Declaration of Independence - What It Means Now

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The following is last chapter in a book called, “The Story of the Declaration of Independence”. Malone, Dumas (1954) The Story of the Declaration of Independence, New York: Oxford University Press. This chapter is found on pages 266-268 and is included in its entirety below.

Unlike the Constitution the Declaration of Independence provides no frame of government. It offers no patter for human society, no specific program for the present, no blueprint for the future. But, unless its author is very much mistaken, it contains a body of abiding truth. Lenin and Stalin lie embalmed in Moscow, visible to Russian hordes, and the apotheosis of the Constitution in our land may be regarded by contrast as symbolic of our devotion to a government of laws, not men. The shrined Declaration is a perpetual reminder of the purpose of these laws, of the only valid purpose of all laws – to provide a society within which all men can enjoy the largest feasible degree of liberty and attain the fullest measure of happiness.

If hearts are still stirred by the Declaration, as they surely are, this is partly because of its historic associations, partly because of the beauty of its phrases, but chiefly because men perceive within it the quality of universality. The historic American faith, which congress made official on July 4, 1776, can be simply stated in dateless language:

By birth all men are equal, not in ability or condition, for that has been untrue in all ages of which we have any record, but in the possession of fundamental rights. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are mentioned in the great Charter; but more important than any list is the ‘truth’ that men possess these rights, not because of race or creed or station, but because they are human beings. Here is the eternal answer to bigotry and intolerance of any and every sort.

Government and every other form of public control is a means of human wellbeing, not an end in itself. Man is not made for the state but the stat for man, and it derives its just powers only from the consent of the governed. In extreme cases, like the one in 1776, this ‘truth’ justifies political revolution, an in all cases it provides the criterion by which any government or institution should be judged. No sort of rule can justify rest on power alone, and here is the eternal answer to all forms of tyranny over the persons, the property, and the minds of men.

The wondrous phrases which were written on our first Independence Day into the official creed of the newborn Republic were an expression of ideal, not a description of immediate realities. In every generation since that time some men have scoffed at them, others have done only lip service to them, and still others have been distressed by the slow and imperfect attainment of them. But the gradual realization of the implications of the great Declaration comprises the history of American democracy; and, outside of the sacred religious writing of man, this document more than any other is inspired American citizens and statesman to their noblest actions.

It has never receive more eloquent testimony than that of Abraham Lincoln. There was poignant drama in his brief visit to Philadelphia, on his way to Washington to be inaugurated as President. On Washington’s Birthday in 1861, speaking I Independence Hall, he said:

… I have never had a felling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here, and framed and adopted the Declaration of Independence. I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the army who achieved that Independence. I have often inquired of myself what great principle or idea it was that kept Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland; but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the pope of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted form the shoulders of all men.

In the middle of the twentieth century the weight of tyranny – political, economic and social – is still heavy on these shoulders of men. But never more than in our own age of dictatorships and totalitarian governments, which magnify the state to the annihilation of human dignity and leave nowhere a vestige of human freedom, do we need to turn to our oldest and noblest charter for light and hope. The great Declaration still issues its ringing challenge to the tyrants how would ride mankind, and it still proclaims the undying faith in human beings which has permeated the glorified the history of American.

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