“We hold these truths to be self evident,” the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence famously proclaims. What are those truths, so self-evident that they don’t need any justification?
[T]hat 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.
These are, likely, the most famous words ever written by an American, and are the words we most justly celebrated yesterday on Independence Day. They have been often been described as “the American creed,” and have been held up as the proper basis for interpreting the constitution and even for conducting foreign policy. But it’s worth noting that, without them, the Declaration would make, if anything, more sense.
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. . . .
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
And, from there, to a list of said Facts.
One people is oppressed by another, suffering a long chain of abuses. Eventually, the abuses can no longer be tolerated. They constitute a tyranny, and they oblige the oppressed people to throw off the tyrant’s yoke.
That’s not a new story – nor is it a story that requires a new political theory to justify rebellion. The Dutch Revolt required no such theory. Neither did Tyrone’s Rebellion. Why, then, did America’s founders find it necessary to introduce such a theory into the document justifying our own rebellion against the crown?
It’s hard to believe that this philosophical language was introduced to win the support of the France’s absolute monarchy. The philosophes might have applauded, but Louis XVI would surely have preferred to back a rebellion that cast no particular doubt on the legitimacy of hereditary monarchy to one that did. It is even harder to believe that the language was intended to justify a revolution in the domestic arrangements of the colonies. The Declaration was a document intended to be something that the colonies – from slaveholding South Carolina to loyally-inclined Pennsylvania – could assent to unanimously. An alarmingly revolutionary doctrine would surely be the last thing the Congress would have wished to include.
Was it revolutionary, though, to American ears? Quite likely not. In fact, the most stirring portion of the Declaration, the words that have had profound implications for American and world history, may have been so much boilerplate. Americans from Virginia to Vermont, with long experience with self-government, casually assumed Lockean premises about where government legitimately derived and what was its legitimate purpose. Including these words in the document justifying American independence may not have established an American creed so much as they reiterated the largely unexamined premises that many Americans already assumed.
I say this not to disparage these noble sentiments in any way. It happens often enough that what we say most casually reveals most profoundly who we are, and the history of the Declaration attests quite adequately to its lasting and continually-evolving power.
Rather, I make this point by way of normalizing what is usually thought of an American exception, in the hopes of articulating a humbler version of that much-contested exceptionalism.
If the Declaration is understood as promulgating a revolutionary creed, upon which this nation was founded and united, then what is to become of those un-American souls whose adherence to every tenet of this creed is less than enthusiastic? What of those Americans who question whether an absolute liberty of arms is a matter of natural God-given right, or those who doubt that our equal creation implies that each of us must hold all people of equal capacity for all endeavors? What of those Americans who deny that the Creator has anything to do with rights in the first place? A creedal nation may not deal kindly with heretics.
But, if we are not a creedal nation, then what unites us? After all, we come from every country on earth, of all races and religions, speaking different languages. Some came as conquerors or settlers; some came as immigrants to an established society; some came in chains. And some, of course, were already here. If out of so many we have become one, must it not be because we all assent to the self evidence of these propositions, and pledge our allegiance to a society and government founded to reflect and advance them?
Perhaps. Or perhaps our unity depends on something less strenuous. The alternative, I would argue, is to regard the Declaration descriptively rather than prescriptively. What is self-evident, after all, is the opposite of what must be willed into belief. If these truths were self-evident to the Founding Fathers, that’s because they dovetailed naturally with their own experience of self-government, and of settling a land that was theirs before they were the land’s. And, pragmatically, they were and are the minimal common ground that a diverse people can agree when they don’t agree on other truths. Inasmuch as we share their experience, we will share that experience of their self-evidence. And inasmuch as we wish to remain in communion with our own past, we will look for ways to understand those truths that are self-evident to us, even if they aren’t precisely the ways that they would have been true to Adams or Jefferson. But that’s a way of relating to these stirring words grounded in history, not one that plucks them out of context and engraves them on tablets of stone.
Because America, the land where we like to believe that you can always repeat the past, does have a history after all. We believe the things we do because of our particular experience, not because nothing else could possibly be true. If we are exceptional, it’s because our experience has been exceptional. Therefore, the fact that our history contains its fair share of crimes and follies does not belie our belief that we have something special, but rather validates it by grounding that belief in reality rather than myth. And what unites us is, quite simply, joining ourselves to that history, saying that whatever we do, as public citizens, will necessarily be understood in terms of what was done by those who came before us. There is plenty we can do, as a nation, that is unworthy. But in a literal sense, there is nothing we can do that is un-American.
We can love our country because the story we are telling together is a fascinating and distinctive one in the history of humanity – we really can’t know the next chapter, much less how it will all turn out. Or we can love it simply because it is ours. We do not need to will ourselves to believe more than anyone can truly know in order to love more than anyone honestly can.