Modern history



THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE WAS BORN, OR RATHER exploded, into an aristocratic world. Sir Thomas More is an example of life at its best and its worst in this world. He rose and fell through the aristocracy. His was a world of nobles, and especially it was a world of kings. The kings were the sons of kings. Their friends and familiars were the dukes and earls and viscounts, the sons of fathers of the same rank. These people were peers, a word that means “on the same plane with.” The peers occupied the only plane worth mentioning, the elevated plane, above the great many. The peers were arranged in a hierarchy, each proud of his rank, whatever it was, but also keen for a higher one. Their love for their own sons demanded it. The forms of address were carefully observed for all the ranks: your grace, your lordship, your ladyship.

In the best kingships there was scope for talent to rise, but not to the highest rank. In the late eighteenth century, the time of the American Revolution, one could be pretty sure that the practices of Henry VIII would not return, but people knew what they were. Sir Thomas More was a friend, fellow student, and teacher of Henry VIII. More was a man from a middling family, born with genius of mind and character, and raised to a high place. He spent long evenings with the king in delightful conversation. He wrote great articles with him on matters of man and God. He and the king wrote in those articles that certain things must not be done, on peril of one’s soul. More lived as few could imagine: he knew fame, wealth, and power; all looked to him with respect and nearly all with deference. Then the king who befriended him and raised him up to high places turned on him. Sir Thomas was imprisoned, starved, and deprived of books and warmth, and finally he was killed. This happened because Sir Thomas refused to do the very thing that he and the king had written would imperil their souls. The king presented him the terrible choice between duty to God and protection of family.

The case is not unique. Consider the ancestor of the statesman Winston Churchill, the general John Churchill, the scourge of Louis XIV, the founder of British greatness on the battlefield, made by Queen Anne the first Duke of Marlborough. Anne, John, and his wife, Sarah, were bosom friends when Anne was only an heir to the throne with little chance of occupying it. They were friends when their lives were at risk in dynastic struggles. They were friends when fate and fortune placed Anne on the throne, friends when she made him commander in the great war that embroiled all Europe, friends when he won every battle he fought for ten years, friends when he broke the French ambition to dominate Europe. Then, the day came that they were not friends, and soon Marlborough was not favored but dismissed, charges were brought, and he went into exile.

Queen Anne was a friend to Marlborough, and Henry VIII was a friend to Thomas More, so far as a monarch can be a friend to a regular man. That did not always prove to be so very far, and it did not always prove to last.

Great Britain in 1776 was an example of the moderate form of kingship. Like the best of the kings, George III, sovereign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, did not enjoy absolute power. In many ways he was a blessing to his people.

In his personal life, George was very concerned to place himself in the right and not to depend on his power alone. He was for a monarch humble, common, and dutiful. He began and ended each day in prayer and contemplation of Scripture. He urged his son to do the same. He was easy in contact even with ordinary people, when he had that contact. His faith taught him that even the “best of us are poor creatures.”1 He had such an interest in the practical side of agriculture, and such an ordinary and homely way of speaking of it, that he was often called “Farmer George.”2

Ten years before Jefferson’s Declaration was addressed to him, George III wrote for his son a defense of his conduct as king, in which he does not “pretend to superior abilities,” but, he says, he gives place to no one in “meaning to preserve the freedom, happiness, and glory of my dominions, and all their inhabitants, and to fulfill the duty to my God and my neighbor in the most extended sense.” He concludes: “That I have erred is undoubted, otherwise I should not be human, but I flatter myself that all unprejudiced persons will be convinced that whenever I have failed it has been from the head not the heart.”3

The Declaration of Independence refers to George as a tyrant. No one who reads his letters can believe he thought or intended so. He does not justify himself, even in a private letter to his son and heir, on the ground of his own wishes. In some important sense, he regards himself as a servant. In his own eyes his kingship would not be legitimate except that it should serve the freedom and happiness of his dominions and their inhabitants, and also except that it should constitute a duty to God.

All that is on the one hand. On the other are the fact and nature of the kingship. George III lived in opulence and authority, and these benefits came to him personally because of how he was born. He rode in a carriage huge and dazzling. Wherever he went the people gaped, often in vast throngs whose joy was to catch a glimpse of him. He attended on his subjects frequently, but only those few who could afford the proper dress were able to approach him. He knew therefore only a few people of a certain kind; he required the support of fewer still. Each move of his body, each tic of his face, was studied to catch the least sign of his favor or disfavor.

When his son fell in love with a woman not of royal blood, he forbade the match; no prince should marry a subject, no matter if his heart commanded it.4 To keep a clean heart is vital, George thought, but even a clean heart must not stoop below its station.

George III was referred to as “Majesty,” a title of veneration from Rome through both the romantic and the Germanic languages. It refers to the dignity either of a god or of an exalted person, and so it associates the two. It was the habit of men in those days to think that God designated some men by birth to rule others. George the Farmer believed this with an unshakable conviction, and this conviction would make him do things that were repugnant to his colonies in America. Likely his intentions were as just as they could be, but still his actions amounted to expropriation, to arrest, to execution, to threats to families, including women and children. Sovereigns, whoever they are and whatever principle brings them to power, are likely to act this way when their sovereignty is at stake, a point well known to the Founders and affecting the way they wrote the Constitution. When the sovereign is an individual, and when he holds the sovereignty by a personal right, the problem can be worse.

This sense of majesty in the king was so strong that it was shared by nearly all of the colonists in America to some degree, and only a long series of tense and violent steps could efface it. Those steps began in 1763, when Britain won one of its several great wars with France. In Europe this war was called the Seven Years’ War; in America, the French and Indian War. Now reaching a peak of strength, Britain began to take a closer interest in her colonies. She would tax and regulate them in new ways, and she would do it from Imperial London, now the center of the world. She would use part of this new money to pay for a new kind of administration, accountable not to those governed but to Imperial London. In other words, the colonists would pay for the officials sent to tell them what to do.5

Surprised and puzzled by the intrusion of British power into their familiar affairs, the colonists protested their loyalty to the king’s sovereignty as loudly as they did their objections to his policy. Daniel Dulany, a Maryland lawyer who would not in the end support independence, was the kind of man easiest to follow in the beginning. Even in a letter of protest against the taxes from London in 1765, he wrote that “the colonies are dependent upon Great Britain, and the supreme authority vested in the King, Lords, and Commons, may justly be exercised to . . . preserve their Dependence, whenever necessary for that purpose.”6

As late as July 8, 1775, a year before the Declaration, the colonies make a strong and official protest to the king in the form of the Olive Branch Petition.7 It is signed by several of the eventual signers of the Declaration, including prominently John Hancock. It complains of the “irksome variety of artifices practiced by many of your Majesty’s Ministers” and of their “delusive pretences, fruitless terrors, and unavailing severities.” At the same time they profess themselves “attached to your Majesty’s person, family, and Government, with all devotion that principle and affection can inspire.”

This means that even here, in the New World, from which the Declaration of Independence would spring, the ground was not first broken with the intention of planting such a seed. Dulany insisted that the king’s authority was limited, but admitted that the authority existed whether the people consented to it or not. This was simply the common sense of the matter, even in Great Britain, but even more so in other European countries where monarchs were generally stronger and more nearly absolute.


The Declaration of Independence does not read like a document from this world of kings. It hardly reads like a document from any particular world at all.

The first words of the Declaration are, “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people . . .” This does not mean now, in North America in 1776, where killing has broken out between a long-settled government and the people. It does not mean the room in Philadelphia where the signers are gathered. The Declaration does not refer to any particular place. It does not mean those particular signers, either. It does not mean the people who elected those signers. The Declaration does not begin with any reference to those who write and ratify it, or to the nation they are forming.

If you think about it a minute, this will seem remarkable. At the time of the Declaration, armies are being formed, and people have been killed. Others have lost their property, and many more will do so. The signers of the Declaration acknowledge these obvious facts in the last sentence, when they mutually pledge “to each other” their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. This is like a soldier’s bond, each pledging to stand by the man next to him. Anyone can see how this kind of language would get into the Declaration of Independence. That is how people talk when they are risking their lives in war.

But what about this beginning, which is so abstract? The beginning treats these events not as something special or unique but as something that occurs “in the Course of human events.” Soldiers who do brave acts are often shy about discussing them: “Anyone would have done the same.” “I was very frightened, and I acted by instinct.” This modesty is common from soldiers, especially when they are speaking to people who were not there with them. The modesty of the opening of the Declaration is rather like that. Its signers are at the crisis of their lives, and they begin by placing it in context. Because such things happen from time to time, there are standards according to which one must behave in them.

Having established that the situation is not without precedent, the Declaration turns to the standard according to which one must act in such situations. That standard is the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Established in these laws is the principle of equality, first for peoples, who are entitled to a separate and equal station under these “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Also, each individual person is similarly entitled. This is established by a “self-evident” truth, that is, a truth whose proof is contained in the terms of the truth itself. If you know what a man is, you know that he is created equal. According to this self-evident truth, all men are “created equal,” and “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” among which are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The purpose of government is “to secure these rights.” This is the only reason stated why government is “instituted among Men.” In all cases, government derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed.”

These principles are not mere abstractions. They are introduced into a concrete situation, a situation established in a long history that includes the elevation and fall of Sir Thomas More and of the Duke of Marlborough, the high station of George III and his ancestors, the titles and privileges and courtesies of the court. These “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” are therefore necessary to the situation. It is obvious that the Revolutionaries cannot appeal to the laws of Great Britain: the purpose of the document is to throw off those laws. It is obvious that they cannot appeal to their own opinions or wishes, unless they are megalomaniacs. Only of God can it be said that His will constituted a rule that all peoples, in all places, and at all times must obey. The Founders needed a law as universal as the circumstances the law is supposed to cover. They needed a law applicable in all nature.

The word nature has several meanings, two of which are most important here. The first is implicit in the origin of the word: nature comes from the Latin word for birth or to be born. Everything that is born is born something. In this sense, the nature of a thing is what that thing is, or whatever about that thing makes it what it is. For living things, this means their essential element—for example, the ability of human beings to reason and to talk. And nature is also the process of begetting and growth by which humans come to be—for example, that human babies are born to human parents and that they grow up within a certain range of time, age at a certain rate, die within a certain range of time, require a certain amount of rest and nourishment, and so on. In this sense, the nature of the thing describes for us just what it is and the main ways it goes about living.

The other use of the term nature is general: the nature of things, meaning all things. It is how things work. It means grand things, like the sun coming out and making warmth and day, and the sun going down and leaving night. It means small things like apples falling from the trees, and grand things like the gravity that pulls apples down. It means the dog wagging his tail when he is happy and growling when he is angry. It means the way of things.

If particular things have a nature, and if things in general have a nature, one can see how one might think that there are rules in nature. The rules would be the combination of the particular nature of each thing and the grand way that things work. These are the rules suggested by the expression the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” The great thinker Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle and many others besides, defines the natural law as “the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law.”8 By our rationality, we can see the laws of nature and of nature’s God.

Another form of the word rationality is reason. It is the ability to reason that makes us able to understand the nature of things—both the specific nature that makes each thing what it is and the general workings of nature.

If you think about it, our ability to talk comes from this ability to see the nature of things: reason and speech are the same faculty. When we talk, we always have to use the common noun. There is a mystery hiding inside these nouns. It is very difficult to give an account of exactly how we use them. How do we know that a cup is a cup, when there are so many, and they are so different? Look at a few in your cupboard, and try to remember your parents or your teachers showing you pictures of them so you know what they are. Our teachers and our parents will have done that for just a few things, and yet we can recognize many, indeed we can recognize any. Also, when they did it, they were not teaching us that each thing fits into a kind; they were only teaching us the English names for the kind. Very small children seem to be able to tell a cow from a pig before they know the words cow and pig. Indeed, they seem to be able to associate a picture in two dimensions of a pig with a real pig, just as they can quickly associate the word pig with a real pig.

How do we humans do that? How do we know that a small pony is a horse and a Great Dane is a dog? That is a very difficult question to answer, every bit as difficult as it is easy for us to perform the feat. We humans recognize things in their categories, and we could not form a single sentence if we could not. Given this gift, we are able to talk.

This ability to talk places us in very close community with each other, much closer than other kinds of creatures. When you say that you “saw a beautiful canyon,” you are conveying something meaningful even to a person who never saw a canyon and could not tell you quickly what beauty is. When you say, “I am married to a woman lovely and good,” you are saying something meaningful to people who have never been married and who would struggle to tell you not only what loveliness is but also good. It is, in other words, the nature of man to reason and to speak. This capacity liberates us to understand and to choose, and also it connects us closely to each other. One of the many odd things about us is that we are at once free and independent, and also more closely connected than any other creatures found in nature.

The use of these common nouns also makes us judges of things in a different way than we would be if we did not have them. Dogs and cats have their likes and dislikes based simply on what instinct commands them or else what we train them to do. We humans carry around with us a standard of evaluation that is different from our wants and from our instincts. When we identify a thing as a cup, we recognize something that makes it a cup. It has about it the “good” of the cup in it. “Good and being are convertible terms,” writes a philosopher.9 And if we have a cup with a hole in the bottom, we recognize that it is not a very good cup. We could more likely use it for a funnel or a strainer, if we could use it all. As it loses the goodness of the cup, it loses also the being of the cup; it loses its “cupness.” In a famous conversation in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Caroline says that a certain kind of party would be much more rational if there were conversation instead of dancing. Bingley replies, “Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball.”10 “Ball,” then, is a thing we can recognize and call by a name. To be a ball, a thing must be in some sense a “good” ball; otherwise a conversation or a croquet match could be a ball.11 To have the being of a thing is to have the good of it.

This word good takes on, then, a rich meaning, located somewhere near the center of our ability to see things for what they are and give names to them. And once we know that things fit in a category, we have automatically a standard by which to evaluate them against each other. Questions of good and bad, of right and wrong, of just and unjust, are written in our capacity with language. They are written in our nature. We have automatically a standard by which to evaluate one thing against another of its kind, the claim that one thing is good against the related claim of goodness by another thing of the same kind. We have naturally an acquaintance with the laws of nature and of nature’s God, we have it without training, and we cannot resist awareness of it.

We can see two things. The first is that human beings have a unique ability, among earthly creatures, to perceive the natures of things, and this makes us aware of a rule or law or right of nature. The second is that the rational ability to make moral distinctions and the rational ability to speak bring human beings together in political communities. These communities concern the good and the bad, the just and the unjust, and all lawmaking involves precisely this sense of morality and justice.


Now, these things have been known for a long time, at least as long as the first philosophers in Greece, but really much longer than that. The Roman philosopher Cicero, a favorite of the Founders, writes, “[T]rue law is right reason, consonant with nature, spread through all people. It is constant and eternal.”12 Aristotle and Plato do not write of the natural law, but the standard of nature is the one to which they appeal in their analysis of particular political regimes and of particular political practices. Political philosophy is born in the idea that some truth may be found in the opinions about justice and injustice that are expressed in the law and in the claims of individual men and women.

These ideas are not only old; they are also widely known in every age either implicitly, through common sense, or explicitly, by thinking about it and putting the argument together. King George III himself manifested knowledge of these laws, even if he did not proclaim them. It stands to reason, one might say, that everyone has some knowledge of these laws, as is manifest in the ability of everyone to think and to speak.

That makes it all the more remarkable that the United States of America should be the first nation founded with an explicit statement of these laws. Alexander Hamilton writes beautifully that “the sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments. . . . They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature by the hand of Divinity itself.”13 The whole volume of human nature has been around for a long time. Why, one might wonder, should the Declaration of Independence become the first parchment to reflect those laws? The answer has to do with the principle of equality and its effect when it is fully realized.

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