Does It Matter What the Declaration of Independence Means?

July 3, 2015

Latest Thinking, Natural Responsibilities, Philosophy of Rights, Political Philosophy

The answer to the question of whether it matters what the Declaration of Independence means is in some ways simple: “It depends.” And the fact that we cannot give an unequivocal answer to the question points to one claim which is ultimately at stake in this book: the very question of whether the Declaration, or for that matter whether any historical document, matters is itself part of the interpretive historical enterprise and political philosophical journey of American public life.

The point of this concluding chapter is theoretical: to argue that whether the Declaration matters depends on how we answer other questions about its place in history and its significance as a statement of American political philosophy. And how we answer those questions depends not only on history, but a theory of history and the relationship of history to political theory. In making this argument, I am shifting from what has been principally a historical exercise in this book to a theoretical and philosophical one, though the two are ultimately tied together.

I wish now in this final chapter to turn back to this normative question that has been hovering in the background since the beginning: Does it matter what the Declaration of Independence means anyway? Or to put it another way, should the Declaration of Independence have moral and normative significance for American life?

Forget for a moment that the Declaration may have had that kind of significance in the past. The matter at hand is whether that significance was and should continue to be warranted. To what extent should history or great historical documents such as the Declaration play a role in ongoing debates about political rights?

The question under discussion is interestingly enough at the heart of “social contract” theory itself. For one version of social contract political theory suggests that some original vision or agreement, “a social contract,” should remain binding in some fashion upon subsequent generations in that society. In this view, the “original contract” with America should be definitive for the way later Americans live their lives. The founders’ views of rights should count heavily in how we define and protect rights. This conviction that Americans should harken back to the founders’ views is often based on the Declaration of Independence itself, which supposedly proves that the founders’ embraced a natural rights theory. Since natural rights theory assumes that a society enters into a binding social contract upon inception, Americans must therefore pay attention to the original contract or founding view when debating ongoing political rights. This kind of argument is a kind of vicious circle. The Declaration proves the founders embraced Lockean natural rights and the foundation in natural rights in turn proves the founders’ vision of society is binding upon us. But should that be?

In doubting these matters, I am pressing several separate but related issues: (1) Should American public life be bound by philosophical notions of the social contract, and in particular notions that say the founders’ views matter more than others?; (2) Can history provide a vehicle for getting at the original contract and the founders’ intentions anyway? These two broader philosophical questions dovetail with the more specific historical questions examined already in this book; (3) does the Declaration in particular prove the founders’ embraced natural rights theory and a specifically Lockean social contract theory; and (4) does the Declaration therefore prove that those conceptions are therefore incumbent and binding on us. My answer to all these questions is “No” for a number of intersecting reasons.

To tease out these reasons, it is useful to lay out a possible alternative political philosophy for contrastive purposes. An alternative political philosophy that did not start from a foundation in natural rights could work from the assumption that we are not bound in any particular way by the views of the founders.That is, the founders’ views are not inherently or by definition better than any other person or group of persons that has existed or will exist in this society. The founders in such a view were at best smart thoughtful men (and to some extent women) whose views are worth throwing into the mix of our discussion. But their views are one voice among many in the public debate about rights. They were not all-seeing or all knowledgeable. And we are no more obligated to their views then we are to yours and mine.

This is a very different view of the founders’ voice than typically underlies the interest in the Declaration of Independence. The return to the Declaration is often fueled by an attempt to get back to some original vision of the founding as a way to say what America really stands for and therefore how we should govern our lives today. It is a way to say that our own views and values matter less than those who originated our society. History therefore is evoked to put an end to the philosophical and moral debates that we have about how we should structure our contemporary social practices. In this manner, the founders get invoked on one side or other of the debate in trying to defend a particular position, as if knowing their views should put an end to any other moral convictions that we may have.

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