our Constitution presentations!
Thanks for sharing. His article is very concise.
He simplified some of the words in the
Declaration of Independence for those younger readers.
- South Carolina
The Relationship Between the
Declaration of Independence and the Constitution
By Thomas Wheatley
If I asked you what the most important document in American history is, you might be inclined to say the Constitution.
It wouldn’t be a crazy answer, given how often the Constitution is referenced in the news, popular culture, and our political system.
But what if I told you that although the Constitution is important, the document that best embodies the American spirit is the one tied to the most famous date in American history? On July 4, 1776, the Founders signed the Declaration of Independence, and in doing so, declared to Great Britain that Americans would be subject to their rule no more.
Most people know at least that much; that’s why we celebrate the Fourth of July. But the Declaration of Independence is more than just a statement of national liberation. It’s the clearest, most salient expression of America’s very soul.
Consider the Declaration’s most famous passage: “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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Let’s break that down.
“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.”
This is a powerful observation based on something called “natural law.” “Natural law” is something distinct from written, or “positive” law. Think of it this way: You don’t get your sense of right and wrong from the laws enacted by our government. Instead, there are absolute moral truths you follow that are so obvious they are said to be “self-evident.” For example, you don’t need Congress to pass a law to know that murder and stealing are wrong.
Now what about “all men are created equal”? Although this language has been subject to much self-serving distortion over the years, its meaning is fairly straightforward. Because every person is bound to follow one overriding moral code, no person—man or woman—may justly establish superiority over another. This is why as Americans, we reject the notion of a King or Queen—no person has the requisite superiority to hold such a position.
Recall I said that all people are “bound” to follow one moral code. You might ask, bound by whom? The Declaration’s text immediately provides an answer: God. “Endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” means we receive our rights under natural law—and our obligation to follow them—from a higher power. Moreover, because these rights come from our Creator, and because all people are equally subordinate to their Creator, our rights are “unalienable,” meaning no person may deprive another—or even themselves—of those rights (unless it’s to vindicate or defend their rights against intrusion, but that’s a topic for another day).
By the way, just because the Declaration refers to a “Creator” doesn’t mean it requires adherence to any one faith, or indeed to any faith at all. Instead, it just requires acceptance of the idea that rights do not come from the government or any man-made law, but from a higher power.
Although most of the Founders were religious, the theory of natural law has a long history going back to ancient Greece. Indeed, some theorists believed that natural rights came from Nature, not God. The point is, America is an exceptional country because we proceed on the basis that we are all born with preexisting rights that our government can’t take away from us, whether we’re religious or not.
Moving on, next there’s “that among these [rights] are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, many of his thoughts were not original. Here, Jefferson borrowed from the political philosopher John Locke, who listed “life, liberty, and estate” as the trinity of freedom. Also important is the phrase “among these.” The unalienable rights Jefferson names are only a few examples, not an exhaustive list.
Now what about the Constitution? That’s covered by the last phrase I mentioned: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The Constitution puts the ideas of the Declaration of Independence into practice; it is the roadmap by which our government “secures” our rights. And where does government get its power? From the consent of the governed—the people.
It’s important not to miss how the flow of power is structured when each document is examined in its proper context: God (or Nature) endows the people with rights, and the people create a government to secure those rights against infringement by others. In other words, God (or Nature) has power over We the People, and We the People have power over the government.
So there you have it. The Constitution, although vastly important, is not the source of American exceptionalism. Instead, the Constitution serves to effectuate the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence, principles for which our Founders pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to uphold.
Thomas Wheatley is an attorney and writer living in Arlington, Virginia. He is a contributor to The Hill, the Washington Post, and other major publications. He was a 2016 Publius Fellow at the Claremont Institute. Follow him on Twitter @TNWheatley.