tv Lectures in History Preamble of the Declaration of Independence CSPAN August 30, 2021 5:18pm-6:45pm EDT
so for the last six weeks in this class, we've been examining the political fog of the imperial crisis. that is, we've been looking at the debates between british imperial officials and american whig patriots. that debate has really, in many ways, come down to one issue. which is, broadly speaking, what is the british constitution, and how does it define relations between the mother country and her colonies? more specifically even, the real question is, what is the political constitutional relationship between the power and the authority of the british parliament and america's colonial legislatures? and over the course of about 12 years, between 1764 and 1776, the british parliament passed a series of laws. in 1764, it began with the sugar
act. then a year later, the stamp act. then in 1767, '68, the townsend act. tea act. 1775, the prohibitory act. standing behind all these acts of british legislation was one, overarching piece of legislation, which i think was the driving force behind all of these particular acts. that was the declaratory act of 1766, which claimed that parliament's authority extended to the american colonies in all cases whatsoever. and that meant that parliament was not only supreme over the colonies, but, in fact, its power and its authority was absolutely supreme, right? so it could pass taxes, which it
had never done before. it could pass taxes in the american colonies for revenue. the most famous, of course, of all of these pieces of british legislation was the stamp act of 1765. which put a tax on stamped paper, which the colonists needed for almost all legal and commercial transactions. what was the specific constitutional issue? it was where to draw the jurisdictional boundary between the authority of parliament and the authority of the colonial legislatures. now, with regard to the stamp act, the british argued that the stamp act was legal and, therefore, constitutional. the americans by contrast argued that the stamp act was unjust and, therefore,
unconstitutional. and so over the course of the next 10 or 11 years, british imperial officials and american patriots began a kind of search for principles. principles first of the british constitution. they had competing understandings of the british constitution. but for the americans, the debate was not simply over the british constitution. the americans began starting in 1765, they began a search, a search for deeper moral principles. so when they argued that the stamp act was unjust and, therefore, constitutional, the
real question is, how or in what way was the stamp act unjust? so over the course of the next 10 and 11 years, the americans began this search for new standards, new principles of justice, of liberty, of equality, of rights, of sovereignty. and over the course of these 10 or 11 years, right, they began to see that the principles that had once tied the mother country to the colonies no longer worked. and the americans with their newly developing understanding of what the british constitution was, they began to see that it had to be grounded in absolute, permanent, universal principles. and that was what they searched for over the course of this -- the years of the imperial crisis. now, in many ways, as john adams argued in a letter that he wrote to thomas jefferson in 1815, the real american revolution was not about the war.
in 1815, adams wrote, quote, what do we mean by the revolution? the war? that was no part of the revolution. it was only an effect and consequence of it. the revolution was in the minds of the people. this was affected from 1760 to 1775, in the course of 15 years before a drop of blood was shed at lexington. right, now think about that. adams is arguing that the real american revolution was not military, it was not constitutional, it was not political, it was not economic. the real, the deepest cause where we'll find the true meaning of the revolution was in the transformation that took place in the minds of the
american people. and then in 1782, thomas payne in a letter that he wrote to france, he said this about the period leading up to the american revolution. quote, our style and manner of thinking have undergone a revolution, more extraordinary than the political revolution of the country. we see with other eyes. we hear with other ears. and think other thoughts than those we formerly used. now, again, think about the meaning of what payne is arguing here. some kind of radical transformation took place in the way that the americans saw the world. the way that they thought about the most important, the most
fundamental concepts of justice. and that takes us now to the topic of today's lecture, which is the philosophy of the declaration of independence. thus far in this course, over the course of these last six weeks, we've been mostly looking at the political and constitutional principles and institutions that were developed by american revolutionaries. but all of this comes to a head in 1776. as we talked about last class, right, the last link between the colonists and the mother country was through the colonist' relationship through the person of the king. but in january of 1776, with the publication of tom payne's "common sense," that relationship is forever severed. so there is now intellectually,
there is no lingering remnant, allegiance, or loyalty between the colonists and the mother country. once they have severed their connection with the person of the king, psychologically, they are no longer members of the british empire. and so that then takes us straight to july 4th, 1776. and to the passage which we talked about last class of the declaration of independence. so what was this declaration of independence? that was ratified on july 4th, 1776. well, the first thing to note about it is that it is indeed a political and, in some ways, even a diplomatic document. it was written in part for
george iii. it was written for european diplomats and financiers. and it was written for the american people, to help organize the american people politically. but the declaration of independence, of course, was a lot more than just a political document declaring the independence of these 13 colonies and the calling forth of new states. that's what they are now. they will no longer be colonies. they are states. independent, political units that now have the authority to create their own constitutions, their own governments, and forge
alliances with foreign powers. but the declaration was more than that. in 1825, thomas jefferson was asked by henry lee what his object, what the purpose was in writing the declaration of independence. and he wrote, quote, this was the object of the declaration of independence. it was intended to be an expression of the american mind. now think about what that means, an expression of the american mind. so, on the one hand, what it clearly and obviously means is that the declaration is a summing up of all the principles that the americans had been searching for during the years of the imperial crisis. it's a summing up. so when it says, "we hold these truths to be self-evident," right, and then it lays out its self-evident truths, right, this is -- these are the principles
of the american mind. but as an expression of the american mind, the declaration was also laying the foundation for the new constitutions and new governments that were going to be created by the new states. in fact, what the declaration, of course, does is it establishes the moral foundation, not just of these new states, but of the united states of america. and that is the great meaning of the declaration. it provides the moral foundation for this new nation going forward. all right. before we jump into the declaration, and what we're going to do in today's class is
we are going to systematically, line by line, go through the declaration, to illicit the deepest meaning of the declaration. before we do that, though, let me mention something that we've talked about a little bit before in this class, which is the philosophic background of the declaration of independence. so in my view, the declaration is an embodiment of the philosophic principles of the enlightenment. all of the great enlightenment ideas and principles are, in effect, embodied in the declaration of independence. and the three great philosophers of the enlightenment were sir isaac newton in his great work, "the mathematica." john locke's "human understanding."
and locke's second treatis on government. what i'm going to argue is that the ideas, the fundamental, core ideas of the essay are, in a sense, summed up, embodied in the first paragraph of the declaration. the second paragraph of the declaration, it is an abstract, it is abstract of the core, basic principles that you will find in locke's second treatise of government. let me sum up quickly the core ideas, the core principles of the enlightenment, which i think can be seen as having been transposed onto the declaration of independence. there is, i think, an enlightenment project. we can identify a kind of comprehensive philosophy of the
period known as the enlightenment. 17th and 18th century enlightenment. like all philosophies, it has four basic branches. it includes four basic branches of philosophy. first is metaphysics. what is metaphysics? metaphysics is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of reality. i can sum up for you in one word the enlightenment's view of metaphysics. nature. the second branch of philosophy is epistemology. epistemology is that branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge. i can sum up the enlightenment's view of epistemology in one word, which is reason. the enlightenment also has an ethical theory.
ethics is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of human action and human relationships. and i think i can sum up in one word the enlightenment's view of ethics, and that is rights. and then finally, the enlightenment has a view of politics. politics is that branch of philosophy concerned with social and political organizations. if i had to sum up the enlightenment's view of politics in one word, it would be constitutionalism. all right. now the question is, how did jefferson and the committee of five who helped him draft the declaration of independence, how did they take those ideas and put them into the declaration, or to put the question versely, how can we see those ideas within the declaration of
independence? what i'd like to do is systematically go through what, in effect, ladies and gentlemen, is just the first two sentences of the declaration. sometimes people call them the first paragraph and the second paragraph. if you think about it, it's two sentences. two very long sentences. we're going to parse these sentences, and we're going to try to pull out of them sort of the deepest philosophic meaning. all right. so let's take the first sentence, the first paragraph of the declaration. which says, "when in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with
another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's god entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. close quote. what i'm going to argue is the first sentence or paragraph has built into it a metaphysics and an epistemology. that it draws on from the enlightenment. now, what do i mean by that? well, let's just first identify sort of the core ideas of that first sentence.
that first sentence has a kind of overarching thematic structure to it. it has a purpose. right? what's the purpose of the first sentence? it is to declare to the world the, quote, causes which impel us to the separation. the causes which impel us to break from the mother country. and that first paragraph also has a principle or a standard. in this case, a moral standard. that moral standard would be the laws of nature and of nature's god. and that first paragraph or sentence also implies an action. and the action is the necessity
to dissolve the connection between these two countries. now, let me just say, that in my view, in many ways, and i'll talk about this at the end of class, the most interesting word for me of this first paragraph is the word "necessary." when in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands, et cetera, et cetera. the question is, necessary? why necessary? how is it necessary that the american people dissolve their connection to the mother country? to say that it's necessary suggests that it must be.
but in human affairs, there's nothing that must be. right? the fact of the matter is, in 1776, at least a third of all american colonials at that time were loyalists, self-identified loyalists. and a third hadn't made up their mind about whether they supported independence or not. so how is it on july 4th, 1776, the americans argue that it is now necessary? so the question is, why necessary? like, why not say, when in the course of human events, it's optional to dissolve our political bands. why necessary? well, i'm going come back to that question at the end of the talk. because i think the word "necessary" tells us actually something deeply important about the moral logic and the moral characters of those who signed
the declaration of independence. all right. now, let me break down what i think are the philosophic ideas, the enlightenment philosophic ideas that are contained in that first paragraph. so the declaration, as i've suggested, it has a metaphysics that it draws on from the enlightenment. summed up in one word, which is nature. and we see that in the declaration when it talks about the laws of nature and of nature's god. so in the 17th and 18th centuries, natural -- what were called at the time natural philosophers, what we'd today call natural scientists, they began to discover certain laws of nature. scientific or physical laws of nature.
these laws of nature, in effect, organized the universe, kept it in harmony, kept it as a system, governed by certain core laws. like, for instance, the law of gravitation or newton's three laws of planetary motion, right? but these laws of physical nature, they were absolutely -- they were, they are absolute. they are universal. they apply throughout the whole universe. and they are permanent. and as a result of these discoveries, the discovery of these scientific laws of nature, moral philosophers in the late 17th and then into the 18th century began to look or try to discover certain moral laws of nature. right?
so when the declaration refers to the laws of nature and of nature's god, it is referring to moral laws of nature. right? if you remember, go back to web of the very first classes when we read john adams' diary, the young 21-year-old john adams writing in his diary about the things that he was learning as an undergraduate at harvard college, right? what he learned is that in the universe, right, according to newton's laws, that entities, things, physical things out there in nature, have an identity. and that identity is absolute. in addition to having identity, because it has identity, it is governed by certain laws of cause and effect. and then the same, adams argued, is true for human action, as well. now, it is a much more difficult
leap to go from discovering scientific laws of nature to discovering human, moral laws of nature. but that was -- that was, at the deepest philosophic level, that was the quest, that was the search, of 18th century moral philosophers, including the founding fathers. and we see in that first paragraph -- well, let me just -- i'm sorry. let me back up and also say that the phrase in the declaration, the laws of god -- and of nature's god. interesting it doesn't say the laws of nature and of god. it says nature's god. so for most american revolutionaries, who was the grandchildren, the philosophic grand children of the enlightenment, they viewed nature's god not as the same god
of the old testament. not a kind of omnipresent god who can change the laws of nature at will, but, rather, a god who was like a watchmaker or a clockmaker, who set the universe in motion and then stepped back. and that's what i think is being referred to there with regard to nature's god. and the first sentence, the causes which impel them to the separation, right? so this is a kind of view of causation. in other words, to understand how and why there is this declaration of independence and separation, you have to understand the causes. there is a cause which leads to an effect. the effect is the declaration of independence. the literal separation of the colonies from the mother country. but it has causes, right? and in order to understand the action of independence and
separation, you have to understand the causes. which, of course, is a principle part of what the declaration does. in the second, in the very long body of the second paragraph of the declaration, right, it lays out -- it lays out its charges against king george iii. now, the first paragraph also has an epistemology. in the context of the enlightenment, in america's founding fathers, that means that it is going to, in some way, praise and promote man's faculty of reason. how does it do that in the first paragraph? well, at the very end of that first paragraph, it refers to a decent respect to the opinions of mankind. in other words, in this
declaration to the world, the americans, in other words, are speaking from one mind to another. they're speaking to the reason or the powers of reason of all people everywhere. they respect the opinions of mankind. they respect the idea that they can lay out a case, an argument, appeal to the reason of people around the world, and that those reasons can be understood. right? that's why in the second paragraph, just before the charges are laid out before the king, the declaration says, quote, to prove this, this mean r meaning the absolute decpotism of george iii, as
stated in the declaration, to prove this tyranny, let facts be submitted to a candid world. right? the americans are making -- they have essentially written an indictment against george iii and, indirectly, to the british parliament, as well. and it lays out -- the declaration lays out all the crimes committed by george iii and the british parliament, right? so by laying out the facts, they're laying them out to people everywhere to determine whether the charges are, in fact, true or not true.
that's why they say we're submitting this to a candid world. we're appealing to the minds, to the reasons of people everywhere. all right. let's now turn to the second paragraph. which is one -- at least what is often considered to be the second paragraph is really just one long sentence. it 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, 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. well, that is, in my view, without question, the most famous and the single most important sentence ever written in american history. and maybe even the single most important sentence written in world history.
that one sentence, that one very long sentence, establishes the philosophic, moral standard by which the colonists are going to judge the actions of king george iii and parliament. and, in fact, what they're really doing at a deeper level is laying out the principles, the moral standard by which all governments everywhere should be judged. all right. now, this very long, complex sentence contains a whole universe of ideas and moral principles. and let me just say or repeat
that this one sentence of the declaration, it is a summing up. it is a precis, i would argue, of john locke's second treatise of government. so all of the ideas contained in this one sentence sum up the core, fundamental principles of locke's second treatise of government. all right. so let's now begin to unpack the meaning of this complex sentence. it begins, we hold these truths to be self-evident. now, in many ways, i think this
is the most important clause of the most important sentence of the most important document in american history. but it's one that's often passed over. in part, it's passed over, i think, just because it's so simple and so elegant in its formulation that we just are kind of, our eye reads over it, and we want to get to the truths themselves. but i think -- i think this first clause is critically important. we hold these truths to be self-evident. now, most scholars of the declaration of independence tend to focus on this notion of self-evident. we hold these truths to be self-evident. well, what could that possibly mean, to say the truths that are to follow are self-evident? well, this idea of self-evidency is a technical term.
and the technical definition of self-evidency is that, in a proposition, the subject and the predicate have to be in agreement with each other. which simply means that a self-evident truth is one -- or a self-evident proposition is one that is perceptually self-evident to anybody with eyes to see. up is not down. black is not white. in is not out, right? these are perceptually self-evident truths. but surely that can't be what
jefferson is referring to relative to the declaration. because, as we'll see, the four truths of the declaration are much, much more complex than being perceptually evident to the viewer. so what could it possibly mean? well, i'll explain this in just a minute. i think, actually, the most important word in "we hold these truths to be self-evident" is truths, the word truths or truth. and why is it important? i think it's certainly important for us now in the 21st century to try to understand what america's founding fathers meant by the concept of truth. and i would argue that, in many ways, it is hard for us to understand what they meant by the concept truth because, in
our world today, in our post-modern, 21st century, academic world, we have discarded the concept of truth. the oxford dictionary recently said that the word post-truth, as in we live in a post-truth society, was, i believe it's 2016 word of the year. for us, we live in a post-truth world, apparently. but that was not true for america's founding fathers. they believed that the concept of truth meant that there are, in fact, capital t truths. which means truths that, first and most importantly, in terms of a definition, connect to reality.
a truth is a concept that has to connect in some fundamental objective way to reality. . the characteristics of the concept truth would be that they are absolute, certain, universal, and timeless. so, in other words, to sum up, america's founding fathers did belief that there are moral truths that are not subjective, they don't change with the times or place, but they are objectively absolutely true in all places in all times. all right.
now, how do we get to self-evident truths. how did the american people get self-evident truths because if it is the case, and i think it is partly that the four truths as we see them are not self-evident. what did jefferson, what could he possibly have meant, when he said that we hold these truths to be self-evident. let's analyze this, and first, who is the "we" in we hold these truths. the we means first jefferson and the committee of five who are tasked with drafting the declaration which included ben franklin, john adams, roger sherman and robert livingston. and so the "we" means committee of five, but it also means the 56 members of the continental congress. and then on top of the 56 members of the continental
congress, it also means the american people. the declaration of independence is speaking on behalf of we, the people, we, the people of the united states of america, we hold these truths, but there is a problem, because what it does it mean to say we, the people, hold these truths to be as some of these truths are philosophical complex topics as we'll see in a minute, and did all americans come it see these truths all at the same time? surely there is a difference of intellectual capacity of between say thomas jefferson and john adams on the one hand and an uneducated hard scramble farmer living on the western frontier of massachusetts. well, i think then the keyword to unlock the meaning of self-evident truth is the word
hold. so we hold, and hold means to grasp, but to grasp is something that can take place over time. and by different people at different points in time. so, we hold these truths, and that is to say, we have identified or at least some great thinkers, philosophers, have identified these truths, and now we, the people, as a whole, we hold them as well. so i think that the first clause of the declaration means something like that. all right. let's turn now to the truths. the declaration says that we hold these truths to be
self-evident. well, what are these truths? well, it turns out the declaration claims that there are four self-evident truths. now, i can sum up the four self-evident truths each in a word. first, equality. second, rights. third consent. and fourth revolution. and we can also superimpose the last two component pieces of a
zigs systematic philosophy on the second sentence, that is to say that the second sentence of the declaration or what we are calling the second paragraph has an ethics and a politics, right, in the same way that the first paragraph had a metaphysics and epistemology. the ethics, the moral part of the four self-evident truths are equality and rights, and the political principles of the four self-evident truths would be the principle of consent and revolution. all right. let's drill down now and take a look at each one of the four self-evident truths. what do they actually mean and more particularly, how do they actually cash out? right. these are not simply abstract floating ideas somewhere up in the stratosphere.
these are actually truths identified by american revolutionaries not only as the standard by which they are judging the depri dagss of george the iii and the parliament, but these truths are going to serve as the foundation, the moral and political foundation of the constitutions and governments that they are about to draft and they are going to provide a kind of ideal for the american people. an ideal that many americans still live by. all right. let's take the first self-evident truth which says all men are created equal. well, what could this possibly mean?
well, the first thing to note is that it says all men are created equal. it doesn't say some men. it doesn't say white colonial americans. it says all men are created equal. and virtually all of the bills of rights that followed the declaration of independence, the state bills of rights like wise said all men are created equal, so what does that mean? how does it cash out? all right. well, there is a problem. one might even say that there is a self-evident problem with this idea of equality. in the 19th century, as this country was moving toward civil
war, a congressman from indiana described the truths of the declaration of independence as self-evident lies, and he was referring particularly to the equality truth. a self-evident lie. so what exactly does it mean? i mean, one could say, for instance, one could say that equality is a shimera and it does not really exist. right. just look out into the world, look into world in which we live here now today. do we see, do you see equality? do i see equality right now as i am standing here in this room looking at all of you? i don't see equality.
i see differences, and differences don't necessarily mean equality. i know for a fact in this room right now there is, say, tall and short, more particularly there is strong and weak. there is fast and slow. and surely, there are differences, there are intellectual differences amongst even the people sitting here in this room. and i'm also pretty confident that there are differences and maybe even inequalities in terms of basic talents and even virtue, so what does it mean to say that all men are created equal? how is that not a self-evident
lie? jefferson, himself, and john adams recognized that there is a natural aristocracy among men, the grounds of which he said are virtue and talents. now a natural aristocracy by definition is going to mean inequality, and so why doesn't the declaration say that all men are created unequal. because that would seem to be just as true as saying that all men are created equal. so, we have to ask the question, what exactly did jefferson mean by the concept, by the idea, the principle of equality. well, for jefferson, equality does not mean quantitative
sameness. we are not all the same in terms of measurable characteristics and qualities. we're just not. i just watched this past weekend christian coleman win the 100 meter dash at the world track and field championships, and as much as i would like to think that i'm as fast or used to be even when i was his age, christian coleman, the fact is i am not. and i am not as strong, all right, as the greatest weight lifter in the world. i am not as handsome as brad pitt. i am not as intelligent as einstein. so, in terms of measurable qualities, we are not the same. we are different.
so what does equality mean? i think for jefferson, equality means what i call qualitative sameness, versus quantitative sameness. what do i mean by qualitative sameness? what i mean is we all share certain qualities as human beings. there is what i call -- we have species equality, and we are all members of the same species is as defined as having two fundamental characteristics and namely reason and free will, and by virtue of us having reason and free will, we are all the same relative to dogs and horses for instance. so, what is equality for jefferson and the founding fathers? equality means that we have an equal right to self-government. we have an equal right to self-government because we are self-owning and self-governing individuals.
just as there are no natural rulers in the world, there are no natural slaves. there is not a natural right to rule, and there are no natural slaves. as jefferson once put it in a letter, quote, because sir isaac newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or the property of others, close quote. so equality then means we have an equal right. equality, it really should be an adjective, an adjective to rights. equality means equal rights. all right. now, on to the second self-evident truth, which i think is the core truth.
it says that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. now, this truth i think too many of us take to be so obvious that we don't actually think about what it really means. so for instance when i often ask students what rights are, the typical answer is, well, rights are life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness. no, that is not what rights are. those are particular instances
of what rights are. that is not a definition of what rights are. so, that's the question that we have to ask. what is a right? what are the characteristics of rights? where do they come from? now i'm going to try to answer the first question and part of the second, but the third question, i think it is much more complex and above my pay grade, but i am going to try to answer what a right is and what the characteristics of rights are. now it is clear of course that the declaration says that we are endowed by our creator with rights. so for the declaration, the source of rights is man's creator, and that is undisputably true, but i also think it is true that most american revolutionaries, and most enlightenment philosophies
spoke of unalienable, natural rights. so one thing, whether you believe in god or don't believe in god, the one thing that most revolutionaries believe in is that there are rights of nature. all right. everybody believed that. so we can at the very least say that, that is the source of rights, namely nature, and then we can as some american revolutionaries did dispute whether there is a deeper source. below or beyond nature. okay. so what are rights. to answer that question, you have to begin with two basic assumptions about human nature, and these are clearly the assumptions that were held by american revolutionaries, and the first is that the individual is the primary unit of moral and political value.
and the second assumption is their rejection of the initiation of physical force, right. so in certain ways the idea of rights should be seen in opposition to the principle of force, and more particularly the initiation of force. right. so if i walk up to you, and punch you in the nose, right. i have initiated physical force against you. if i tie you up to a tree, i have initiated physical force, so the concept of rights, the rights of nature, the rights of man, the concept itself was developed largely in the 17th century, mostly, let's say, beginning with locke, and then developed in the 18th century, and particularly fleshed out by american revolutionaries, and it begins with the individuals of the primary unit of value, and rejects the initiation of force
as a physical value, and so now we can turn to a definition. how did the american revolutionaries understand, and how did they define the concept of rights. well, i've read -- i've read scores of pamphlets and essays and newspaper articles, and probably hundreds of newspaper articles on -- from the 1760s and 1770s and '80s and what i am going to present to you now is the definition, and it is a definition that essentially emerged with the american revolutionaries in the period leading up to 1776. what is a right. a right is a moral principle that defines sphere or spheres of freedom that are necessary for human flourishing within the context of civil society. that's what a right is.
it defines spheres of freedom. and you can look at rights, and in defining the spheres of freedom, you can look at the concept of rights as having two primary characteristics. in one sense, rights are like a license. they are a license to act. it's concerned with the freedom of action. but we could also look at rights in a sense as a fence. a fence around each and every individual. rights in part protect us. they protect us from those who would initiate force against us. all right. so that i think is a pretty decent definition from the perspective of american revolutionaries of what rights are.
all right. let's now drill down even more deeply into this second self-evident truth and look at the various rights of nature. and the first right of course, which is the most fundamental of all rights, is the right to life. and what is the right to life? what does that actually mean? what does it imply. well, it says that individuals are sovereign over their own lives. and what does it mean to say that you're sovereign over your own life? it means that each and every individual is self-owning and self-governing. and that life is sacrosanct and the right to life also, embedded in it, is the moral right for each and every individual to pursue those values which promote their lives.
all right. what about the right to liberty? what is the right to liberty? the right to liberty means a kind of unobstructed freedom to think, choose, act, produce, and acquire both material and spiritual values. all right. it's unobstructed freedom, although constrained by the right to liberty of other individuals. all right. now the declaration of independence does not include a right, a natural right to liberty, but i'm going to include it basically because thomas jefferson, the author of the declaration, believed that property was just as much a fundamental right as life,
liberty and the pursuit of happiness and virtually because all of america's founding fathers did, but for complicated reasons which we don't fully understand, he did not include the right to property in the declaration of independence. but jefferson himself and every other founding father included property as in a sense, the linchpin right. the linchpin between life and liberty on the one hand and pursuit of happiness on the other. so what is the right to property? well, it means it's the freedom to keep, use and dispose of the product of one's physical and mental labor. all right. so for those of you who have read locke's second treatise, and the famous chapter 5 on property, the idea is that when you mix your labor, both intellectual and mental, with nature, which has no value, once you mix your
labor with that which has no value, right, you can claim it as your property. because it is now an extension of you. all right. finally the last right of nature listed in the declaration is the pursuit of happiness. what is it? now, this right to the pursuit of happiness is a curious one because it really doesn't appear in virtually any of the other bills of rights with the exception of the virginia bill of rights. the formulation seems to be in part at least unique to jefferson himself, but i think he actually gets this idea of the pursuit of happiness from john locke's essay concerning human understanding.
so what is the right to the pursuit of happiness mean? well, like the other rights, like the right to property, it means freedom. it's the freedom to choose and pursue those values that lead to one's happiness. now, there are different kinds of happiness, of course. as john locke and thomas jefferson both said. there's what both locke and jefferson called real or true happiness, which tends to be a kind of spiritual consequence of achieving certain long-term goals and values. of course there's short-term happiness, which is a kind of physical pleasure, all right, the pleasure, the happiness that you get from eating a good steak or having ice cream, but that's
not really what's being meant here. the pursuit of happiness means the pursuit and the achievement of one's highest values. now, let me just add one important point here. in a sense, the most interesting word is pursuit. you have the pursuit of happiness. you don't have a right to happiness, per se, only a right to pursue it, and jefferson and all of the other founding fathers understood this to the pursuit of happiness. to have a profound moral component to it. the pursuit of happiness for certainly jefferson and adams meant to have, to employ, certain virtues. in other words, there was a profound connection for jefferson and the american revolutionaries between virtue and happiness. you cannot achieve happiness
without having employed in your life, without having employed in the pursuit of certain values, certain virtues. right. so this is not some kind of hedonistic pursuit of happiness. that's not what is meant. quite the opposite. pursuit of happiness implies, indeed, it implores that individuals be virtuous. all right. now, on to the third self-evident truth. and in many ways, this third self-evident truth is the most complex, i would say, of the four. it actually embodies several principles, and i have identified the one word that i have identified with the third self-evident truth is consent, but it could equally be government, or limited government or constitutionalism.
it's a -- this third truth is a complex concept. it says quote, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. okay. so if you just stop and think about what means, you can actually take this one truth, the one clause of the larger sentence and break it down into its component parts. so what does the third truth mean? well, the first thing it means, the first thing it says quite clearly is that the purpose of government is to protect rights. it does not say that the purpose of government is to make men good or virtuous. it does not say that the purpose
of government is to make all men equal or the same. it says that the purpose is to protect rights, and what rights does it mean? it means rights contained in the second self-evident truth. the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness which includes the right to property. so that's it. and that creates if the purpose of, if the sole purpose of government is to protect rights, that means by definition a very limited kind of government, and that takes us then to the second part of the third truth which is that governments are necessary to secure rights. well, the first thing to note here is that america's founding fathers were not anarchists. right? they believe ed that there is a legitimate role
for government to play in a free society. and that legitimate role, of course, it is to protect rights. the natural rights of all human beings. all right. but then the question is, well, what kind of government best does that? and built into their idea or built into this third truth, is that there are certain kinds of governments which protect rights better than others. and what kinds of governments are those? well, i think this is somewhat reading between the lines, but it's only reading between the lines because i've read just about every word thomas jefferson and john adams and james madison ever wrote, and i think i have a pretty good, a pretty clear idea of what they meant by government. in a government which has as its sole purpose, the protection of rights. they meant constitutional government.
and more particularly, they meant a constitutional republic. and what is a constitutional republic? it is one that is based on we the people, but it has a constitution that defines, establishes and limits the powers of government. it means by definition, because it is constitutional, it means a limited government. a limited constitutional government. a government whose powers are defined by the constitution. and then finally, this third truth says that the just powers of government are derived from the consent of the government. -- governed. right? now built into this part of the third truth is obviously this idea of consent.
right? and this comes out of the revolutionary crisis, right. no taxation without representation. which means no taxation without the consent of the people. so the moral principle of consent is at the heart of the american revolution, and more specifically, the declaration of independence and consent is a principle. it's a principle that is kind of -- it's the kind of principle that unites, connects, the deeper principles of equality and rights on the one hand but government on the other. consent is the link between rights and government. and the principle of consent as it is institutionalized, is in the form of the principle of sovereignty. right. and sovereignty is the principle which defines where the power of government ultimately rests. and of course as we've seen in
this class all semester, right, the whole question and whole debate between british imperial officials and american patriots was in part over the question of where does sovereignty rest. does sovereignty rest in parliament? or does sovereignty rest in the colonial charters and in the colonial legislatures? and the principle of consent also implies one other political principle, which is representation. and representation is the core principle defining republican government. so this third truth establishes or implies, i think, a constitutional republic as the ideal form of government. all right. let's now go to the fourth self-evident truth.
which reads whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or 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 affect their safety and happiness. all right. well, this fourth self-evident truth is also very complex like the third self-evident truth. and it's so complex, right, that it's not obviously self-evident. but it's self-evident only in the sense that it builds on the third self-evident truth. and the third self-evident truth builds on the second and the second builds on the first. and they are held together as a unity. and if you understand the first self-evident truth and the
principle of equality, i think can be understood as being self-evident in some way and then by logical deduction, you go from the first, the second, the third then finally, the fourth self-evident truth, which is what i call the revolution truth. so, what is this right to revolution? although i will say the declaration does not use this word, revolution. it talks about altering or abolishing, but in effect, it means revolution. and the right to revolution calls i think for two kinds of action. the first action is destructive. and the second is constructive. so the -- so if you read the fourth self-evident truth, the first part of that sentence -- the first part of that sentence
says that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it. right. that's the destructive part. what that means it's what i call negative consent or consent withdrawn. it's when the people withdraw their consent to be ruled or governed by this particular government. and revolution in this context becomes justified when governments become tyrannical. right. and the largest part of the declaration of independence, right, lays out the facts which are being submitted to a candid world, demonstrating to a candid world, how george iii and the british parliament have
established an about sew -- absolute despotism over them, tyranny. now, the second part of this fourth self-evident truth says quote, and to institute new government laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall see most likely to affect their safety and happiness. right. that is a construct. it's the power on the basis of consent. consent given, to create government. so, on the one hand, you abolish, you alter or abolish an old government. but on the other hand, you create, establish, a new government. all right. and the declaration suggests and it uses the word, whenever any form of government, right, so, it turns out that literally any kind of government can become destructive of rights, including democracy or republicanism.
right. and it also implies that you can have a government that protects the rights of individuals, that is not necessarily a republic. you could have a monarchal republic like the government of england. what the british government had been up until the time of the imperial crisis. all right. but the right of revolutionism has to be tempered and the very next word after the right to revolution, is the word prudence. it says prudence will dictate the government's long established, should not be changed for light intransigent causes. in other words, what this means is the right to revolution is not absolute or unlimited. it has to be used prudently. so the question you have to ask yourself is for instance, would it have been prudent to launch a
revolution against the british government in 1765 after the passage of the stamp act? i can tell you, not one american revolutionary would have said yes to that question. nor would they have said yes to that question after the passage of the townsend and the tea acts. by the time we get to the course of acts of 1774, now some americans are starting to think, yes, samuel adams, john adams, thomas jefferson, are beginning to think, yes, maybe we have the grounds for establishing revolution. but still, prudence dictates that even in 1774, that may be too early. right. there is a real question about when revolutions are launched, right. you can't just be some radical yahoo who decides that he doesn't like, you know, the five-cent tax on his new can of
soda, that he's going to launch a revolution. that would be profoundly imprudent. all right. i'm coming close now to the end. and i want to end this discussion, this talk on the declaration of independence by talking about the moral logic of the american revolution. or precisely, the moral logic contained in the declaration of independence. all right. so if you remember now, earlier in this talk when we were examining the first paragraph, in fact, the very first words of the declaration of independence, when in the course of the human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands that have connected them with another. right. what, really what could that possibly mean, to say that it's necessary? when in the course of human events it becomes necessary,
necessary as i've said implies that it must be. but of course, nothing has to be. but yet in the minds of american revolutionaries, it was absolutely necessary that they declare independence. and by declaring independence, that means they are declaring war and in declaring war, they are committing themselves to death and destruction. so why is it necessary? well, it's necessary, now skipping to the first, into the second sentence of the declaration, the declaration says after the prudence sentence, it says when a long train of abuses usurpations and pursuing invariably the same october, invinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right.
it is their duty to throw off such government. so yes, they have the right, but more fundamentally, jefferson and the authors of the declaration are saying we have a duty, right, in the same way that they're saying it's necessary that we dissolve the political bands that have connected us to each other. so how is it necessary? how is it a duty for them to declare independence? then on top of that, they pledge their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to the cause of the revolution. what does this mean? what does the moral universe that they are living in? i think what it means is they
had a view of moral action that did not separate theory from practice. they believe that if you hold certain moral principles, then it is necessary that you act in a certain way. you can view it in philosophic terms what's called a conditional imperative, and if given then conditioning imperative, if you believe in certain principles, that is to say if you want to live in a free and just society, given the crimes that have been committed by george iii and the british parliament, then it is necessary if you are to be a moral person, to live up to your moral principles.
that is i think the moral logic which is impelling american revolutionaries. all right. so to sum up, what does all of this mean? what is the meaning? what is the ultimate meaning of the declaration of independence? well, i think it can be summed up in the words of abraham lincoln. who in 1957 in his opinion on the dred scott decision said speaking of the declaration of independence, he wrote quote i think the authors of that notable instrument meant to set up a standard maxim for a free society. right. and i think that's exactly what the declaration is. it is a standard maxim for a
free society. which should be familiar to all and revered by all. constantly looked to, constantly labored for and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere. and i think that's what the declaration of independence does. right. it establishes a standard maxim for a free society by which we can judge tyranny and it turns out not just the tyranny of george iii and the british parliament, but also the tyranny of 19th century southern slave holders.
because it is the declaration, which is the standard maxim of a free society for the abolitionists. all right. let me close with these last, with a few words from i think america's greatest 20th century poet robert frost in his 1915 poem, "the black cottage." that's a hard mystery of jefferson's. what did he mean? of course the easy way is to decide it simply isn't true. it may not be. i heard a fellow say so. but never mind. the welsh man got it planted where it will trouble us a thousand years. and i think that's exactly right. if you look at all subsequent american history from the time of the declaration of independence until today, what i
think you will find is that all of -- all of the intellectual, and certainly all of the political debates in this country for 235 years have basically in one way or another been a debate over how to interpret the core principles of the declaration of independence. in particular, the self-evident truth of equality and the self-evident truth of rights and just here now today in the united states in 2019, the political controversies of this country today at the deepest philosophic level really come down to those two concepts, to those two self-evident truths, equality and rightings. and like the revolutionary
up next on american history tv on c-span3, a college class about military engagements during the american revolution. we'll hear about the battle of bunker hill, the american invasion of canada, and the eventual bring dish evacuation of boston. >> okay. everybody, so last class we were talking about the outbreak of the american revolution. we say all of this, tension is building in the spring of 1775 in april, general thomas gauge sends troops in the countryside, and as nightfalls, about