133. A Crucial Philosophical Move in the Declaration of Independence
July 4, 2017
The framers of the Declaration of Independence knew they couldn’t justify a rebellion against the King of England given the Divine Right of Kings theory of government. According to this theory, Kings rule by divine right which means there can be no justified rebellion since God’s providence cannot be unjust. Indeed, the framers could have listed 10,000 grievances and their rebellion would still be unjustified in the eyes of those who accepted the King’s divine right to rule.
So how could they make a case for themselves? By presenting an alternative political philosophy which offered self-evident reasons in defense of a new general and fundamental vision of government. This philosophy is presented as a replacement of the Divine Right of Kings which, instead of denying the people the right to revolt, gives it to them:
“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.”
Many grievances against the King are subsequently listed to demonstrate how his tyrannical motives and acts contradict this new philosophical vision. And this contradiction, with the Divine Right of Kings removed, dispels any sense of unjust rebellion. So it is important to remember this philosophical moment in the Declaration and its role in shifting the very rules of the political game. The Revolutionary War wasn’t just a revolution against a government based on a set of grievances. It was a war fought to establish a new philosophical vision that made those grievances legitimate rather than illegitimate. Without this philosophical vision the Declaration wouldn’t be the coherent and powerful statement that it is. Thus we have yet another example of philosophy in action in which theory has tremendous practical consequences.
I will close with this helpful passage from Carl L. Becker’s book The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (Vintage, 1942):
“Thus the framers of the Declaration presented their case. Having formulated a philosophy of government which made revolution right under certain conditions, they endeavored to show that these conditions prevailed in the colonies, not on account of anything which the people of the colonies had done, or had left undone, but solely on account of the deliberate and malevolent purpose of their king to establish over them an ‘absolute tyranny.’ The people of the colonies must, accordingly, (such is the implication), either throw off the yoke or submit to be slaves. As between these alternatives, there could be but one choice for men accustomed to freedom.” (p. 16)