The Declaration of Independence was partly intended as a list of grievances against a distant monarch. And both George III and the colonists who disagreed with his rule are long dead. But so are many of those who’ve argued that the Declaration is obsolete. In fact, this is exactly what those who called themselves “progressives” were saying a century ago.
Woodrow Wilson, one of the most famous early progressives, argued during the 1912 presidential campaign that “all that Progressives ask or desire is permission…to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle,” meaning that it should promote an ever-expanding set of powers for an ever-expanding government. The problem, he declared, was that pesky Declaration of Independence: “Some citizens of this country have never got beyond the Declaration of Independence,” he remarked. “The Declaration of Independence did not mention the questions of our day.”
But in fact the Declaration is more than a litany of complaints. Its greater meaning is as a statement of the conditions of legitimate political authority and the proper ends of government. It proclaimed that political rule would, from then on, reside in the sovereignty of the people. “If the American Revolution had produced nothing but the Declaration of Independence,” wrote the great historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, “it would have been worthwhile.”
The ringing phrases of the document’s famous second paragraph are a powerful synthesis of American constitutional and republican government theories. All men have a right to liberty as they are by nature equal, which is to say none are inherently superior and deserve to rule or inferior and deserve to be ruled.
Because all are endowed with these rights, the rights are unalienable, which means that they cannot be given up or taken away. And because individuals equally possess these rights, governments derive their just powers from the consent of those governed. Government’s purpose is to secure these fundamental rights and, although prudence tells us that governments should not be changed for trivial reasons, the people retain the right to alter or abolish government when it becomes destructive of these ends.