by Patrick Garry
The words are engrained in our national consciousness: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These inspirational and linguistically beautiful words of the Declaration of Independence justified the American colonies’ break from England. But they did more than that. They explained to the world and to history that natural rights formed the basis of civil law and government. This was the truly revolutionary aspect of that document signed on July 4, 1776.
After the Declaration, the world was never the same. The legacy of natural rights meant that law and government would no longer legitimately flow from the whims of a monarch. Tyrants would no longer carry any moral authority. Human dignity would transcend the interests of the empire. The Declaration and its natural law foundations vaulted the human world into a new orbit of political philosophy, where deprivations of individual dignity could not be convincingly justified by the self-interests of a ruling elite.
The Declaration led to a political and legal system that in turn gave birth to a flourishing of freedom and individual dignity that history had never before witnessed. And as respect for individual dignity grew, social prosperity grew, thereby lighting a beacon of inspiration that would eventually reach the entire world.
The historical legacy of the Declaration hardly needs elaboration. Today, the Declaration of Independence ranks among the most precious of our national treasures. But that document would not have been possible without its signers. In an act of courage and sacrifice, those individuals put their name to a document that, in revolutionizing the world, put their own lives and fortunes in jeopardy.
At the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall), 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence, announcing the reasons America was breaking away from England and establishing its own nation. The Declaration contained an oath whereby the signers “mutually pledge[d] our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” This oath was not just a nice-sounding phrase. It was a commitment to sacrifice, because by publicly declaring their opposition to British rule, the signers knew they would be the first and primary targets of British retribution.
Those who signed the Declaration were people of stature in their communities. They had families, businesses, professions, homes. So they had a lot to lose. And they knew it. And as it turned out, many of them lost everything.
Nine of the signers died of wounds or hardships during the Revolutionary War. Five were captured or imprisoned and endured harsh treatment. Twelve saw their homes burned to the ground. Seventeen lost their entire fortunes. The families of the signers were killed, jailed, mistreated, persecuted, or robbed of their wealth.
Every signer was branded by England as a traitor. Everyone was hunted, and many were at one time or another barred from their families or their homes. Most of the signers were offered immunity, freedom, financial rewards or the release of loved ones to break the pledged word and repudiate the Declaration. But not one did so.
America became a great nation but its triumphs and successes did not come without a great deal of sacrifice. And the story of the signers of the Declaration reflects the kind of sacrifices that have always been required to achieve our highest goals. Yet, despite their sacrifices and foresight, the signers have come under attack by the progressive left. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration, for instance, has come under attack for being a slaveholder. Protestors have demanded that statues of Jefferson, such as those at Hofstra University and the University of Virginia, be removed.
This attack is both unnecessary and diversionary. It is unnecessary because America has already issued its judgment on slavery, through a brutal war that lasted four years and left 620,000 dead, and through a constitutional amendment. And it is diversionary because the attacks on Jefferson are not aimed simply at making the unquestioned point that slavery is an abhorrent wrong; instead, the attacks are really aimed at discrediting the natural rights ideas set forth by Jefferson in the Declaration.
Progressives oppose natural rights because they wish to wipe away that very historic and traditional check on the kind of unlimited federal government the progressives seek to implement. But the irony behind the attack on Jefferson’s natural rights doctrine is that it inspired and fueled the abolitionist movement of the 19th century that succeeded in wiping out slavery.
The progressive attack on America’s historical figures is broader than just a targeted attack on individuals. It is one stage in a much larger war against America’s heritage and culture. The progressive left seeks to radically transform America through the tool of an ever-larger central government. And just as the French Revolution did in France, the modern progressive left seeks to wipe away the old so as to then import the new of their own design. Progressives view the institutions of civil society as obstacles to a secularized state dominated by a central government.
Religion is the primary social institution in the crosshairs of the progressive attack. But if progressives valued religion more, they might be better able to distinguish between a person’s individual flaws and the worth of that person’s ideas. Under the religious view, men and women are flawed, sinful creatures. They possess the dignity of divinely-created human beings, but also the sinfulness of the fallen. Because of their connection to their Creator, human beings are capable of divinely-inspired insights. But because of their fallen human nature, they are also destined to sinful lives, albeit lives in hope of redemption.
With that realization of nature and reality, the signers of the Declaration need to be admired for their divinely-inspired accomplishments even as their human sinfulness is recognized. The kinds of personal attacks now waged by the progressive left deny both human reality and divine redemption, as well as the basic foundations of American government and society.
These attacks on Thomas Jefferson must obviously presume that to denigrate the signer is to denigrate the ideas underlying the Declaration. But those ideas have endured and flourished over two and a half centuries, and they have done so because they are true.
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Patrick Garry is a law professor with a Ph.D. in constitutional history. He has testified before Congress on constitutional issues and is a contributor to The Oxford Companion to the U.S. Supreme Court. He is the author of numerous constitutional law books, including Wrestling With God: The Court’s Tortuous Treatment of Religion and An Entrenched Legacy: How the New Deal Constitutional Revolution Continues to Shape the Role of the Supreme Court.