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 to 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.
What does the Declaration of Independence mean? We are clouded by over 200 years of historical and political interpretation that we can’t even make out what our founding document actually has to say. In a class of students, if the question is asked, “how many self evident truths are present in the Declaration of Independence?” almost none can actually answer the question.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that there are certain truths that are self evident and immutable. Since the time of Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address, most Americans only see one self evident truth: that all men are created equal. Yet, what of the word “truths”? If Jefferson only wrote one truth, that all are created equal, then why did he write that there are “truths”; an implication that there is more than just the one truth to be found. The idea of self evident truths is connected with the belief in the Natural Law, which St. Thomas said is inscribed on the hearts of all men. John Locke, one of the many names attached to the Law of Nature, believed that there are certain precepts or truths that can be known but that most must be acquired through knowledge. Jefferson, a Lockean thinker, acknowledges that there are self evident truths and proceeds to name them.
“That all men are created equal” is the first of Jefferson’s self evident truths. It might seem a bit wrong for those of us living today for a known slave holder to suggest that all men are created equal. It would seem even stranger for us to find that it was a well accepted truth that all men are created equal by the time Jefferson wrote his famous Declaration. First, Jefferson does not say that we are all created equally, but rather simply as equal. The word equally is an adverb, whereas the word equal can be a verb, adjective, or noun. If we were all created equally, then we’d be identical in manner or equal to a certain extent. However, we’re not created equally but rather equal. The word equal has a number of separate meanings, however, the one Jefferson is aiming towards is, “having adequate powers, ability, or means.” It is only if this basic truth is accepted that the others can be called self evident. It is because we are equal in power, ability and mean that we are able to say the other three truths.
It was because we are all created equal, a truth widely accepted by this point in history, that Jefferson was able to posit a modified version of Locke’s famous “life, liberty and property.” Jefferson says, “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Because we are all created equal, we have the same unalienable Rights. Even in absolute monarchies like France, Spain or Russia it would be accepted that the Sovereign cannot deprive someone of their life or their liberty without just cause. Again, it might seem odd to suggest that they believed that liberty is an unalienable right when there still existed slavery and serfdom in the western world. However, is slavery or serfdom opposed to liberty? Remember, the individual slave owners thought they were doing right by their slaves. It was assumed that the slaves couldn’t fully enjoy their natural rights unless they were enslaved. And remember, neither the Declaration nor the Constitution and its amendments say that all are to be treated equally; because we are only equal. Once again, it is because we are created equal and because we have unalienable rights that we can identify the third self evident truth.
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Our ability to form governments is based upon two self evident truths: all men are created equal and we are endowed with certain unalienable rights. One cannot consent to be governed if they are inferior and lack certain unalienable rights. And while there were more monarchies than democracies in the world in 1776, the idea that the King was chosen by God to rule (Divine Right Monarchy) was not as widely accepted as it had been less than 100 years prior. The writings of Hobbes, Locke and Sidney had already permeated into the world and while Louis was King of France he ruled largely because the nobles allowed it. In England, the King ruled only with the consent of the people. The Declaration of Independence came less than a century after the Glorious Revolution and the English Interregnum. Kings Charles I and II both were overthrown by the people or parliament and ruled with their consent.
This leads to the final self evident truth as laid out by Thomas Jefferson:
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to 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.
The idea that a people could overthrow their legitimate sovereign had always been a point of contention. When Europe was still Catholic, the Papacy held that it could alone severe the ties between Prince and his subjects. As was seen in England, the right to revolution was already well established in the aftermath of the Interregnum and the Glorious Revolution. However, the idea that a colony could revolt and establish itself as an independent nation was still a new idea. It is this self evident truth that Jefferson made central to his Declaration of Independence. The Right to Revolution is based entirely on the acceptance of the other self evident truths. As such, the fact that we were all created equal is both the least significant self evident truth and the most important since from it stems our understanding of the other truths.