This past weekend marked the 234th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. And while much has changed since the signers met in secret to dissolve the bands that tied them to England, their words are as true today as they have ever been.
The preamble to the Declaration states:
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 …
The arrangement of this statement reveals the founders’ belief that individual rights pre-exist the establishment of a government– a radical notion at the time. The Declaration begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” By referring to the aspects of the subsequent statement as “self-evident truths,” the founders insist that they do not merely apply to colonists but rather that they are universal. Included in these universal truths is the idea, “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.” This bold assertion insists that no one life is more valuable than the next, and that—by virtue of sharing the same rights—no individual has the authority to rule over or oppress another.
Moreover, the equal rights shared by all humans are “unalienable.” They cannot be taken away. This is because they are granted not by any man or institution but rather they are “endowed” upon individuals by their Creator. Only the One who grants rights has the authority to take them away.
Although the founders believed in the unalienable rights of every person, they also understood that there will always be forces in this world that seek to oppress. Thus, “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.” Put simply, government possesses no rights. Its sole purpose is to protect the rights of its citizenry from outside forces. If it fails in this duty, it is the responsibility of individuals to abolish it.
The writers of the Declaration—and subsequently the writers of the Constitution—believed that government’s power comes out of its ability to protect the rights of its people. Individuals do not receive natural rights from government and thus government does not have the authority to take rights away. To the extent that it protects individual rights, government operates legitimately. However, when it fails to protect such rights or when it imposes upon them, it becomes an illegitimate ruler over what would otherwise be free people.
When the founding fathers gathered in 1776, they did not merely declare the independence of the colonies from their British oppressors. They declared the independence of all individuals from the unlawful intrusion of overreaching government. And that declaration forever altered the course of human history.