Does the Declaration of Independence Tell the Truth?

At this time of the year, while most U.S. citizens are contemplating U.S. independence and the Declaration of Independence, I ask myself why, in nineteen years of teaching in the New York public schools, I have not once heard the students gathered to sing in any assembly or forum "America the Beautiful," "God Bless America," or "My Country 'Tis of Thee." The National Anthem has been sung only once a year, at the graduation ceremonies. 

This serious omission of patriotic fervor can be attributed to the leftist influence on the school system. Most leftists believe the Declaration of Independence was primarily a document driven by the class interests of the signers. The gentry and economically powerful merchant groups in the U.S. and the aristocratic southern plantation economy joined forces against powerful interests in the mother country that would limit their growth, their economic well-being, and their power. Talk about inalienable rights, equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were rationalizations for underlying issues of class and status. Charles and Mary Beard set the stage for this analysis, and it has been carried forward by Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States. Are they correct?

First, a caveat: Even if the document were a justification of class interests in part, would that be so wrong? If we have an economic leadership based on wealth amassed through faith, hard work, determination, and intelligence, then is it not just for them to defend that wealth and influence from usurpations by those who would unlawfully take said wealth and influence away from them? The truth of "no taxation without representation" is a valid truth, but it certainly oversimplifies the dynamics behind the Declaration of Independence.

Let us consider one of the more contentious statements of the Declaration:

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; ...

John Locke in his treatises on government made a cogent analysis of the body politic and stressed that life, liberty and property could best be protected if the locus of power in the government lay with the representatives of the people rather than with the executive -- or in his context, the monarchy. The signers of the Declaration, aware of the moral ambiguities of slavery in the American context, deleted the word "property," and preferred to substitute "pursuit of happiness." They introduced this Aristotelian goal in order (1) to acknowledge the existence of a summum bonum, (2) to point to the unity of happiness and virtue (happiness for Aristotle was arrived at by strenuous contemplation and implementation of virtue, and was not, as in our times, associated with hedonism or with "self-fulfillment" à la Abraham Maslow), and (3) to introduce the idea of the newly independent USA as a land of opportunity, both economically and politically. How can this be offensive?

Although the Declaration was not in one accord with the 17th-century Westminster Shorter Catechism that announced the purpose of life to be "to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever," we can see that the Declaration, by insisting that the values expressed in it are "endowed by their [the people's] Creator," is an echo of the earlier Westminster document. The language suggests to me that the Declaration was deeply rooted in Protestant theology more than in class interests.

What about the self-evidence of the truths claimed in our founding document? This assertion is directly out of the rationalist enlightenment playbook. R. Descartes had affirmed that he could believe only truths that were "clear and distinct." To be clear and distinct, they had to meet the challenge of his method of doubt. If there were any possibility that the truths he perceived could be contingent or could be based on misperception, they would be excluded. Through experience and various other mechanisms, J. Locke's empiricism believed that certainty could be arrived at through experience, science, and intuition.

While these self-evident truths for the signers were not the same as revealed truth as found in Holy Scripture, they are still "endowed" to all men by God the Creator. In theological language, they would be considered part of common grace, whereas for the believing Christian, the Bible comes under special or revealed grace. Thus, the Bible tells us that the rain falls equally on the just and the unjust, and in similar fashion, all men are endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Almighty God must be assumed, because without Him, how could one explain that all men are so endowed?

As we contemplate our independence as a nation and the exercise of our inalienable rights, as we sing hosannas of gratitude for these blessings, let us remember to also reject all Marxist views that would depreciate the values of the Declaration.
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