-by Jeff Olson
Much has been written about The Declaration of Independence, but none of it can compare to actually reading this venerable document. What is just as important though is understanding the principles and truths which undergird its timeless message and value. Such is the subject of this column the week of our nation’s 243rd birthday.
Let me begin by making a few fundamental but pertinent statements. Without order there can be no individual freedom, justice or human rights and without law there can be no order. At its core, the Declaration of Independence was a call to law, a higher law than man (i.e. “The Law of Nature and Nature’s God”). It was Marcus Tullius Cicero who expounded on the doctrine of the law of nature in the Roman age. Cicero wrote in The Republic “….one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and for all times, and there will be one master and one rule, that is, God, over us all, for He is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge.” In Laws, Cicero wrote “The supreme law comes from God.” Thomas Jefferson, as well as other men of America’s founding era such as Charles de Montesquieu, William Blackstone and John Locke, was keenly aware of the place and contributions of Cicero, Aristotle and other great philosophers of Western Civilization. Blackstone commenced his great Commentaries with an affirmation of natural law, stating “….no human laws are of any validity if contrary to this.” These men understood the place that the law of Jehovah held in human history. The revelation of natural law, and the Decalogue, was to teach man: the best means of living with one’s self and living with one’s neighbors; the avenue for regaining order in the soul and in the community; a deeper revelation of the nature and person of God; and a realistic understanding of the human condition and man’s challenge and fallibility in attempting to achieve a stable and enduring moral/political order in this life.
For centuries, civilizations attempted to create such an order. Israel was the most successful, but even this nation of God’s chosen people met with failure when ignoring His principles and instruction. Nevertheless, it is the Hebraic metaphysic and moral order which has most endured through the centuries, finding fundamental expression in such documents as the Magna Carta (1215), the Petition of Rights (1628) and the English Bill of Rights (1689). Based on the premise that God’s origin of natural law is the foundation, guide, and authority for human (positive) law, these documents would contribute to what became known as English Common Law. America inherited this legacy of law and its role in preserving order, protecting individual rights and giving ethical meaning to human existence. The twenty-seven grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence reflect the American colonist’s adherence to that law and legal claim to their chartered rights as Englishmen. “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….” is the Declaration’s bold claim on transcendent truth and humanity’s special place within natural law and the created order. “…appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions…with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence” acknowledge the sovereignty of God in the affairs of men and the necessity for dependence on Him.
If we’ve learned anything from recent American history, it is that this foundation in law and moral order is becoming more threatened and fragile. What was once a nation of laws is fast becoming a nation of men, where law is merely a construct for social/cultural change, a political tool for advancing ideology, a means of obtaining and retaining power, or all the above. As Aristotle expressed it, “Even the best men in authority are liable to be corrupted by passion. We may conclude then that the law is reason without passion, and it is therefore preferable to any individual.” In 1776, the Declaration of Independence articulated America’s principled reasons and legal basis for breaking ties with England – for preserving the individual freedom, self-government, and civil/social order which the colonies had experienced for some 170 years.
After more than 240 years, we find our freedom still hanging in the balance – not only from an enemy that can cross the ocean and border, but more so from an enemy within our nation and ourselves. As Samuel Adams reminds us: “A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when they lose their virtue they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.