The Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, was “intended to be an expression of the American mind.” Although not intended as such, it was also an expression of the American character. Woven throughout the text are insights into the minds and virtues of those Lincoln called the “once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors” who fought for the independence we still enjoy.
This aspect of the Declaration of Independence receives scant attention from scholars and citizens, yet it must be understood. The theory of government elaborated in that text presupposes the existence of citizens who know how to govern themselves and are willing to assert their rights. The American character is the unstated premise of the argument, without which the theory, though still true, doesn’t work in practice.
The Vigilant and Manly American Spirit
It is fairly easy to declare rights and proclaim liberties. Countless armchair intellectuals have done so from the comfort of their offices. These rights, however, are not self-executing. God may have granted them to us, but we are expected to defend them. Tyranny, not liberty, tends to be the default historical setting for mankind.
What sets us Americans apart is that we do not merely declare for liberty. We staunchly stand for it. To be an American is not only to know that you are born free, it is to have the courage to defend your freedom. This admirable aspect of the American character is evident in the fifth grievance the declaration levels against the king.
It reads: “He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly, for opposing, with manly firmness, his invasions on the rights of the people.” The king acted as monarchs are wont to do. Our forefathers, although they were subjects, did not take his abuses passively. They resisted—with manly firmness.
Today, King George III is long gone. Our representative houses are no longer dissolved at will (although they have unconstitutionally been declared to be in recess). Our rights, however, are still encroached upon, whether by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or the Environmental Protection Agency. Thankfully, courageous Americans still push back, like the Green family, who challenged Obamacare’s abortifacient mandate, or the Sacketts, who fought the EPA’s effective seizure of their property.
No charter of liberties or Constitution—not even one handed down by God himself—could ever, on its own, protect the rights of the people. James Madison, the father of our own Constitution, was not so foolish as to place his trust in mere “parchment barriers against the encroaching spirit of power.”
In Federalist No. 57, Madison takes up the question of “what is to restrain the House of Representatives from making legal discriminations in favor of themselves and a particular class of the society?” His answer: “the genius of the whole system; the nature of just and constitutional laws; and above all, the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America—a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it.”
The 56 men who signed our Declaration of Independence set the example for their fellow countrymen and for future generations. They did not simply proclaim the universal rights of man. They also pledged “to each other, our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” And they meant it. Twelve served as combat commanders during the Revolutionary War. Five were captured and imprisoned by the British. Seventeen lost part of their fortunes.
America is not a country for servile men and women. We not only have a right to be free, but a duty to be free. For “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.” Free as we are, we have no liberty to choose despotism—even if it is sugarcoated, as it is today, with material comfort and license.
As Samuel Adams said in his rousing oration on American Independence: “If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude than the animating contest of freedom—go from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen!”
The Elusive Art of Self-Government
Our love of liberty, however strong, is not reckless. We know, for example, that “governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” We declared our independence and threw our country into war not upon the first encroachment on liberty, but after “a long train of abuses and usurpations.”
Invoking the right to revolution, or its corollary—the right to civil disobedience—was, and should remain, a last resort. The American character delicately balances the love of liberty with a reverence for the law. We Americans, Tocqueville observed, are animated by “a virile love of order.” The elusive art of self-government lies in this capacity to prevent the spirited attachment to liberty from becoming unruly by reconciling it to the gentle yoke of the law.
Throughout human history, the two have rarely co-existed. Many have won their freedom. Few then succeeded in governing themselves. It is much easier to topple a dictator than to ingrain in the minds of people respect for the law and to cultivate their vigilant and manly spirit. Subjugation will teach people to hate their oppressors. It will not teach them to love liberty, as the failures of the misnamed Arab Spring make clear.
In America, by contrast, we first learned how to govern ourselves and then won our independence. The American colonists who defeated the British were already “a civilized nation” that knew how to be free. The list of grievances in the middle of the declaration teaches us that these were a people accustomed to representative government who thought “the right of representation in the legislature … inestimable.” They expected the judiciary to be independent and the military to be subordinated to civil power. And they knew “the benefits of trial by jury.”
These were “a free people,” whose character had been shaped over the centuries by “the free system of English laws.” Independence was proclaimed not by a general or an ad-hoc commission of rebel groups, but by “the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled.”
Two centuries later, the American character endures, battered and bruised though it may be. It has been corroded by the Progressive faith in government, the ’60s ethos of “if it feels good, do it,” and the mindlessness and vulgarity of pop culture. But we can still readily discern among many Americans the habits of mind and the virtues of a free people. For this, we should be grateful.