Justice Douglas starts An Almanac of Liberty where our nation began – the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. The process of adoption began on April 12, 1776 when North Carolina instructed its delegates to the Continental Congress to obtain independence. A committee was eventually created to draft the resolution. Within a week, the declaration drafted by Thomas Jefferson was approved.
Last year I read Our Declaration by Danielle Allen which lays out how to read a document drafted by committee and designated to a slaveowner. I highly recommend the boo. She writes about
- the people involved,
- the process of independence, and
- then breaks down the entire document section by section
The rationale for the book came from teaching adults about the document. She recognized its power – and its dilemmas.
Who Wrote the Declaration of Independence?
We all learn in school about Thomas Jefferson sitting at a desk with a candle writing the document we all know. But nothing is as simple as we are taught in school. John Adams said that the ideas of the Declaration had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before. In fact, when the ideas began bouncing around in 1774, according to Allen, Jefferson’s ideas were too radical. Independence was not on the table. Instead, the colonists sought to seek reconciliation with the British.
Within the year, other leaders like Adams and Richard Lee came to agree that the colonies needed to declare independence and began to craft the language. They sought to answer two quetsions:
- Justifying independence and persuade others into it
- How to set up a government and create the civil administrations in each colony once the king is gone.
They believed that independence had been forced onto them by the actions of the king. In doing so, as Douglas wrote, they appealed to two conceptions: revolution was a righteous cause and all men have a common humanity. Of course, as both Douglas and Allen write vigorously about – the founding fathers had a bit of issue reconciling their beliefs with the current social structures of slavery and lack of women rights.
The Philosophy of the Declaration of Independence
As they began to craft the concepts, both Adams and Jefferson came to one concept of the purpose of government: happiness. Before the Declaration of Independence, Adams wrote:
We ought to consider what is the end of government, before we determine which is the best form. upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all divines and moral philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man. From this principle it will follow, that the form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.Thoughts on Government, John Adams
Douglas focuses on rights when examining the philosophy. Similar to his discussion on faith, Douglas looks to natural rights and what rights belong to man as the son of God. Although he uses such language often, he believed strongly in the separation of church and state. He fundamentally believed that religion acted as a cornerstone to American society. And his jurisprudence on this issue has led to much of the confusion surrounding the Establishment Clause.
Safeguarding Human Rights
Additionally, Douglas adds that the language of securing rights mean to safeguard those rights. In other words, we have the rights and liberty but we need a government to ensure those rights do not diminish. He concludes by noting that this safeguard distinguishes democratic and totalitarian societies. In a fascist state, an individual receives rights from the government. However, in our society, our rights remain unalienable.
I truly wish his words rang true today. But when you look around our country, rights do seem to come from the government. The government currently wants to determine who counts as a person and who does not. The government jails individuals without due process. And the government fails to act in any redeeming quality to ensure that the human rights of many of its people remain. I doubt Douglas would disagree or support anything occurring in this current administration. But when we do look at the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence, we must remember its words still need safeguarding as well.
The Impact of the Declaration of Independence
Danielle Allen concludes her book by stating that the Declaration as a coherent philosophy. It outlines that equality has precedence over freedom. Only when we achieve equality, can we achieve freedom. She examines how the Declaration makes us examine our own democracy and democratic powers. However, she believes that most Americans never read the 1,337 words.
Justice Douglas wrote in the foreword of the Almanac that our freedom and liberty will be easy to redeem if we remember the fundamentals. If we remember the method and means that helped us achieve freedom,we win. He also notes how the words of the Declaration echoed through history. He points to other groups who used them to achieve their own fights for humanity.