For more than two hundred years, the fundamental principles set out in the Declaration of Independence have been a popular rallying cry in American politics. We see this especially with issues which seem to go to the heart of United States law, such as women’s suffrage, civil rights, abortion and gay marriage. While it is tempting to look to the Founding Fathers as the ultimate constitutional authority, it is good to bear in mind that those worthy gentlemen could not possibly have conceived of many of the controversies which occupy us today. So before reaching for one’s “unalienable Rights… Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, it is wise to consider both the historical context of the Declaration, and the background and outlook of those who wrote it. In this light, the document is seen to have been given a much broader interpretation by subsequent generations than was originally intended.
Notwithstanding the commonly held perception of them as the idealist leaders of a massive popular revolution, the 56 signatories to the Declaration of Independence were members of an elite group taking advantage of an extraordinary political opportunity. The Founding Fathers were, without exception, wealthy men of property who, under normal circumstances, would not have espoused radical ideas. They saw themselves as the natural leaders and caretakers of their society, and had come to view British rule as a barrier to increasing that power, and therefore to the welfare of the American colonies. Persistent atrocities by the British, and a series of popular uprisings, had by 1776 mobilized enough opinion against the mother country for the landed gentry to feel confident in exploiting it.
This is not to say that the majority of people were necessarily in favor of severing links with Britain. Howard Zinn, in A People’s History of the United States, argues that the Founding Fathers acted as much to deflect popular resentment away from their own abuses of power as to further their desire for freedom to act without British influence. The central concept of the Declaration of Independence is based on the philosophy of John Locke, who outlined mankind’s fundamental democratic rights to life, liberty and property. In drafting the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson changed “property” to “happiness” as a concession to popular sentiment. This more abstract language was calculated to appeal to the public mind, and to guard against those who felt that the privileged upper classes already had too much property.
It is clear, then, that the Founding Fathers were thinking of these “unalienable Rights” as applying principally to themselves and men of their own standing. This was a natural outlook for men of that time, and they would no more have considered their application to women, slaves, Indians or the lower classes than we today would consider giving the vote to children. They could not have anticipated the social upheavals that would lead to the broader inclusion of these groups into American life.
Although such struggles have historically focused on the Constitution, its interpretation and amendment – the Declaration of Independence is, after all, not a legal document – they have all invoked the language of the Declaration to add impetus to their campaigns. It speaks of “Life” (basic human rights), “Liberty” (freedom) and “the pursuit of Happiness” (the opportunity to make something of oneself, no matter what one’s station in life is) – rights which campaigners have usually claimed were envisaged by the Founding Fathers but subsequently denied to large sections of society by those in power. At the turn of the last century Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a leading light of the women’s suffrage movement, admonished members of Congress: “Either these doctrines [of the Declaration of Independence] are true, or you can give no reason for your own possession of the suffrage except that you have got it. If this doctrine be sound, it follows that no class of person can rightfully be excluded from their equal share in the government”.
Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous speech at the Washington Monument, claimed that in authoring the Declaration, the Founding Fathers “were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir”. By appealing to the nation’s constitutional soul, rhetoric like this was an effective tool for the women’s and civil rights movements in furthering their goals. Seen from a present day perspective, it is natural to couple the rights now enjoyed by women, African-Americans, the poor and other formerly disenfranchised groups to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.
Many issues faced by society today give the Declaration a relevance far beyond what its authors conceived, including two that are currently the most emotive and divisive: abortion and gay marriage. The debate still runs as to whether the cornerstones of the document apply to fetuses (Does “Life” mean the right to be born?) and same sex couples (Does “the pursuit of Happiness” include access to a privilege traditionally extended only to a man and a woman?) The fact that the Declaration speaks of “unalienable Rights” – rights that cannot be taken away by humans from other humans – reinforces those who believe that their cause is just.
A statement issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops condemns modern society’s disregard of these core rights: “We deplore the fact that our nation is at risk of forgetting the promise made to generations yet unborn by our Declaration of Independence: that our nation would respect life as first among the inalienable [sic] rights bestowed on us by our Creator”. Essayist Brian Elroy McKinley, a former fundamentalist Christian, rebuts this by arguing that a fetus does not enjoy this protection: “You cannot have two entities with equal rights occupying one body. [. . .] giving a ‘right to life’ to the potential person in the womb automatically cancels out the mother’s right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”.
Use of the Declaration on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate is just as vigorous. Law professor Chip Lundgren points out that marriage is one way for people to pursue happiness and that the state has no right to stand in their way. Anti-gay marriage activists take a different view. A piece on the conservative website Citizen Soldier argues that homosexuality is immoral behavior and therefore does not qualify as an unalienable Right endowed by the Creator.
We may never know to what extent the Founding Fathers anticipated their Declaration being used and interpreted by later generations, although some of America’s fundamental social revolutions were already under way when it was written. Jefferson wanted to include a passage condemning the African slave trade, but was overruled. First and foremost, it was a political treatise, designed to address a situation that was of grave importance at that particular time, and not what might happen after independence had been gained. But its arguments – particularly the core principle set out in the preamble – while compelling, could be understood to mean different things by whoever read them. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution was an attempt to enshrine them in law by decreeing that no-one could be deprived of “life, liberty, or property” without good cause – a return to the Lockean idea around which Jefferson had skirted.
But the fact remains that for long periods of history, and in consequence of the prevailing social climate, this protection has been unavailable to large sections of the American people. Acknowledging the deficiencies in the Founding Fathers’ worldview during a 2004 debate on the Federal Marriage Constitutional Amendment, Senator Mark Dayton (D-MN) observed that their ideals “signaled only the starting points, not the finish lines” to civil rights for all. The fact that almost everyone still regards the Declaration of Independence as an enshrinement of everything good and right is what ensures its continued usefulness and relevance to all Americans.