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Democratic ideals in the Declaration of Independence

LOR‑1.A.2 (EK)
A close reading of the beginnings of the Declaration of Independence to identify ideas of natural rights, social contract, limited government and popular sovereignty in the text.

Read the full text of the Declaration of Independence.

Video transcript

- [Instructor] The goal of this video is to appreciate how ideas of natural rights and social contract and limited government and popular sovereignty are embedded in America's founding documents. Before we start looking at the documents themselves, let's just make sure we understand the context in which they were written. As we enter into the mid 1770s, you have the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, which begins in 1775. A little more than a year after the beginning of the war, you have the Second Continental Congress decide to formally declare independence on July 2nd and the Declaration of Independence, which we will study a bit in this video is formally approved on July 4th, 1776, which is when we now celebrate Independence Day, even though some could argue that it was July 2nd. Now, as soon as the colonies decide that they are independent from the Kingdom of Great Britain, they have to think about how do we govern ourselves? Within roughly a week, a little more than a week after the Declaration of Independence is approved, they start drafting the Articles of Confederation. Remember the Revolutionary War is still going on. Eventually what will be known as the Articles of Confederation go into effect in 1781. Now, this Articles of Confederation really treat the various colonies as you could almost view it as separate states that agree to work together for purposes of getting independence from Great Britain, for purposes of fighting the war, for purposes of diplomacy. Now, over the course of the next several years, it becomes clear, especially through things like Shays' Rebellion, which we will look at in other videos that the Articles of Confederation don't provide a strong enough central government. In May 1787, you have what is called as a Constitutional Convention convening. It's presided over by George Washington, who led the Americans in the Revolutionary War, which they eventually will win as you see and obviously we're independent country now. The original intent of the Constitutional Convention was to revise the Articles of Confederation, but folks like Madison and Hamilton were really intent on just completely replacing it. What they replace it with was what is now the US Constitution, which goes into effect in March of 1789 and shortly thereafter, you have the beginning of Washington's two terms. To be clear, the idea of even having a powerful executive, the idea of even having a president was not present in the Articles of Confederation that comes with the Constitution. With that context out of the way, let's look at, especially the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. Here's the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, written by Jefferson and edited by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. I encourage you to pause this video and first try to read it on your own and see if you can identify these ideas of natural rights, limited government, popular sovereignty, republicanism and social contract. Let's read this together now. When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds, which have connected them with another ... Remember, this is a Declaration of Independence. They are dissolving the political bonds with the Kingdom of Great Britain 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, so that's starting to refer a little bit to natural rights, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. They're saying, "Hey, we're writing this document because "we're trying to show the rest of mankind why the reasons "for which we are deciding to declare "our independence from Great Britain." We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, let me underline this, 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. This is a direct reference to natural rights. In fact, the phrase life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, most historians believe is in direct reference to John Locke's phrase life, liberty and property when he talks about natural rights. This is direct reference to the enlightenment ideas or even the pre-enlightenment ideas of natural rights. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. This is worth underlining as well because they're talking about governments being instituted among men to secure these rights. This is all about social contract, so that's social contract that we form a government in order to secure rights. We might give it some rights, but in exchange the government has to protect our rights. They derive their powers from the consent of the governed. Let me underline that actually in a different color, derive their powers from the consent of the governed. That is popular sovereignty, popular. I'll just write as pop sov, popular sovereignty right over here. That the people are the sovereigns. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it and to institute a 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. This is more about social contract. They're like, "Look, if a government breaks its social "contract, we have a right to replace it." The document also makes reference to organizing its powers in such form, so that's really talking about limited government. They're talking about, "Hey, this government just won't "have the absolute right to do anything," so that right over there is limited government. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes. They're essentially saying, "Look, you shouldn't just "overthrow your government on a whim," and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. They're saying, "Look, if you're prudent, you wouldn't just "overthrow your government on a whim," but they're kind of saying, "We're not so worried about that because history "has shown us, experience has shown us that if anything, "people are more likely to keep suffering even when they "should be overthrowing their government." 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. They're saying, "Hey, look, the Kingdom of Great Britain, "they are abusing us, they are usurping power." Usurping is taking something from you that is yours and so we need to throw off such a government for our own future security. Here it says, "Provide new guards for their future security," so this provide new guards, once again making reference to limited government. Now, let's fast forward roughly 13 years to the US Constitution, which continues of course to be in effect. This over here is a picture of the Constitutional Convention, which we mentioned happened in 1787. The original intent of the Constitutional Convention was to revise the Articles of Confederation, but folks like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison really wanted to replace the Articles of Confederation. You can see it's being presided over by George Washington. It starts, the preamble says, "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more "perfect Union, establish justice, "insure domestic tranquility, provide for the "common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the "Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do "ordain and establish this constitution for "the United States of America." Once again, pause this video and think about whether you see ideas of popular sovereignty, limited government, social contract, natural rights going on even in this preamble or even from the fact that they took the trouble to create this constitution. Well, let's start at the beginning. It starts with, "We the people," we the people are the ones that are creating this Constitution and not only does it start with we the people, but we the people is intentionally written in this very, very large writing right over here. This is a picture of the Constitution. It's really of all about we the people, the people are sovereign, so this idea of popular sovereignty comes out loud and clear in not just the Declaration of Independence, but also the US Constitution. The fact that we the people are setting up this government, this is all about social contract. They are forming a government. They're forming a social contract with a government that is going to protect, that is going to establish justice, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare. Let me make this clear. That is this, this is all social contract. This is what we expect, this government that we're creating to do, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. Now, what about things like limited government? Well, just the very fact that we have a constitution is a sign of limited government that it isn't just a pure democracy that whoever is governing is going to be constrained. The rights of the government are going to be described by this constitution. We also talk about the Blessings of Liberty, so this is another reference to natural rights. The Declaration of Independence is a little bit more clear about natural rights or a little bit more explicit, but the Blessings of Liberty does talk about or that's maybe in reference to natural rights. I will leave you there. As we study US government, both the Declaration of Independence and even more so, the US Constitution are going to be things that we keep going back to to understand how we are trying to form a more perfect union and what is in line with the vision of our Founding Fathers and what isn't.