Reflections on the Declaration of Independence, Part 1

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, –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.

The above, of course, are the words of the Declaration of Independence, ratified by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, two days after the Congress voted to declare independence from Great Britain. These words, written by Thomas Jefferson, provide the justification for the British colonies of North America declaring their independence. In doing so, the Congress made some rather remarkable claims that are worth noting on this, the 245th anniversary of that august day. Some of their claims, I dare say, would be challenged today, even by some Americans.

The first claim is, perhaps, the most notorious, certainly in today’s relativistic cultural mix. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” The notion that there is truth, and that truth can be known, is one of the more challenged concepts of post-modernism, to which so many of our countrymen and countrywomen have dedicated themselves. In point of fact, so many of our contemporaries deny that there is truth, or at least objective truth — that is, truth that is true for all, regardless of circumstances. If there is objective truth, moderns say, it cannot be known. What can be known is my truth, and your truth, his truth and her truth. At best there might be their truth, that is, the truth shared by a particular identifiable group. It may be that each person’s subjective truth is the only truth there is, according to the modern mind. But, our founding fathers disagreed. They held that there was objective truth and, what is more, it can be known and, in fact, is self-evident to anyone who cares to consider the truth. Coming from a Western civilization steeped in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition and supplemented by the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, the idea that there is objective truth and that that truth can be known was simply obvious to them. How could it be otherwise? Must each truth claim be investigated independently of knowledge gained in previous generations? Must each moral question be considered on its own merits, independent of any tradition of human dignity or right and wrong?

That brings us straight up to the next revolutionary claim: “… that all men are created equal …” Ah, there it is! The central hypocrisy of the Declaration that so many of its critics now point to (thinking they are the first to notice?). How could it be that the founding fathers declared that all men are created equal when they certainly didn’t believe it, based on the practice of slavery, or denying women the vote? Here, perhaps, it’s good to remember that the Declaration of Independence is a founding document, and not one that reflects the actions and progress of a people over the course of a long history. The Declaration didn’t free the slaves. It did, however, lay a philosophical and political foundation on which the ending of slavery and the freedom of all could be built. There is no denying that, and those that do deny it are only ignoring the historical realities of the day. Abraham Lincoln long cited the Declaration as the political foundation on which emancipation rested, long before he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. Here, again, we must consider the first claim on which the second is built: that there is objective truth and that that truth can be known. On what basis, for instance, did those founding fathers, such as Benjamin Franklin, who questioned the institution of slavery do so? On their personal opinion? Hardly. They opposed slavery because they recognized the African as a person and, as a person, one with dignity independent of his or her circumstances, ethnic origin, or the proclivities of the slaver. Where they compromised, they did so on the hope that the Declaration at least laid the foundation for future generations to reconsider the question and realize the promise it held. This is what so many current critics of the founding fathers and the Declaration miss. Demanding that those who lived at a time when the full recognition of the dignity of all was an impossible expectation, for the founding fathers as well as the people of Europe, Asia, and Africa, they condemn them for what they failed to do and fail to recognize what they managed to do — lay a foundation for the promise of the Declaration to be fulfilled, if not in their day, than some day. The fact that no other people on the face of the earth at the time were willing to claim what they claimed in writing is somehow missed by those who expect men of 250 years ago to have lived up to a challenge we so often fail to live up to today. That American moderns, and moderns of nearly every “civilized” society, reject the dignity of the one in the womb reveals the hole in their argument by which they condemn the founding fathers. Does anyone believe that the movement to limit or abolish slavery in the United States would have emerged as quickly and strongly as it did were those words … all men are created equal … never included in the Declaration of Independence? Indeed, they proved the match that lit the wick that set off the forces that ended slavery. Would that today they should inspire an end to abortion and human trafficking.

I’ll have to continue this reflection on another day, or else it will be twenty pages long! There is a lot more to think about from those few sentences. I hope you’ll join me and give some feedback. It’s good to consider from where we came in hopes of discerning where we should be going.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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