The Declaration of Independence had only one legal purpose: to break the ties between the American colonies and Great Britain. This Declaration was considered by George III to be a mere statement of opinion at best, an act of treason at worst.
The Declaration refers to “(T)hese united states.” Through this document, the American colonies became not so much a united nation as it did a federation of independent states. It was not until the Civil War, close to ninety years later, that these states were forged through blood into one nation.
Outside of its work in severing the ties with England, the Declaration was not designed as a legal document. The practical work of bringing natural law to American law was done later through the federal constitution and its various amendments.
Yet if the Declaration’s legal work was limited, it has since remained for us a declaration of principles. It declared not what governments are but what governments should be. It held that that nations are subject to the rule of law and the rights of liberty. It also mentioned the equality of all people, although its framers and their successors were for decades, even centuries, hesitant to act on this last principle.
A committee of five delegates was designated to draft the Declaration. On this committee were Robert Livingston, longtime chancellor of New York, and Roger Sherman, a judge and politician much interested in theological matters. Perhaps most prominent was Ben Franklin, the Philadelphia printer turned philosopher and scientist. But the Declaration was mainly the work of John Adams, one of our major political thinkers, and Thomas Jefferson, who did the lion’s share of the writing.
We were fortunate in our country’s founding that our political leaders were also our most brilliant thinkers. Forming the second continental congress were many of the colonies’ best lawyers, physicians, scientists and philosophers. If we pushed today for the leaders in physics, economics, technology, medicine and legal thought to also be our political leaders, the quality of our political discourse would be far different.
George Washington was not a scholar. He was a farmer, athlete, politician and soldier. But he was shrewd and open enough to surround himself with brilliant minds. His cabinet meetings were heated, with debates raging between Secretary of Commerce Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, but Washington knew that the fuller perspective provided by these debates helped him to better lead the country.
Our record in following the Declaration’s principles has been mixed. We have won just wars such as the Civil War and the Second World War, and have participated in and even started unjust wars. We have created the highest standard of living per person; yet at different times, including the last two decades, the differences between our social classes have been marked. We have, under some conditions honored human equality, yet our laws have often ignored and even legalized discrimination. We have perhaps the best legal system in the world, yet many of our higher and lower court decisions form a catalogue of injustices.
What then should we do? How should we respond to our mixed success? Should we celebrate the survival of our revolution-based government when most other revolution-based governments have failed? Should we be proud of our country? Or should we be critical of our government?
The appropriate response is to do all of these. A nation’s laws give its government control over citizens. A nation’s constitution gives its citizens control over their government. It is not merely our right but our duty to scrutinize and challenge our government.
Whatever their faults, our country’s founders sought from the new republic’s citizens an attitude of critical patriotism. Like Washington’s cabinet meetings, our national dialogue must be one of informed and continued debate. Only through critical patriotism can we realize the Declaration’s principles.