We now commence the annual national ritual of noticing that the Declaration of Independence is among the "founding" documents that gave birth to the country. And pundits, following innumerable scholars for 150 years, will twist and mangle the text to discern some other meaning from the document besides the obvious one.
In most parts of the world, the Declaration is understood as a bold announcement and explanation, with an underlying rationale of why the British government needed to be thrown off in an act of American secession. That's why the Eastern Europeans throwing off Soviet tyranny used it as their charter and moral mandate. But right here at home, the Declaration has few real friends. Those who invoke it do so by explaining it as something else.
The industry of twisting the Declaration's clear meaning began only a few years after it was written, as the Federalist camp worked to treat it as a mandate for forming a new central government. The Anti-Federalists, especially Patrick Henry, regarded the Constitution as a step away from the ideals articulated by Jefferson.
Why? The Declaration threw off a powerful central government; 11 years later, the Constitution formed one. Indeed, Jefferson himself was no great enthusiast for the Constitution. It was written in his absence, and he only acceded to it on the assumption that the states could escape the union if they chose and the Constitution be amended if the new government threatened to become despotic. It turned out that the first large-scale test of his wish (1860) came only after the central government had accumulated enough power to annul the Declaration.
Federalist distortions were nothing compared with the brazen misrepresentations pushed by President Lincoln. In his hands, the Declaration became nothing more than an affirmation of the equality of all men. It was a rhetorical tactic designed to counter the view held by most people in the South that their secession was nothing but a renewal of the original spirit of the Declaration. Just as the American revolutionaries threw off the British yoke, the South would throw off the Northern yoke.
How could Lincoln promote the Declaration while crushing the right to self-government? There is no better way to counter your opponent's best argument than by taking it up yourself on behalf of a contrary cause. Today this is called triangulation, and it worked as well in the 19th century as it has in the Clinton years.
Clinton frequently decried the big government programs of the Republicans even as he pushed big government programs himself. He even (shudder) invokes the name of Jefferson.
The distortions have grown worse as the years have progressed. One faction of the radical left interprets the Declaration as a pre-Marxian revolutionary statement. Another faction treats it as a fraud perpetuated by business elites concerned only for profits. The soft left touts the material in the document about equality. American Tories decry the Declaration's invocations of universal abstractions like human rights, while Straussian neoconservatives see it as a mandate for civil rights and global militarism.
Thank goodness we still have the text itself!
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.
Thus we see that the invocation of equality serves a specific purpose: it underscores the point that no man has a mandate from God to rule over other men. That is why a king, even if his name is Lincoln or Clinton, is not a superior moral agent with rights over the people apart from their consent. No man is endowed with rights superior to anyone else; that is the original American credo.
Next we find that government's power is not prior to the people; its powers are only just when the people institute the government and continue to consent to those powers. When government becomes the enemy of rights, it can be tossed out. Rights are permanent, intrinsic features of men (all men); governments are expedients that can come and go according to the people's wish. Rights cannot be altered or abolished; governments can.
When? "When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security." Thus we find that throwing off government is not only an option; it can also be a positive moral duty.
Indeed, Jefferson, the author of the Declaration, thought that governments should be abolished from time to time just for good measure. He wrote to Abigail Adams just before the Constitution was ratified, "The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive." He sympathized with the people, not the government, during Shay's Rebellion and said "God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion."
Reading on in the Declaration, we find an enormous amount of complaints that revolve around economic issues: taxes, tariffs, revenue investigations, and the like. The British are accused of "cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world" and "imposing Taxes on us without our Consent."
This fact has caused the revisionists on the left to claim that this glorified revolt was nothing other than a fit thrown by the propertied classes. There's a kernel of truth here. Economic liberty and property rights in particular are the foundation of all other liberties. If people are not secure in their earnings and enterprises, there can be no liberty at all (a point obliterated by the ACLU). Other debunkers point out that the infringements against economic liberty were minor, especially as compared with today. But that fact only underscores the point that Jefferson was right: we need more, not fewer, revolutions.
But why did Jefferson say we have rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," rather than use the Lockean phrase "life, liberty, and property?" As Murray N. Rothbard points out in Conceived in Liberty, Jefferson was compressing George Mason's sentence from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which said that among man's natural rights "are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety." There is no pursuing happiness without property rights.
Also in the text, we find an impassioned hatred of the central government's military and police as instruments of tyranny. The British are accused of quartering troops without the people's permission, of making the military power separate from and superior to the civilian power, and of using "large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny." But now that both left and right are in love with the military (for domestic as well as foreign purposes), these attitudes have fallen completely out of favor with the pundit class.
Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone is right that "Jefferson's words should make tyranny tremble in any age. They have alarmed conservatives' minds in his own land in every generation, and some compatriots of his have regretted that the new Republic was dedicated to such radical doctrines as its birth."
Frank Chodorov was one of the few to write on the Declaration to get it right, so let's let him have the last word, from his 1945 essay, "Thomas Jefferson, Rebel!"
"It is not at all the charter of a new nation. It is a rationalization of rebellion. The indictment of the British crown was but a springboard from which Jefferson launched a political principle: that government, far from being an end in itself, is but an instrument invented by man to aid him in bettering his circumstances, and when that instrument fails to function properly it is high time to kick it out. And, which is most important, he meant ANY government, not only the particular one which at that time engaged his attention."
Any government. Anytime.
See also The Growth of Libertarian Thought in Colonial America by Murray N. Rothbard.