The Declaration of Independence used to be read aloud at public gatherings every Fourth of July. Today, while all Americans have heard of it, all too few have read more than its second sentence. Yet the Declaration shows the natural rights foundation of the American Revolution, and provides important information about what the founders believed makes a constitution or government legitimate. It also raises the question of how these fundamental rights are reconciled with the idea of “the consent of the governed,” another idea for which the Declaration is famous.
Later, the Declaration also assumed increasing importance in the struggle to abolish slavery. It became a lynchpin of the moral and constitutional arguments of the nineteenth-century abolitionists. It was much relied upon by Abraham Lincoln. It had to be explained away by the Supreme Court in Dred Scott. And eventually it was repudiated by some defenders of slavery in the South because of its inconsistency with that institution.
When reading the Declaration, it is worth keeping in mind two very important facts. The Declaration constituted high treason against the Crown. Every person who signed it would be executed as traitors should they be caught by the British. Second, the Declaration was considered to be a legal document by which the revolutionaries justified their actions and explained why they were not truly traitors. It represented, as it were, a literal indictment of the Crown and Parliament, in the very same way that criminals are now publicly indicted for their alleged crimes by grand juries representing “the People.”
But to justify a revolution, it was not thought to be enough that officials of the government of England, the Parliament, or even the sovereign himself had violated the rights of the people. No government is perfect; all governments violate rights. This was well known. So the Americans had to allege more than mere violations of rights. They had to allege nothing short of a criminal conspiracy to violate their rights systematically. Hence, the famous reference to “a long train of abuses and usurpations” and the list that follows the first two paragraphs. In some cases, these specific complaints account for provisions eventually included in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.