The Real Spirit of the Declaration of Independence

What is America, and what does it represent? These seem to be relevant questions at a time of political discord and disagreement that appears to make peaceful and polite discussion almost impossible. Certainly, asking such questions is appropriate at that time of the year when we celebrate the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July.

Everyone in the political arena assures us that they represent and wish to preserve or purify “American values” and “the American way of life.” President Trump insists that he speaks for American values in wanting to make America great again, or now with the start of his reelection campaign, his desire for a chance to “keep America great,” under the presumption that his first years in the White House have successfully restored that which had been lost. That’s what tariff walls and real walls along the border are all about — or so insists Donald Trump.

After the first round of two nights of the Democratic Party wannabees trying to prove why they should be their party’s standard-bearer in the 2020 presidential election, it is clear that all of them, also, want to maintain or refine “American values” for, as they see it, a more socially just society. Each one made it unequivocally clear that they consider freedom essential to the American way of life; how else can you interpret their respective promises to make so many welfare and redistributive programs totally “free” for the unlimited taking by all who want something — at someone else’s expense, of course. “Freedom” for them means something for nothing for the many.

The Self-Evident Individual Rights of Everyone

Has this anything to do with the values and way of life captured in the ideas and ideals of that Declaration of Independence of 1776 that set America on its course over the next nearly 250 years? Let us turn to the document itself, and to that first portion that most students in school have heard — or at least used to hear — repeated over and over again in history and civics classes from one end of the United States to the other.

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 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.

Notice that the rights spoken of are declared to be prior to and independent of governments. It is said that these individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness arise from a higher authority than kings, princes, or democratically elected officials. But it might be said in response that not all people in America today believe in or accept the existence or power of such a supernatural authority. So that argument, it might be claimed, falls to the ground. Yet, if one looks behind the Declaration of Independence to the intellectual sources from which these principles arose, it can be shown that reason was considered as much of a demonstrable basis of these rights as any belief in God.

Right Reasoning and the Rights of Man

The ancient Romans developed their idea of “universal law” transcending the customs and traditions of any one group residing within the confines of their empire by asking, What could dispassionate men of good will, regardless of their particular societal backgrounds, agree to as just and right among them, given the nature of man? (See my article “The Ancient Romans, Who Went From Rule of Law to Inflation and Price Controls.”)

When John Locke articulated his explanation and rationale for “natural rights” in his Second Treatise on Government (1689), he asked us not to simply take his defense of individual rights purely on faith. He called for us to reason with him. Does not every one of us wish to preserve and better our own lives? Do we not all wish to be safe and secure from the violence and predation of our fellow human beings? Do we not all consider it just if someone has taken from the previously unowned and unused resources found in nature and molded them into some other useful and useable form through their mental and physical labors that it should be considered “rightly” and “justly’ the property of that person whose hands has made this transformation?

Would not each and every one of us consider it unjust if another were to forcibly or fraudulently take that which someone had peacefully and honestly made, and therefore without their agreed-upon and voluntary consent? Is it not equally reasonable for people to form a common system of protection and enforcement of an unbiased and impartial rule of law, which is known as “government”? (See my article “John Locke and American Individualism.”)

We can find the same call to introspective reflection and mutual reasoning in the words of the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutchison (1694-1746), who taught at the University of Glasgow and was one of Adam Smith’s influential professors. From Hutchison’s System of Moral Philosophy (1737):

The following natural rights of each individual seem of the perfect sort: A right to life, and to that perfection of the body which nature has given, belongs to every man.… This right is violated by unjust assaults, maiming, and murder.

As nature has implanted in each man a desire of his own happiness … tis plain that each one has a natural right to exert his powers, according to his own judgment and inclination, for these purposes, in all such industry, labor, or amusements, as are not hurtful to others in their persons or goods….

This right we call natural liberty. Every man has a sense of this right, and a sense of the evil or cruelty in interrupting this joyful liberty of others….

Each one has a natural right to the use of such things as are in their nature fitted for the common use of all; and has a right, by any innocent means, to acquire property in such goods as are fit for occupation and property, and have not been occupied by others….

For the like reasons every innocent person has a natural right to enter into an intercourse of innocent offices or commence with all who incline to deal with him.


A more “modern” reply to such a view of personal freedom and unrestrained individual liberty might be, But do not individuals sometimes choose wrong or misguided courses of action? Should they not be restricted in some of their private conduct and “nudged” into better directions? Hutchison commented on this, as well:

Let men instruct, teach, and convince their fellows as far as they can about the proper use of their natural powers, or persuade them to submit voluntarily to some wise plans of civil power where their important interests shall be secure. But till this is done, men must enjoy their natural liberty as long as they are not injurious [by violating the individual rights of others].

This right of natural liberty is not only suggested by the selfish parts of our own constitution but by many generous affections … as the grand dignity and perfection of our nature.

Hutchison also warned about and feared the paternalist state, in making his case for limiting government. Which government official or bureaucrat has the knowledge, wisdom, and ability to know what each of us “really” deserves as a distributive share from the cumulative outputs of the private actions of everyone in society? And would this not soon reduce everyone to the political whims and personal judgments of those holding such material and social power over all? Or as Hutchison expressed it:

Such constant vigilance too of magistrates and such nice discernment of merit, as could ensure both a universal diligence, and a just and humane distribution, is not be expected…. What magistrate can judge of the delicate ties of friendship, by which a fine spirit may be so attached to another as to bear all toils for him with joy? … And what plan of policy will ever satisfy men sufficiently as to the just treatment to be given to themselves … if all is to depend on the pleasures of the magistrate? … Must all men in private stations ever to be treated as children, or fools?

The Reflecting Common Sense of Liberty

The philosophical underpinnings of the Declaration of Independence, therefore, proclaim a self-evident truth of individual liberty and right to honestly acquired property that all men of unbiased reasoning could and should agree with and see as essential to a free, just, and prosperous society.

I would ask any reader, Which one of us does not want to be respected and protected in the safety of our life from injury and murder? Which one of us does not desire the liberty to guide and direct our own life, as our own ideas of the desirable, the useful and valued suggest to us? Which one of us wants to be a human puppet at the end of strings pulled by others against our own will and wishes? And which one of us does not want others to interact with us in honest, truthful, and fair dealing?

Does it matter whether the killing of us, the restricting and restraining of us, or the deceitful manipulation of us is done by either a private individual or by a government, regardless of whether that government is an absolute monarchy or a democratically elected body of politicians and appointed bureaucrats?

Anything that government does that goes beyond the securing of such individual rights for each citizen must, by logical necessity, involve an abridgement of one or more aspects of a person’s freedom. It is the use of political authority and power to make some the compelled servants or providers of various things for the benefit of others.

Concentration of Power and Arbitrary Rule

The American Founding Fathers explained in the Declaration of Independence how intolerable an absolutist and highly centralized government in faraway London had become. This distant government violated the personal and civil liberties of the people living in the 13 colonies on the eastern seaboard of North America.

In addition, the king’s ministers imposed rigid and oppressive economic regulations and controls on the colonists that were part of the 18th-century system of government central planning known as mercantilism.

“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,” the signers declared.

At every turn, the British Crown had concentrated political power and decision-making in its own hands, leaving the American colonists with little ability to manage their own affairs through local and state governments. Laws and rules were imposed without the consent of the governed; local laws and procedures meant to limit abusive or arbitrary government were abrogated or ignored.

The king also had attempted to manipulate the legal system by arbitrarily appointing judges that shared his power-lusting purposes or were open to being influenced to serve the monarch’s policy goals. The king’s officials unjustly placed colonists under arrest in violation of writ of habeas corpus, and sentenced them to prison without a proper trial by jury. Colonists often were violently conscripted to serve in the king’s armed forces and made to fight in foreign wars.

A financially burdensome standing army was imposed on the colonists without the consent of the local legislatures. Soldiers often were quartered in the homes of the colonists without their approval or permission.

In addition, the authors of the Declaration stated, the king fostered civil unrest by creating tensions and conflicts among the different ethnic groups in his colonial domain (the English settlers and the Native American tribes).

Government Violation of Economic Liberty

But what was at the heart of many of their complaints and grievances against King George III were the economic controls that limited their freedom and the taxes imposed that confiscated their wealth and honestly earned income.

The fundamental premise behind the mercantilist planning system was the idea that it was the duty and responsibility of the government to manage and direct the economic affairs of society. The British Crown shackled the commercial activities of the colonists with a spider’s web of regulations and restrictions. The British government told them what they could produce, and dictated the resources and the technologies that could be employed.

The government prevented the free market from setting prices and wages, and manipulated what goods would be available to the colonial consumers. It dictated what goods might be imported or exported between the 13 colonies and the rest of the world, thus preventing the colonists from benefiting from the gains that could have been theirs under free trade.

Everywhere, the king appointed various magistrates who were to control and command much of the people’s daily affairs of earning a living. Layer after layer of new bureaucracies were imposed over every facet of life. “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance,” the Founding Fathers explain.

In addition, the king and his government imposed taxes upon the colonists without their consent. Their income was taxed to finance expensive and growing projects that the king wanted and that he thought were good for the people, whether the people themselves wanted them or not.

Burdensome Taxes, Tax Evasion, and Violent Government

The 1760s and early 1770s saw a series of royal taxes that burdened the American colonists and aroused their ire: the Sugar Act of 1764, the Stamp Act of 1765, the Townshend Acts of 1767, the Tea Act of 1773 (which resulted in the Boston Tea Party), and a wide variety of other fiscal impositions.

The American colonists often were extremely creative at avoiding and evading the Crown’s regulations and taxes through smuggling and bribery. (Paul Revere smuggled Boston pewter into the West Indies in exchange for contraband molasses.)

The British government’s response to the American colonists’ “civil disobedience” against its regulations and taxes was harsh. The king’s army and navy killed civilians and wantonly ruined people’s private property. “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people,” the Declaration laments.

Opposing Oppressive Government to Be Free

After enumerating these and other complaints, the Founding Fathers said in the Declaration:

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Thus, the momentous step was taken to declare their independence from the British Crown. The signers of the Declaration then did “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor,” in their common cause of establishing a free government and the individual liberty of the then three million occupants of those original 13 colonies.

Never before in history had a people declared and then established a government based on the principles of the individual’s right to his life, liberty, and property.

Never before was a society founded on the ideal of economic freedom, under which free men were declared to have the right to live for themselves in their own individual interest, and peacefully produce and exchange with each other on the terms they find mutually beneficial without the stranglehold of regulating and planning government.

Never before had a people made clear that self-government not only meant the right of electing those who would hold political office and pass the laws of the land, but also meant that each human being had the right to be self-governing over his own life.

Indeed, in those inspiring words in the Declaration, the Founding Fathers were insisting that each man should be considered as owning himself, and not be viewed as the property of the state to be manipulated by either king or Parliament.

How far we have moved away from these ideals of 1776. National “greatness” and not individual freedom is the watchword of President Trump. Raising tariffs and threatening trade wars is in the tradition of the mercantilist regulatory schemes of 18th-century Great Britain and France that presumed the right and responsibility of governments to manage and direct the trade of nations.

The American economist Thomas Cooper (1759-1839) explained the wrongheadedness of all such interventionist policies in his Lectures on the Elements of Political Economy (1820; 2nd ed., 1830), one of the most widely read works on economic principles in the America of the 1820s and 1830s:

The true principles of Political Economy, teach us that a system of restrictions and prohibitions on commercial intercourse, cuts off the foreign market, diminishes the number of buyers and the demand for our national produce; hence the consumer is compelled to accept of less for his produce, which he is compelled to pay more to the home monopolist. Hence, the wealth of the nation is wasted; every consumer is abridged of comforts that he might otherwise procure, and his means of purchasing even home-commodities are diminished.

They teach us also, that men should be permitted, without the interference of government, to produce whatever they find it their interest to produce; that they should not be prevented from producing some articles, or bribed to produce others. That they should be left unmolested to judge and pursue their own interest; to exchange what they have produced when, where, and with whom and in what manner they find most profitable and convenient; and not be compelled by theoretical statesmen to buy dear and sell cheap; or to give more, or get less, than they might do if left to themselves, without government interference or control.

Such are the leading maxims by means of which Political Economy teaches how to obtain the greatest sum of useful commodities at the least expense of labor. These are indeed maxims directly opposed to the common practice of governments, who think they can never govern too much; and who are the willing dupes of artful and interested men, who seek to prey upon the vitals of the community.

Thomas Cooper also warned of the methodological mistake in thinking of “nations” and “peoples” as if they were actual, distinct, and living entities different and separate from the real individual human beings who live, work, produce, sell, and buy in their respective attempts to improve their lives:

Much difficulty and deplorable mistake, has arisen on the subject of Political Economy, from the propensity that has prevailed, of considering a nation as some existing intelligent being, distinct from the individuals who compose it; and possessing properties belonging to no individual who is a member of it. We seem to think that national morality is a different thing from individual morality, and dependent upon principles quite dissimilar….

The grammatical being called a NATION has been clothed in attributes that have no real existence except in the imagination of those who metamorphose a word into a thing; and convert a mere grammatical contrivance into an existing and intelligent being.

What Thomas Cooper explained and warned about applies not only to those who insist upon “making the nation great,” separate from and with compulsory sacrifices imposed upon numerous actual human beings through trade restrictions and import taxes. It has its parallel in contemporary America with those who conceptually reduce multitudes of distinct and different human beings to the aggregated categories of “race” or “gender.”

The New Collectivism in Place of Individuals With Rights

Race and gender, for the practitioners of “identity politics,” are made the defining and determining qualities and characteristics of every member of the society; that is, people are reduced to a skin color and a claimed sexual orientation and “feeling.” For the modern gender and “anti-racist” race warriors who have created “identity politics,” they, like the nationalist, consider that individuals are nothing more than the collective classification into which they have been defined.

The unique and different human beings, with their individual rights, as declared and hailed in the Declaration of Independence, disappear from the human stage. Groups, tribes, collectives have “rights,” and the individuals composing these groups and tribes receive only what their assigned collective is deemed to be “rightfully” deserving through the pressure-group horse-trading of the political decision-making of modern democratic politics.

Benito Mussolini defined the hyper-nationalism that he called “fascism” in the following way: “everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” The gender and race warriors of identity politics conceive of a politically controlled and designed world in which the guiding principles appear to be: everything within your gender and race, nothing outside your gender and race, and nothing against your gender and race. Here is the new gender and race totalitarianism of the 21st century: a repackaged Mussolini for a postmodern “progressive” and “democratic” socialist world. (See my articles “Collectivism’s Progress: From Marxism to Intersectionality” and “An ‘Identity Politics’ Victory Would Mean the End to Liberty.”)

All of this makes it sadly clear that when the backyard grills are fired up this July 4, and the burgers and brats are consumed in huge quantities while being washed down with untold gallons of beer, and the beautiful fireworks are oohed and aahh-ed over as the evening sky darkens, much of what is claimed to be “the American way” or “American values” in our contemporary world has, in fact, little to do with the ideas and ideals that inspired and guided those individuals who signed the Declaration of Independence.

But neither despair nor pessimism should becloud our celebration and enjoyment of the day. We, who believe in the liberty for which the Founding Fathers pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor in that war of independence, must do all in our power to restore that crucial understanding and appreciation of individual freedom and individual rights among our fellow citizens, without which that great American “experiment” in political, social, and economic liberty may be lost beyond recovery but which can be restored and improved upon, if only enough of us are willing to try.

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina. Ebeling lived on AIER’s campus from 2008 to 2009.

This article is republished with permission from the American Institute for Economic Research.

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