Note: We repost this article every year. If you’ve seen it before, please share this important information with your friends and family.
We, like many of you, will enjoy today's Fourth of July celebration with family, friends, food, and fireworks. And while those good things bring us close together as a people, it’s valuable to remember how we, as a uniquely free United States, came to be—and, especially, why.
It has become a tradition for us to read aloud the Declaration of Independence on July 4th to put our celebration into a proper historical, philosophical, and emotional context. As law professor Josh Blackman correctly notes, “while you are enjoying your hotdogs and fireworks, praise the Declaration, which even today retains legal vitality.”
So, tomorrow, we encourage you to set aside just few minutes to read the Declaration in its entirety and “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.”
Randy Barnett, the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Legal Theory, Georgetown University Law Center, and Director of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution, has an excellent analysis of some of the Declaration’s key claims that we encourage you to read and consider prior to reading the Declaration itself:
When reading the Declaration, it is worth keeping in mind two very important facts. The Declaration constituted high treason against the Crown and 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. In some cases, these specific complaints account for provisions eventually included in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The Declaration of Independence used to be read aloud at public gathering[s] 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 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” for which the Declaration is also famous.
Later, the Declaration also assumes increasing importance in the struggle to abolish slavery. It is a foundational document of the Nineteenth Century abolitionists and was much relied upon by Abraham Lincoln. It had to be explained away by the Supreme Court in Dred Scott. Eventually, it was repudiated by some defenders of slavery in the South because of its inconsistency with that institution.
To appreciate all that is packed into these two paragraphs, it is useful to break down the Declaration into some of its key claims.
“Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain [George III] is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”
What follows is a bill of indictment. Several of these items end up in the Bill of Rights. Others are addressed by form of the government established, first by the Articles of Confederation, and ultimately by the Constitution.
The assumption of natural rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence can be summed up by the following proposition: “first comes rights, then comes government.” According to this view: (1) the rights of individuals do not originate with any government, but preexist its formation; (2) The protection of these rights is the first duty of government; and (3) Even after government is formed, these rights provide a standard by which its performance is measured and, in extreme cases, its systemic failure to protect rights — or its systematic violation of rights — can justify its alteration or abolition; (4) At least some of these rights are so fundamental that they are “inalienable,” meaning they are so intimately connected to one’s nature as a human being that they cannot be transferred to another even if one consents to do so. This is powerful stuff.
Powerful stuff, indeed.
We at Firearms Policy Coalition are honored to serve liberty and defend your inalienable rights from government actors who have forgotten what the Fourth of July really means.
A happy and safe Fourth of July to all of you.