Making America Right: Jefferson’s Natural Rights Statement in the Declaration

Thomas Jefferson's natural rights statement in the "Declaration of Independence" became the measure of America's dedication to its political principles.

Thomas Jefferson's natural rights statement in the "Declaration of Independence" became the measure of America's dedication to its political principles.

For many Americans throughout our history, the following words are the most basic manifesto of the moral precepts upon which the nation was founded.

            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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But 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.

            Often called the “natural rights statement” of the Declaration of Independence, it is a part of the document incalculably rich in meaning and significance to American. A combined statement of inalienable natural rights, the legitimacy of self-government, and the duty of the people to protect those rights, this part of the Declaration is the heart and soul of American political culture, expressing “self-evident” truths regarding self-determination, liberty, and political equality that have been used to measure the success of this nation’s democracy.

            Consider how this brief statement changed the United States: Abolitionists locked in mortal combat with slavery held the statement sacred; Lincoln used it as a core concept in the Gettysburg Address; the women’s suffrage movement modeled its most fundament declaration of rights after Jefferson’s words; the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s saw complete fulfillment of the Declaration’s promises the only test that would measure whether the United States was truly a land of liberty. As the 19th Century historian George Bancroft stated, the Declaration enshrined the “unchangeableness of freedom, virtue, and right” in the American political psyche and “heart of Jefferson in writing the declaration” became identified as the American political psyche. James Parton, the nation’s first professional biographer, described the formula succinctly: “If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If Jefferson is right, America is right.”

            It is Jefferson’s power as both a literary stylist and logical thinker that help give the words their power. That power found in the Declaration’s own words can be synopsized in the following manner:

A)      These are self-evident truths (truths that withstand any argument because of they are almost mathematically logical):

  1. All men (humankind) are created equal (political equality and equality in the realm of advancement as far as talent and work can take one in life).
  2. They are endowed by their Creator (in hindsight an ambiguous deity, yet one that would be readily recognized as either Nature’s God of the Enlightenment or Jehovah of the Christian tradition) with certain unalienable rights (rights that can never be separated or transferred from humankind by any government or governor): life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (a trio of rights that would cover the gamut of human existence and provide the safest means for self-government and personal independence).
  3. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted (established by consent) among men, deriving their just (morally, legally, and politically sound) powers from the consent of the governed,
  4. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends (including the current form of government), it is the right of the people (also “unalienable”) to alter (change) or to abolish it (eliminate it), and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles (namely, consent of the governed, freedom, and liberty) and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness (the results of protecting the trio of rights – and others—mentioned in the earlier clause of the natural rights statement. Concurrent with these rights is the right to just revolution, which is validated by the right to resist tyranny).

B)      Prudence (caution in deliberating and consulting on the most suitable means to accomplish valuable purposes) dictates that long-established governments should not be cast aside light and transient (hasty and momentary) causes.

C)      But when a long train of abuses (of power and the ruled) and usurpations (of the governed’s right to government by their consent) reveals a plan to reduce them under absolute despotism a) it is their right, b) it is their duty overthrow a despotic government and “provide new Guards for their future security.”

           

More recently, the logical power of the natural rights statement was identified as a form of deductive argument by Stephen E. Lucas, professor of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin, Madison:

Major premise:   When government deliberately seeks to reduce the people under absolute despotism, the people have a right, indeed a duty, to alter or abolish that form of government and to create new guards for their future security.
Minor premise:   The government of Great Britain has deliberately sought to reduce the American people under absolute despotism.
Conclusion:   Therefore the American people have a right, indeed a duty, to abolish their present form of government and to create new guards for their future security.

     In 1776, this argument was part of the essential evidence that justified separation from England and a war for liberty. Today, this is the logic Americans turn to when dealing with their government and measuring how responsive it is. The battle then was fought with bullets and revolution; the battle today is fought with ballots and protest. It would please Jefferson to know that the nation he helped found so long ago still deeply believes in his statements of political equality, government by consent of the people, and the need for government to hear the people’s voice. America is still right because of Thomas Jefferson’s powerful words living today in the hopes and expectations of the nation’s citizens. His ideas became the measure of who we are and what we do.

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