The Declaration of Independence says there are self-evident truths which provide the foundation for American government and society. The American experiment in self-government is predicated on them. However, public understanding of those truths is being lost; they are no longer self-evident to many Americans. They are fundamental principles on which America stands. This appendix “unpacks” the meaning of the term “self-evident truths.” It identifies ten principles or truths which are essential to understanding, defending and preserving the theory and practice of the American way of life.
- The fountainhead of American government and society—the most fundamental idea of all—is this: God is the mighty author of our being and the moral authority for our laws. The Declaration of Independence contains four references to deity. They are “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” “Supreme Judge of the world” and “divine Providence.” These make clear that in the political theory articulated by the Founders of America, God, not government, is source of our freedom, our sovereignty, our rights, our justice, our human dignity and all else which creates a good society and a society which is good. Therefore patriots recognize that we are “one Nation under God” and honor it in word and deed.
- The corollary idea to that, which our Founders likewise held, is this: We are made in the image and likeness of God, and by virtue of our spiritual nature, every human being is sacred, sovereign and inviolable. Therefore patriots recognize that “all men are created equal” and honor it in word and deed.
- Freedom applies to all aspects of our existence, from the physical through the intellectual-emotional and the social-political to the spiritual. Liberty is a subset of freedom and refers to the social-political aspect of freedom. (Incidentally, John Adams called God “the Spirit of Liberty.” I’ll discuss that when we get to the tenth principle.)
- Freedom is indivisible, so its various aspects are intimately related. Any diminishment of freedom in one aspect of our lives (such as economic, civil, religious or political) diminishes freedom in all other aspects.
- God’s purpose in granting us freedom is to use it to show forth His glory in our entire existence. (Some Founders, such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, referred to America as the New Jerusalem and the New Israel. By that they meant not a Jewish nation but rather a God-centered society whose will was to reflect heaven on earth. In that way, our pursuit of happiness would be permanently and abundantly fulfilled.)
- Because all freedom comes from God, it carries an inherent responsibility to use it properly—i.e., morally and lawfully—to fulfill our obligation to our Creator. Freedom and responsibility are therefore intimately related; without responsibility, liberty becomes libertinism or immoral, destructive behavior. Freedom is never license to do as we please, but only as we ought.
- Our political experiment in self-government is predicated on each citizen governing himself morally and taking personal responsibility for his or her words and deeds. The result is a godly society dedicated to glorifying our Creator. However, an immoral people is incapable of self-government. Any government it may set up will devalue honor, honesty and civility; it will legalize plundering, abridge rights and erode freedom. Patriots are therefore responsible, law-abiding members of society who uphold the principles of American government and honor our national heritage.
- Government has always been the greatest enemy of freedom, and therefore our Founders wrote a Constitution which established a minimal government for what was deemed necessary at the federal level, leaving all other powers and rights to the states and to the people themselves. The authority of the federal government was delegated by “we the people” and its powers were strictly enumerated and narrowly defined. Our Founders wanted freedom from government, not dependence on government. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are, in simplest terms, a carefully devised system to govern the government, not the people. They were not written to restrict the citizens of America; they were written to restrict the government and to protect our inherent liberties and rights.
- Although God is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence provided the philosophical framework for the system of ordered liberty established by the Constitution. Moreover, the Framers expected that government officials would conduct themselves in accordance with that religio-moral view of life. In fact, the American theory of government has a clear demand for moral behavior by those holding governmental office; it reflects the Founders’ understanding that God demands moral behavior of us all as the foundation for growth to deeper understanding of our nature and destiny. Elected officials are required to take an oath or to affirm that they will support the Constitution. Obviously, supporting the Constitution means upholding and honoring the fundamental principles which it embodies. An official who egregiously violates that understanding is subject to impeachment, whether his or her misconduct involves high crimes (violations of law) or misdemeanors (grossly immoral misbehavior).
- Our Founders wisely separated church and state, but not God and state. How could they when the Declaration of Independence says God is the basis of our nation? We have a secular government but a religious society. Our government makes no religious test of civic officials but nevertheless requires moral behavior of them, using moral standards arising from religious traditions, especially the Ten Commandments of Judeo-Christianity which became the basis of English—and hence American—civil law. God and nation are one. However, the Creator whom we recognize as the fountainhead of American government and society is not the exclusive property of any denomination. The First Amendment prohibits any denomination from becoming the established, official religion of America; likewise it prohibits government from interfering with religious freedom and thereby allows we the people to have full public expression of religion according to one’s conscience.
Those are the ten fundamental principles. Of all political documents in history, only the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution offer a seamless theory and practice of enlightened government. Collectively, they address all levels of our existence. Think of it as a pyramid such as the one on the Great Seal of the United States, with the Eye of Providence above the pyramid representing the nation.
First and foremost, our founding documents recognize God, the Spirit of Liberty, as the source of all life, all liberty, all rights and all good. That is the Eye of Providence above the pyramid.
Next, in the Declaration of Independence, they enunciate the basic principles of liberty descending from God to be applied in the body politic. That is the top of the pyramid.
Then, in the Constitution, they articulate the architecture of liberty, which describes how our federal government is constructed, and in the Bill of Rights they enumerate the inalienable rights of each individual citizen. That is the middle of the pyramid. These architectural plans make secure the blessings of liberty as they establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare.
Last of all, they demand and encourage elected officials and civil servants of integrity, calling on them to enact and enforce laws, policies and practices of liberty, which are the base of the pyramid.
At every level of human activity, from the physical through the mental to the spiritual, from the individual through the local, state and federal government, they declare God as the divine basis and governor of our existence.
However, without public recognition of the self-evident truth that God is the transcendental basis of our government, our social order and our moral character as a people, this nation will not stand. And while it is true that America was founded primarily by Christians, the God to whom we Americans appealed in the Declaration of Independence is the transcendent and nondenominational Creator of the world. God, in America, can never become the exclusive property of any denomination or religion; the First Amendment assures that and religious tolerance for all. God remains, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “the common Father…of man.”
The War for Independence which founded our nation is over, but the American Revolution goes on because it is a spiritual revolution of global dimensions. Our revolution is unique in history: the proclamation of liberty for all, individual sovereignty, self-determination, inalienable rights, equality of opportunity, justice under the rule of law, and human dignity for all, derived from God and guaranteed through constitutional republican government of the people, by the people and for the people—all for the purpose of enabling us to find individual and collective happiness. Implementing that revolution is called the American Spirit.
May the American Spirit embrace the Earth.
Mr. White, is a noted author and contributor to the Wall Street Journal. He is also a former naval officer, and is writing a book about the Declaration of Independence as a spiritual document.