America’s Inspired Declaration of Independence

John Trumbull’s painting, “Declaration of Independence,” depicts the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress.
Public Domain

America’s Inspired Declaration of Independence

Remember Calvin Coolidge’s history lesson, and warning, regarding the spirit that animated America’s founding document.

The Fourth of July in 1926 was the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. United States President Calvin Coolidge took the occasion to give a speech celebrating the charter.

In this time of poisonous partisanship, political turbulence and bewildering social change, this speech is a refreshing reminder of the principles that established this country.

After 150 years, America had showed itself to be respectably stable, Coolidge said. Time has proved “the value of our institutions and their dependability as rules for the regulation of human conduct and the advancement of civilization.” The Fourth of July is meant “to reaffirm and reestablish those old theories and principles which time and the unerring logic of events have demonstrated to be sound. Amid all the clash of conflicting interests, amid all the welter of partisan politics, every American can turn for solace and consolation to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States with the assurance and confidence that those two great charters of freedom and justice remain firm and unshaken.” This is far less true 92 years after he spoke those words. The Constitution in particular has been shaken considerably.

President Coolidge then spoke about the spirit of the American Revolution. “[A] new civilization had come, a new spirit had arisen on this side of the Atlantic more advanced and more developed in its regard for the rights of the individual than that which characterized the Old World,” he explained. “A separate establishment was ultimately inevitable. … The American Revolution represented the informed and mature convictions of a great mass of independent, liberty-loving, God-fearing people who knew their rights, and possessed the courage to dare to maintain them.”

We naturally think of revolution as rebellion, but Coolidge argues convincingly that this was not what motivated America’s Revolution. “[T]he Declaration of Independence was the result of the seasoned and deliberate thought of the dominant portion of the people of the Colonies,” he said. “It had about it nothing of the lawless and disordered nature of a riotous insurrection. It was maintained on a plane which rises above the ordinary conception of rebellion. It was in no sense a radical movement but took on the dignity of a resistance to illegal usurpations. It was conservative and represented the action of the colonists to maintain their constitutional rights which from time immemorial had been guaranteed to them under the law of the land.”

The Declaration bespeaks principles broader than just the secession of one people from another, Coolidge said. There is something about it that “has ever since caused it to be regarded as one of the great charters that not only was to liberate America but was everywhere to ennoble humanity. It was not because it was proposed to establish a new nation, but because it was proposed to establish a nation on new principles, that July 4, 1776, has come to be regarded as one of the greatest days in history.”

The preamble of the Declaration lays out three of these principles: “the doctrine that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that therefore the source of the just powers of government must be derived from the consent of the governed.” These ideas had been around for millennia in various forms, but “had never been assembled before and declared in such a combination.” Yet, Coolidge said, what truly made this extraordinary was the fact that this ideal was put into action—with a “duly authorized and constituted representative public body in its sovereign capacity, supported by the force of general opinion and by the armies of Washington already in the field. … It was an assertion that a people had arisen determined to make every necessary sacrifice for the support of these truths and by their practical application bring the War of Independence to a successful conclusion and adopt the Constitution of the United States with all that it has meant to civilization.”

Of all those principles, the one truly unique to America was “the doctrine of equality.” Other nations had decided that the people should choose their own rulers; other nations had articulated what they considered to be inalienable rights. But equality “had not before appeared as an official political declaration of any nation. It was profoundly revolutionary. It is one of the cornerstones of American institutions.”

And where did the understanding come from that “all men are created equal”? Coolidge documented how it came from America’s religion. In his speech he tracks it through the colonial-era churches and the teachings of early American ministers. For example, as far back as 1710—early in the 18th century—an influential preacher named John Wise wrote, “Every man must be acknowledged equal to every man.” The forceful preaching of men espousing this ideal, he said, “reached the neighborhood of Thomas Jefferson, who acknowledged that his ‘best ideas of democracy’ had been secured at church meetings.”

“When we take all these circumstances into consideration,” Coolidge said, “it is but natural that the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence should open with a reference to nature’s God and should close in the final paragraphs with an appeal to the Supreme Judge of the world and an assertion of a firm reliance on Divine Providence. Coming from these sources, having as it did this background, it is no wonder that Samuel Adams could say ‘The people seem to recognize this resolution as though it were a decree promulgated from heaven.’

“No one can examine this record and escape the conclusion that in the great outline of its principles, the Declaration was the result of the religious teachings of the preceding period.” These principles “are found in the texts, the sermons, and the writings of the early colonial clergy who were earnestly undertaking to instruct their congregations in the great mystery of how to live. They preached equality because they believed in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. They justified freedom by the text that we are all created in the divine image ….”

That is a remarkable truth. Yet we easily take for granted the blessing of living in a country that established it as a cornerstone principle, and that has striven ever since—unlike any other people in history—to live up to it.

America’s founders used this belief as justification for establishing government “by the people.” Anyone knowledgeable in the Bible can recognize that democratic, ground-up self-government is very different from the biblical model of government. The government the founders established certainly was more enduring than other forms this world has seen, as long as Americans were moral and religious. That no longer being the case, the problems and limitations associated with this form of government are becoming clearer all the time.

Still, this uncommon and revolutionary concept, established in the Declaration, of each and every person being created equal and endowed with God-given rights, is biblical, and beautiful, and extraordinarily powerful.

“In those days such doctrines would scarcely have been permitted to flourish and spread in any other country,” President Coolidge continued. “This was the purpose which the fathers cherished. In order that they might have freedom to express these thoughts and opportunity to put them into action, whole congregations with their pastors had migrated to the Colonies. These great truths were in the air that our people breathed. Whatever else we may say of it, the Declaration of Independence was profoundly American.”

Thus, Coolidge deduced, “In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man—these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. … Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We cannot continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause” (emphasis added).

This is precisely what America is witnessing today. These religious convictions have been replaced with new principles of “morality”: tolerating lawlessness, demanding government welfare, restricting freedoms in the name of enforcing liberal orthodoxy. And our departure from the Declaration’s principles is accelerating.

“We are too prone to overlook another conclusion. Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments. This is both historically and logically true. Of course the government can help to sustain ideals and can create institutions through which they can be the better observed, but their source by their very nature is in the people. The people have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which that burden can be shifted to the government. It is not the enactment, but the observance, of laws that creates the character of a nation.”

How true this is. Modern society has somehow grown in its expectation that government magically solve every problem and provide every need—and simultaneously in its contempt for government. We have abdicated our inescapable responsibility to embody the high ideals and strong character required of a truly strong nation.

How dangerous such abdication is. To forget this responsibility, and to lose sight of these foundational principles, invites disaster, Coolidge said: “A spring will cease to flow if its source be dried up; a tree will wither if its roots be destroyed.”

Coolidge continued, “About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning cannot be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction cannot lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.”

How needed is such insight in today’s America, which has grown almost unrecognizably so reactionary. Americans are replacing the revolutionary ideas that helped propel America to greatness with imported, tried-and-failed relics of ideas from other nations and ages. We are forcefully proving that not all change is progress, and that history is prophecy.

President Coolidge then built to his speech’s powerful conclusion. It was only about three generations ago that America had a president who could articulate such moral clarity and provide such leadership. We have descended a long way since. I’ll just allow his words to stand:

Under a system of popular government there will always be those who will seek for political preferment by clamoring for reform. While there is very little of this which is not sincere, there is a large portion that is not well informed. In my opinion very little of just criticism can attach to the theories and principles of our institutions. There is far more danger of harm than there is hope of good in any radical changes. We do need a better understanding and comprehension of them and a better knowledge of the foundations of government in general. Our forefathers came to certain conclusions and decided upon certain courses of action which have been a great blessing to the world. Before we can understand their conclusions we must go back and review the course which they followed. We must think the thoughts which they thought. Their intellectual life centered around the meeting-house. They were intent upon religious worship. While there were always among them men of deep learning, and later those who had comparatively large possessions, the mind of the people was not so much engrossed in how much they knew, or how much they had, as in how they were going to live. While scantily provided with other literature, there was a wide acquaintance with the Scriptures. Over a period as great as that which measures the existence of our independence they were subject to this discipline not only in their religious life and educational training, but also in their political thought. They were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power.

No other theory is adequate to explain or comprehend the Declaration of Independence. It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people.

We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshiped.