ON APRIL 19, 1775, seventy-seven armed Minutemen formed up on the village green of Lexington, Massachusetts, to confront seven hundred British regulars under the command of Lieutenant General Thomas Gage. Shots were fired and several of the Massachusetts men were killed in the exchange. When the British force moved on to Concord, they were routed at the North Bridge by a contingent of five hundred armed Minutemen. In their retreat to Boston, the British suffered many casualties as they were attacked by thousands of militiamen along the road. The battles of Lexington and Concord marked the start of the American rebellion, but it was not until a year later that the United States was born.
Our country—indeed our people—has a discrete starting point, a singular moment in time when its founding was expressly defended in abstract and theoretical terms. That moment was July 4, 1776, when the Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence. To appreciate the republican nature of our Constitution, we must begin at the beginning, some thirteen years before the Constitution was enacted in 1789, when the principles upon which the new nation was formed were authoritatively declared.
THE DRAFTING OF THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
On June 11, 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to draft a declaration to effectuate Richard Henry Lee’s motion “[t]hat these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown: and that all political connexion between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”1
As John Hancock later put it, such a declaration would provide “the Ground & Foundation of a future Government.”2
The Committee of Five consisted of the senior Pennsylvanian Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, New York’s Robert Livingston, the Massachusetts stalwart champion of independence John Adams, and a rather quiet thirty-three-year-old Virginian named Thomas Jefferson. After a series of meetings to decide on the outline of the Declaration, the committee assigned Jefferson to write the first draft.3
Jefferson did not have much time. With no executive, the war was run entirely by congressional committees, and the business of waging war pressed heavily on its members. Over a six-month period, Jefferson served on some thirty-four different committees, which kept him very busy. On June 17, for example, the committee overseeing the Canadian campaign submitted two reports to Congress, both in Jefferson’s own hand. Two members of the Virginia delegation had left Philadelphia, increasing the pressure on Jefferson to attend the sessions of Congress.
So with the press of other matters, Jefferson did not have three leisurely weeks to write. He had merely a few days. Needing to work fast, Jefferson had to borrow, and he had two sources in front of him from which to crib. The first was a list of grievances in his draft preamble for the Virginia constitution—a list that was strikingly similar to the first group of charges against the king that ended up in the Declaration. The second was a preliminary version of the Virginia Declaration of Rights that had been drafted by George Mason in his room at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, where the provincial convention was being held.
Unlike today, when such cribbing might detract from Jefferson’s accomplishment, achievement in the eighteenth century “lay instead in the creative adoption of preexisting models to different circumstances, and the highest praise of all went to imitations whose excellence exceeded that of the examples that inspired them.” For this reason, younger men “were taught to copy and often memorize compelling passages from their readings for future use since you could never tell when, say, a citation from Cicero might come in handy.”4
Mason’s May 27 draft proved handy indeed in composing the Declaration’s famous preamble. Its first two articles present two fundamental ideas that lie at the core of a Republican Constitution.
The first idea is that first come rights and then comes government. Here is how Mason expressed it:
So, in Mason’s draft, not only do all persons have “certain . . . natural rights” of life, liberty, and property, but these rights cannot be taken away “by any compact.” These inherent individual natural rights, of which the people cannot divest their posterity, are therefore retained by them. Mason’s words would become even more canonical than Jefferson’s more succinct version in the Declaration of Independence, as variations were incorporated into several state constitutions, and they would be echoed in the Ninth Amendment, and much later in the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Article 2 of Mason’s draft then identified the persons who make up a government as the servants
of the sovereign people, rather than their master: “That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants
, and at all times amenable to them.”6
As trustees and servants, those people who serve as governing magistrates are to respect the inherent natural rights retained by the people.
All this was compressed by Jefferson into fifty-five compelling words:
John Adams later recalled that Jefferson took only a day or two to write the first draft, which was then turned over to the committee for its feedback before it was submitted to Congress. Although this draft was then heavily edited and shortened by Congress sitting as a Committee of the Whole, its Preamble was left pretty much as Jefferson had submitted it.
I turn now to that Preamble, for these two paragraphs identify the theory of what I am calling our Republican Constitution.
WHAT THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE CLAIMED
Today, while most Americans have heard of the Declaration of Independence, 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 the founders believed makes a constitution or government legitimate.7
It also raises the question of how these fundamental rights are reconciled with the idea of “the consent of the governed,” another idea for which the Declaration is famous.
When reading the Declaration, it is worth keeping in mind two very important facts. The Declaration constituted high treason against the Crown. Every person who signed it would be executed as a traitor should he 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 king 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 Declaration’s famous reference to “a long train of abuses and usurpations” and the list that followed. In some cases, these specific complaints account for provisions eventually included in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
But before this list of particular grievances came two paragraphs succinctly describing the political theory on which the new polity was founded. To appreciate all that is packed into these two paragraphs, it is useful to break down the Declaration into some of its key claims.
This first sentence is often forgotten. It asserts that Americans as a whole, rather than as members of their respective colonies, are a distinct “people.” And this “one people” is not a collective entity, but an aggregate of particular individuals. So “they” not it should “declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
To “dissolve the political bands” revokes the “social compact” that existed between the Americans and the rest of the people of the British commonwealth, reinstates the “state of nature” between Americans and the government of Great Britain, and makes “the Laws of Nature” the standard by which this dissolution and whatever government is to follow are judged. As Committee of Five delegate Roger Sherman observed in 1774, after hostilities broke out with the British, “We are Now in a State of Nature.”8
But what are these “Laws of Nature”? To answer this, we can turn to a sermon delivered by the Reverend Elizur Goodrich at the Congregational Church in Durham, Connecticut, on the eve of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention. At the time of the founding, it was a common practice for ministers to be invited to give an “election sermon” before newly elected government officials, in this case the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, to encourage them to govern according to God’s ways.
In his sermon, Goodrich explained that “the principles of society are the laws, which Almighty God has established in the moral world, and made necessary to be observed by mankind; in
order to promote their true happiness, in their transactions and intercourse.”9
These laws, Goodrich observed, “may be considered as principles, in respect of their fixedness and operation,” and by knowing them, “we discover the rules of conduct, which direct mankind to the highest perfection, and supreme happiness of their nature.”10
These rules of conduct “are as fixed and unchangeable as the laws which operate in the natural world. Human art in order to produce certain effects, must conform to the principles and laws, which the Almighty Creator has established in the natural world.”11
In this sense, natural laws govern every human endeavor, not just politics. They undergird what may be called “normative disciplines,” by which I mean those bodies of knowledge that guide human conduct—bodies of knowledge that tell us how we ought to act if we wish to achieve our goals. To illustrate this, Goodrich offered examples from agriculture, engineering, and architecture: