Critique of the 1776 Commission Report/Original text/Page 5


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Thomas Jefferson liked to paraphrase the republican political thinker Algernon Sidney: "the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God." Superiority of talent — even a superior ability to rule — is not a divine or natural title or warrant to rule. George Washington, surely one of the ablest statesmen who ever lived, never made such an outlandish claim and, indeed, vehemently rejected such assertions made by others about him.

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As Abraham Lincoln would later explain, there was no urgent need for the founders to insert into a "merely revolutionary document" this "abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times." They could simply have told the British king they were separating and left it at that. But they enlarged the scope of their Declaration so that its principles would serve as "a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyrany and oppression." The finality of the truth that "all men are created equal" was intended to make impossible any return to formal or legal inequality, whether to older forms such as absolute monarchy and hereditary aristocracy, or to as-yet-unimagined forms we have seen in more recent times.

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Natural equality requires not only the consent of the governed but also the recognition of fundamental human rights — including but not limited to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — as well as the fundamental duty or obligation of all to respect the rights of others. These rights are found in nature and are not created by man or government; rather, men create governments to secure natural rights. Indeed, the very purpose of government is to secure these rights, which exist independently of government, whether government recognizes them or not. A bad government may deny or ignore natural rights and even prevent their exercise in the real world. But it can never negate or eliminate them.

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The principles of the Declaration are universal and eternal. Yet they were asserted by a specific people, for a specific purpose, in a specific circumstance. The general principles stated in the document explain and justify the founders' particular actions in breaking off from Great Britain, and also explain the principles upon which they would build their new government. These principles apply to all men, but the founders acted to secure only Americans' rights, not those of all mankind. The world is still — and will always be — divided into nations, not all of which respect the rights of their people, though they should.

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We confront, finally, the difficulty that the eternal principles elucidated in the Declaration were stated, and became the basis for an actual government, only a relatively short time ago . Yet if these principles are both eternal and accessible to the human mind, why were they not discovered and acted upon long before 1776?

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In a sense, the precepts of the American founders were known to prior thinkers, but those thinkers stated them in entirely different terms to fit the different political and intellectual circumstances of their times. For instance, ancient philosophers appear to teach that wisdom is a genuine title to rule and that in a decisive respect all men are not created equal. Yet they also teach that it is all but impossible for any actual, living man to attain genuine wisdom. Even if wisdom is a legitimate title to rule, if perfect wisdom is unattainable by any living man, then no man is by right the ruler of any other except by their consent.

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"When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." — Martin Luther King, Jr