Introduction to the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States
David J. Bobb
Director, Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship
Lecturer in Political Science, Hillsdale College
When in 1863 Abraham Lincoln began his address at Gettysburg battlefield with the phrase, “Four score and seven years ago,” he reminded his fellow citizens that their cause in the Civil War was also the cause of 1776. In the year of America’s birth, Lincoln stated, “Our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
By recalling the year 1776, in which America declared its independence from Great Britain, Lincoln reminds us that the Constitution of 1789 stands upon the principles of our Declaration of Independence.
America’s bedrock principles are liberty and equality. The American understanding of their relationship was revolutionary, for the American Revolution was a revolution of ideas.
The Declaration affirms the revolutionary idea that all human beings are created equal in their possession of “certain unalienable rights.” These rights include “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” They are given to human beings by “Nature’s God”—not by government. Because the government does not give these rights to human beings, the Declaration argues, no government can take them away.
These “natural rights” are an individual’s most precious property, the American founders believed. Government’s primary purpose is to protect these fundamental rights.
The Declaration, drafted by the 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson, is an indictment of a government that had betrayed its purpose. Instead of protecting his subjects’ rights, King George III routinely violated them. Rejecting their status as subjects to a king who had become a “tyrant,” Americans declared to the world that they now stood proudly as citizens of a new nation.
Citizenship requires self-government above all else. Americans, James Madison wrote under the pen name Publius, “rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”
The United States Constitution, of which Madison is rightly called its “father,” is the written result of America’s early “political experiments.” Drawing from their own colonial experience and the history of other regimes through the ages, the framers of the American constitution founded a new regime—a regime of liberty.
The regime, or form of our government, is republican. Its end, or purpose, is liberty. A republic as framed in the American Constitution is founded on the people’s consent. It requires not that the people rule directly but rather that they are directly responsible for electing their representatives. These representatives, in turn, are responsible to the people.
Asked about what kind of government the secretive Constitutional Convention of 1787 had produced in its long summer deliberations in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin famously responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Keeping a republic requires the people to keep the government’s duties limited. For that reason the Constitution delineates the duties of each branch of government—legislative, executive, and judicial. Ensuring that liberty would be protected required a regime in which the powers of government were separated. Any other arrangement threatened liberty.
“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny,” Madison, writing as Publius, argued in the Federalist, the authoritative defense of the Constitution he co-authored with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.
Madison’s concise definition of tyranny draws upon the ideas of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. It also is indebted to what Hamilton called a “great improvement” in the science of politics.
Like Madison’s definition of tyranny, the Constitution is the product of wisdom both ancient and modern. At its inception it was revolutionary in its innovative combination of these ideas with uniquely American political institutions. Even today, as the longest enduring written constitution in the world, the American Constitution remains revolutionary.
“Citizenship requires self-government above all else.”
The American framers affirmed the ancient wisdom that for liberty to last it had to be consistent with order. Human beings are by nature enough inclined to evil that they cannot be entrusted with unlimited power. Human beings are by nature good enough that, when their passions are properly checked, they can govern themselves.
The rule of law, the framers believed, is the best response to this mixed nature of human beings. Power must be divided—between the branches of government, and between the national, state, and local governments—to prevent tyranny. No human being is above the law. The Constitution ratified in 1789 established that neither the new chief executive nor the new justices of the Supreme Court were above the law.
Some early Americans argued for further limiting the power of the federal government by amending the Constitution to include a Bill of Rights. Others insisted that specifying rights retained by the people was ill-advised, for doing so would imply that unlisted rights were unprotected rights. Despite these differences, and owing much to Madison’s prudent statesmanship, the First Congress produced ten amendments that offered a specific but not exhaustive list of rights retained by the American people—and the states. Early Americans agreed on a point frequently forgotten today: rights ultimately are not born of a “parchment barrier.” The Constitution’s structure secures our liberty, but our rights are authored by our Creator.
“Here, sir, the people govern,” Hamilton stated at the Constitutional Convention. Washington, the peoples’ first president, gave a living lesson to his fellow citizens of the power of humility before the law. “The Constitution is the guide which I never will abandon,” Washington declared in 1795.
“Happily for America, happily we trust for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course,” Madison wrote of those who fought the American Revolution. American citizens of every generation honor the nobility of that new course, the American founding fathers taught, by never abandoning the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the regime of liberty for which these documents stand.