Without the Declaration, There is No Constitution

Posted: June 22, 2009 in Basic Concepts of Government, Without Declaration, No Constitution

This article was posted on Newt Gingrich’s site http://www.newt.org.  The article argues that the Declaration is the heart and soul of the Constitution being essential to it.  Enjoy. Bo

Without the Declaration, There Is No Constitution

In a recent column, Paul Abrams at the Huffington Post attempted to negate not only Newt Gingrich’s interpretation of the Declaration of Independence, but also the broader significance of the document itself.

Abrams asserts:

The Declaration of Independence is not the operating manual or contract by which the United States and the people govern themselves. Rather, it is a statement of principles justifying revolution. It contains no blueprint for governing, and could be used to justify anarchism. After all, if one is indeed endowed by a creator with inalienable [sic] rights, then nothing compels someone to accept any form of government.

Abrams would have a point about the Declaration justifying anarchism were it not for the fact that the document says the exact opposite:

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

The Declaration also dictates that governments should not be altered for “light and transient causes” (i.e. anarchy), and that only when faced with tyranny is it their right and their duty “to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”  Again, this hardly indicates that the document could be used to justify the creation of a lawless state.

In reality, without the Declaration we would have had no Articles of Confederation, and thus no Constitution, because the laws established by those later documents were directly attributable to the principles of the Declaration.

Article VII proves this:  “Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth.”

The signers understood that the country already existed, based upon the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence, and that the Constitution was creating a government consistent with that foundational text.  The Constitution marked the twelfth year of America’s existence as a free nation.  Were Abrams correct, America simply would not have existed prior to 1787.

According to Abrams, the Constitution “is the contract that we have agreed to that defines our rights and the powers we have ceded to the Federal Government and the States.”  The Constitution does delineate the powers of the government, but to say the Constitution “defines our rights” is to suggest that the Constitution is the source of our rights.  In fact, the Constitution explicitly limits the powers of government so that our unalienable rights, which come from our Creator, will not be compromised.  And since the Constitution was clearly a continuation of, not a replacement for, the Declaration of Independence, the unalienable rights that come directly from God still, in fact, come from God.

The Founders understood that if our rights were given to us by government, then they could be taken away just as easily as they had been under King George III.  Examples can be found in the Declaration, where Jefferson penned the “long train of abuses and usurpations” of which George III was guilty.

Britain, after all, was a monarchy at the time of the Revolution, and all British rights were granted to them by the monarch, who was supposedly chosen by God.  The Founders rejected this premise with the Declaration of Independence, asserting that human rights were universal and not to be compromised by the whims and vacillations of government.  Instead, government’s role was to protect our rights (Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau had articulated this concept decades earlier.)

This isn’t an interpretation that Newt Gingrich patented.  It is what the Founders believed and what guided their actions in drafting the Declaration and then using its principles to write the American Constitution.

Nor were the universal principles in the Declaration limited to America:  The French, influenced by the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson (who was a diplomat to France in the late 1780s), created their own Declaration of the Rights of Man, which is described in the Preamble of the French Constitution as serving as the basis for their system of government.

That Abrams disregards the Declaration of Independence as merely a piece of paper that justified revolution, and could justify any sort of government overthrow, indicates an almost frightful ignorance of the Constitution itself, the concept of natural rights, and of the entire American experiment.

Steve Everley is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s