Self-Evident Truths in the Declaration of Independence


Happy Independence Day, my fellow Americans! Before we celebrate with parties and fireworks, we should also celebrate the Declaration of Independence itself, because this document not only symbolizes liberty and freedom for US citizens, but its language makes the strong case that liberty and freedom are the right of all people's everywhere. A decade into the 21st century, the world is still populated by many people who live under tyranny and despotism, and who yearn to express thier right to self-government and self-determination. The Declaration of Independence was written by the Virginian Thomas Jefferson, the third American President, and a true student of the Enlightenment. Jefferson was educated and excelled in philosophy, law, engineering, agriculture, music, and understood more of the mathematics of his time than any other US President since. The Declaration of Independence was in fact written as an Euclidian style geometric and logical proof, and is layed out in the form of, if p then q. First Jefferson establishes postulates or axioms, stated as self-evident truths, illustrates their implications, and then seeks to demonstrate how this philosophical argument applied to the American Colonies at the time, and how this leads to the logical case for separation from England and King George III. I think we are all fairly familiar with the text of the Declaration, hopefully, so I want to focus on just the notion of self-evident truths. Below is the famous section of the Declaration of Independence where these arguments are made:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.


The original wording in the Declaration used "sacred and undeniable" in the place of "self-evident", and it is believed that this was a modification urged by Benjamin Franklin in order to give the Declaration of Independence the weight of mathematical validity, rather than relying only on religious grounds. The notion that something is self-evident is also referred to as a priori truth in philosophical thinking, and this means that it is a truth that does not need the support of observation or additional facts in order to be understood and reccognized as true. A self-evident truth needs nothing more than its own statement to be recognized as valid. But how self-evident are the truths in our Declaration of Independence? A few years ago I heard a debate on a news program turn ugly when one guest insinuated that the self-evident truths in the Declaration were contigent upon the belief in a Creator, or God, and that another guest on the program, who was an admitted Atheist, adhered to a belief system in which these rights are not self-evident, and therefore an Atheist may not be deserving of these rights. This instigated a very impassioned response, and rightly so. A self-evident truth is not a contigent belief, and Jefferson's invocation of the Creator is not the self-evident portion of his argument. Even if we assume our Creator to be just our own parents, and not any supernatural entity, the self-evident truths that Jefferson lays out are still valid. I have also heard the argument that the rights layed out in the Declaration of Independence must not be truly self-evident, because Jefferson and 1/3 of the signers of the Declaration onwed slaves, a hypocricy echoed in modern times by America's willingness to support dictators, and the subjugation of people who aren't Americans, in order to make it easier to pursue American interests. The inability of some to recognize, or to fully appreciate the implications of a self-evident truth, does not mean that it is not true and not self-evident however.

It is self-evident, from the perspective of each individual, that all people are created equal, and have certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The right to life comes from the fact of being born, and being thus being alive. I am alive, and I have a right to my life, and if my life is threatened, I have a right to defend and protect my life, until I am dead. No one gives this right to me. This is self-evident in the sense that I recognize my life, and I recognize my right to self-defense when my life is at stake, and I recognize this right in others. If someone is attacked by a wouldbe murderer, and the murderer is repelled, it would seem self-evidently not true to say that the person attacked had no right to repell the murderer. We have a right to life by virtue of living. The right to liberty is basically the same. Consider what it would mean to say that it is self-evident that some people should be free while others are not. Aristotle made a pro-slavery argument, based on the natural need of some to be controlled by others due to unequal abilities at self-governance. But would this right of a captor to enslave be self-evident to the slave? I think not. If the captor is free, why not the slave, except by an injustice. It is self-evident to the slave that they are as entitled their own freedom, and the slave would never take it as self-evident that they are not entitled to freedom, only that they have been denied their right to freedom. The right to pursue our happiness is also self-evident. We have a right to pursue what makes us content, and we have a right to aviod what makes us discontent, and this is not given to us by another. But are we all created equal? It is quite true that we are not all born the same, and that our particular abilities in body and mind are not of equal strength. However, we are equal in our rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, among other things, and this equality suggests that we always have a personal justification for standing up for our own equal rights, so long as we live. No new facts or logic will ever take the right to fight for our rights away, especially from the perspectice of each individual, and this is what makes our rights self-evident.

Now I am off to pursue the happiness of explosive fireworks!

Jared Roy Endicott

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Tue, 05 Jul 2011 02:40 Posted in , ,