By Jeff Olson
Much has been written about The Declaration of Independence, but none of it can compare to actually reading this venerable document. The principles and truths which undergird the Declaration predate 1776 by centuries. This week I will expound upon this as we recognize and celebrate our nation’s 244th 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, were 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 were 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. Still, it is the Hebraic metaphysic and moral order which has most endured through the centuries, finding fundamental expression and codification 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 respect for and adherence to that law and legal claim to their chartered rights as Englishmen.
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.” 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 inherited and refined for more than a century and a half. Therefore, this Declaration was not so much a call for revolution as it was for a call for conservation of liberties gained consistent with English principles. Historian Clinton Rossiter writes, “Americans were among the first men in modern history to defend rather than to seek an open society and constitutional liberty.”
After all these years, we find our freedom hanging in the balance more than ever before– not only from an enemy across the ocean and border, but more so from an enemy within our nation, within ourselves. The recent riots throughout our land are an example of the chaos and anarchy of mob rule which emerge when given an excuse and even a pass from some in the the media and in government leadership.
In Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address of 1838, he asked what could most seriously and consequentially threaten such a country as ours: “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” He goes on to say where this course ultimately leads: “Good men, men who love tranquility, who desire to abide by the laws, and enjoy their benefits, who would gladly spill their blood in the defense of their country; seeing their property destroyed; their families insulted, and their lives endangered; their persons injured; and seeing nothing in prospect that forebodes a change for the better; become tired of, and disgusted with, a government that offers them no protection; and are not much averse to a change in which they imagine they have nothing to lose. Thus, then, by the operation of this mobocractic spirit, which all must admit, is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed.”