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The Foundation: The Declaration of Independence

Declaring Our Nation's Independence

Historians debate the extent to which the words of the Declaration of Independence reflect a well-considered political philosophy or whether they were essentially Jefferson’s rhetorical flourish. Whatever the case in 1776, generations of Americans have come to regard the Declaration as a nearly sacred text, providing the foundation of the relationship between American citizens and their government.

The crucial section of the Declaration says: “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.”

Each phrase is full of meaning:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident” – The great truths contained in the Declaration stand on their own. They are “self-evident” and require no supporting testimony or further evidence to prove their truth. They are foundational.

“All men are created equal.” – It took us time and a considerable amount of blood to get to the point where “all men” really means all men and all women, but we are there. Each individual has worth, and each should have opportunity.

“Endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights” – Our worth and our ‘rights’ come from our Creator – not from government, further establishing the foundational nature of the rights. Those rights cannot be taken away; they are inalienable, and they belong to each individual, not to a group or category of individuals, but to each person.

“Among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” - The list is not exclusive, but it includes the essentials. Our Creator gives us life; and He gives us liberty; and He gives us the opportunity to pursue happiness as each individual defines it. Of course, the right to pursue happiness is not the same as the right to have happiness provided to you. Pursuit is active. It is something you do that requires effort.

The Founder’s notion of liberty can be misunderstood. As Matthew Spalding writes in "We Still Hold These Truths," 2009.(p. 8-9)

“Liberty is the essential idea that is America. It is at once our greatest inheritance, our greatest achievement, and our greatest bequest to posterity.” There is a distinction between freedom and liberty. Freedom is a general lack of restraint. “But from the Founders’ view, freedom must be understood within the context of constitutional and moral order, which meant reasonable limits and cultural bounds. Liberty means the rightful exercise of freedom, the balancing of rights and responsibilities.”

“To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men”
– Thus, we come to the purpose of government – to secure or protect those Creator-given rights.

“Deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” – The powers of government to secure the Creator-given rights must be just, and they come from the consent of the people. Thus, the people loan to government some of the power given to the people by the Creator, but it is limited powers and only for the legitimate purposes of government.

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