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It wasn't a Declaration of Independence as such. It was a explanation of the resolution that Congress had passed on July 2, 1776 that was the actual Act/Declaration of Independence
After its adoption, and throughout the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the Declaration of Independence was viewed primarily as a pronouncement of separation from Great Britain and not as the sacred political document it is today.(70)
(70) Philip F. Detweiler, "The Changing Reputation of the Declaration of Independence," 564. John Bidwell, "American History in Image and Text," 265. Carl L. Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (New York: Vintage Books, 1922), 226.
An excerpt from Cultural Impact: Nineteenth Century Evolution of the Founding Documents as Symbols
The instructions to delegates in Philadelphia make it clear that foreign aid was the aim of the declaration. North Carolina put the two acts in a co-ordinate single aim: 'declaring independency and forming foreign alliances.' (Force, _Archives_, ser. iv, 5:860)
Source : Inventing America, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, Garry Wills Vintage Books, (1979)pp. 326-27
In the midst of a war, while forming constitutions in their own provinces, men obviously felt that the treaty and the articles were more difficult projects of practical politics, and set more useful or dangerous legal precedents, than the Declaration itself. The latter was not a legislative instrument. Its issuance was a propaganda adjunct to the act of declaring independence on July 2- and that act in turn, was just the necessary step toward the two projects men were principally wrestling with.
The Declaration had a modest objective; yet it failed to accomplish even that small object. It was an explanation, addressed to a candid world, of what had happened. It was a propaganda overture, addressed primarily to France, which the treaty was meant to follow. But we have seen that the Declaration was not read much, nor studied at all, in France. The Declaration had a loftier destiny ahead of it-but an accidental one, and one still far down the road as men busied themselves with laws and armies in the critical autumn months of 1776.
Source : Inventing America, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, Garry Wills Vintage Books, (1979) pp. 332-33
Some of the things that the Declaration of Independence wasn't
Something to keep in mind:
In an interview on the History Channel, on the evening of July 3, 1999, Dr. Stephen Lucas professor of communication arts, University of Wisconsin, Madison, who had spent the previous 15 years studying the origins of the Declaration of Independence made the following points:
(1). The men who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence would be totally amazed by all the things people have since invented about what it was about, what it meant etc..
(2). That all these religious connections and meanings etc that have been added by others later was never implied as written or as understood at the time by it authors, that they were not part of what was originally important, the original understandings, meanings, intentions. etc.
(3).One of the points made over and over again was that the purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to justify/explain the separation of the colonies from England to other European countries and elicit support from them.
(4). It also points out that much of Jefferson's writings (Declaration of Independence writings) were borrowed from himself (his proposed constitution for Virginia) The Va Declaration of Rights, and other sources. That such practices were quite common practice at that time period.
The Declaration was not meant to give a religious foundation to this nation, to its founding, its founding documents, its legal system or laws. It was not intended to give a theological discourse on the creation of mankind.
The very things that people remember, focus on and quote today, those 16 or so words would have been the least important words of the document to those who wrote it, debated it, passed it and signed it. It is like we reversed things. The least important words are now the most important and the most imporant words at that time are all but forgotten, surely not argued about, debated, quoted, etc.
A "Christian Country and Christian People"
The first source of the Christian nation concept during the nineteenth century came from the notion that the American nation and its democratic system were based on Christian principles. This notion was derived from popular belief that the first settlers had been guided to the new land by the providential hand of God which had in turn protected and nurtured the colonies in their development into a nation. These providential influences guided the Founding Fathers in creating the new government and found their way into the nation's organic documents. Thus, central to this argument was the belief that Christian principles provided the foundation for the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and for American democracy itself. Because of these origins, the state had a special obligation to promote Christian principles as a way of preserving both democratic and religious institutions.
This view of America's Christian nationhood was widely shared in varying degrees throughout the nineteenth century, especially during the antebellum period, and is even espoused today. What is so remarkable about this perspective is that it was not generally shared by the founders and their contemporaries, but instead developed through a melding of America's religious heritage with evangelical aspirations for America's millennial role.
The Rhetoric and Reality of the "Christian Nation" Maxim in American Law, 1810-1920 by Steven Keith Green A unpublished dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of History. Chapel Hill, 1997 p 22)
To the extent that Chesterton read the Declaration as "dogmatic and even theological," he was misreading it. Jefferson would take such terms as an insult if applied to his draft. He thought most theology an enemy to man's freedom, and he opposed any religious tests for holding office or citizenship.
Inventing America, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, by Garry Wills, Vintage Books (June 1979) Prologue, pp. xiii-xxiv
The American Historical Review Vol. 104 # 3 June 1999.
Allen Jayne. Jefferson's Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy, and Theology. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. 1998. Pp. xiii, 245. $39.95.
This book is a clear, concise, and accurate account of the philosophical and religious views that inspired Thomas Jefferson to compose the United States' formative document. Allen Jayne leaves no doubt that the "Nature's God" found in the Declaration of Independence, the deity who provides the American colonists with their right to rebel against the British government, is the rationalist God of deism, not the personal God of Abraham.
". . . to which the laws of nature and of nature's god entitle them . . ."
He [Jefferson] hoped, always, to get directly at Nature and at Natures's Laws. That is evident in passage after passage of his work. When, for instance, be denied that maritime fossils discovered in mountainous parts of Virginia could have been deposited there by waters reaching that height, he was working from his disbelief in a biblical Deluge. But he tried to make his case from the nature of things as well:
The atmosphere, and all its contents, whether of water, air, or other matters, gravitate to the earth; that is to say, they have weight. Experience tells us, that the weight of all these together never exceeds that of a column of mercury of 31 inches height, which is equal to one of rainwater of 35 feet high. If the whole contents of the atmosphere then were water, instead of what they are, it would cover the globe but 35 feet deep; but as these waters, as they fell, would run into the seas, the superficial measure of which is to that of the dry parts of the globe as two to one, the seas would be raised only 52 1/2 feet above their present level, and of course would overflow the lands to that height only. In Virginia this would be a very small proportion even of the champaign country, the banks of our tide-waters being frequently, if not generally, of a greater height. Deluges beyond this extent then, as for instance, to the North mountain or to Kentucky, seem out of the laws of nature (Notes on Virginia, 31).
Inventing America, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, by Garry Wills. Vintage Books (June, 1979) p. 109.
The Christian Statesman
Declaration of Independence and National Renewal by William Einwechter
The Christian Statesman
Declaration of Independence as Moral and Constitutional Law: Whatever Happened to the Bible?
A Big Fuss Over Nothing
Objections Admitting the Principle Involved, But Urged Against the Expediency of the Movement.
Objection 1. The Constitution already acknowledges God.
The objector says, substantially: "The proposed amendment is just and proper, but it is unnecessary. God and Christianity are now acknowledged in the fundamental law of the nation." And what is the proof of such acknowledgment? The word oath, a passing reference to the Christian Sabbath in the clause, "Sundays excepted," making th'~ Sabbath a dies non in the reckoning of days during which the Resident may retain a bill for approval, the mention of the common law, and the formula of date. These are all. They hardly require notice. It may be said in brief, however, that the mention of the Sabbath is simply an incidental allusion, an evidence, indeed, that there was a Sabbath known; but it is no acknowledgment of the obligation of the Sabbath. The dating again is no part of the instrument. It merely marks the time. And more than all else, the name of God was excluded from the form of the President's oath, incorporated in the
Constitution. Can these features of the Constitution, with a mention of the common law, be regarded as an adequate acknowledgment of the nation's subjection to God and his government? It is now almost universally admitted that they are not religious acknowledgments at all. So completely devoid is our Constitution of any religious character that multitudes of both infidels and Christians agree in stating that it is no more Christian than Mohammedan. As Ex-President Woolsey declared in his paper read before the Evangelical Alliance, it needs no change to adapt it to a Mohammedan nation. Admiring, as we do, the many ex eN lencies of our Constitution, we are constrained to admit this sad defect. If it is still claimed that an acknowledgment of God and Chris-
tianity is in the Constitution, it must also be admitted that such an acknowledgment, now dimly there at best, should be made so clear and explicit that no room may be left for doubt. What is there rightfully ought to be there indisputably.*
* For another remark In this connectian, see last page
[the following is the last page referenced]
Since the foregoing pages were stereotyped, the First Objection has been brought to our notice in another form by an eminent citizen of New England. He says "The Declaration of Independence is really the, full Preamble of the Constitution. It sets forth sentiments and principles; the Constitution follows it with rules and regulations. That document, at the outset, declares it to be a self-evident truth that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with all their rights; and closes with an appeal 'to the Supreme Judge of the World.'"
We are fully sensible of the value of these expressions in the Declaration. They prove that the nation then owned her allegiance to God. They vindicate her right, now strenuously denied, to acknowledge God in public documents. They show that what we propose is consistent with the spirit and example of our fathers, in the noblest passages of our history. But we must clearly distinguish between these two documents. The Declaration is not part of the written Constitution. Its value is historical rather than legal. It is a deed of the nation which has passed into history; the Constitution, as a law, is an ever-present act of the nation's will.. The argument which is drawn from the silence of the Constitution concerning God and Religion against all Christian features of our government as contrary to " our political covenant," nut covered by the bond, cannot be adequately met by an appeal in the Declaration of 1776.
Answers to Objections to the Religious Amendment of the United States Constitution. By the Rev. D. M'allister. (1874} The Christian Statesman Tracts No. 6
"The second of these reasons is, 'the sinful character of our nation'. Notwithstanding the prevalence of Religion, which I have described, the irreligion, and the wickedness, of our land are such, as to furnish a most painful and melancholy prospect to a serious mind. We formed our Constitution without any acknowledgement of GOD; without any recognition of his mercies to us, as a people, of his government, or even of his existence. The Convention, by which it was formed, never asked, even once, his direction, or his blessing upon their labours. Thus we commenced our national existence under the present system, without GOD. I wish I could say, that a disposition to render him the reverence, 'due to his' great 'Name', and the gratitude, demanded by his innumerable mercies, had been more public, visible, uniform, and fervent."
"At the same time I have no hesitation to say, that 'the eagerness, with which public offices are hunted for', and the sacrifices of principle and conscience, which, as we have but too much reason to believe, are made, in order to acquire them, constitute a great and dreadful sin; and are a deep brand upon the moral character of our country...."
The quote is from "A discourse in two parts : delivered July 23, 1812, on the public fast, in the chapel of Yale College / by Timothy Dwight..." ( I also note that he is Timothy Dwight, D.D.L.L.D., President of that Seminary; Published at the request of the students, and others; New Haven; Published by Howe and Deforest; Sold also by A.T. Goodrich and Co. No, 124, Broadway, New-York; Printed by J.Seymour, 49, John-street, New-York)
The Declaration of Independence didn't especially have any great importance in its own time
How the word [about the Declaration of Independence ] went out is one story; what became of the Declaration afterward is another, more complex and of continuing significance. The Declaration was at first forgotten almost entirely, then recalled and celebrated by Jeffersonian Republicans, and later elevated into something akin to holy writ, which made it a prize worth capturing on behalf of one cause after another. The politics that attended its creation never entirely left its side, such that the Declaration of Independence, which became a powerful statement of national identity, has also been at the center of some of the most intense conflicts in American history, including that over slavery which threatened the nation itself. In the course of those controversies, the document assumed a function altogether different from that of 1776: it became not a justification of revolution, but a moral standard by which the day-today policies and practices of the nation could be judged.
The Declaration of Independence was in some ways the most unlikely of all documents to play such a role, one whose work was essentially done once it had successfully announced and justified Congress's decision to break with Britain and begin a new nation. Moreover, its assertion that "all men are created equal," which became a prominent part of the document's moral message, had originally referred to men in a state of nature, that is, before government existed. . .
American Scripture, Making the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 . Pauline Mailer Vintage books, (July 1998) pp. 154-55) [Emphasis added]
The historian Philip F. Detweiler, who carefully studied the changing reputation of the Declaration of Independence in its first fifty years, looked for the Declaration's influence on the declarations or bills of rights that eight states attached to their constitutions during the revolutionary period. They, too, he noted, failed to use the language of the Declaration of Independence. Of course, the Declaration of Independence was emphatically not a bill of rights in the American sense, that is, a statement of fundamental rights that government must honor and protect: it corresponded to the first, not the second part of the English Declaration of Rights. There are, however, good historical reasons why the Declaration of Independence is so easily confused with a bill of rights. After all, the words from its second paragraph that are today remembered beyond all others-"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"-were originally adapted from a draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights written by George Mason and amended by a committee of the Virginia convention.
In fact, the words of the Mason draft made their way into several other revolutionary state bills of rights, and seem to have had a far greater impact than either the Declaration of Independence or the Declaration of Rights that the Virginia convention finally adopted, both of which were themselves descended from the Mason draft .2' What might seem to be minor differences of wording are critical in tracing its lineage. Where the Declaration of Independence said men were "created equal," the Mason/committee draft asserted that all men are born equally free and independant, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divert their posterity; among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety. [Italics added]
The Virginia convention changed the opening phrase to say "That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights" (again, italics added), which had few if any echoes in the eighteenth century.24 Those who drafted state bills of rights with assertions of human equality seem to have begun, like Jefferson, with the Mason/committee version either as they encountered it in the press or, later, as it appeared in some previous state bill of rights. But, again like Jefferson, they felt free to make adjustments in the text. Pennsylvania's 1776 "Declaration of the Rights of... Inhabitants," in whose creation Benjamin Franklin played a part, said "That all men are born equally free and independent," but changed the next phrase so it said that all men "have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights," then completed the paragraph making further minor changes in the Mason text. Similarly, the Massachusetts "Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants," which John Adams drafted in i78o, said "All men are born free and equal," which was close to Mason, then rephrased the rest of the paragraph: and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness. Vermont's 1777 Declaration of Rights followed the Pennsylvania model. And in 1784 New Hampshire said that "All men are born equally free and independent," then offered still another version of Mason's statement on rights:
All men have certain natural, essential, and inherent rights; among which are-the enjoying and defending life and liberty-acquiring, possessing and protecting property-and in a word, of seeking and obtaining happiness.25
There, at least, and perhaps also in the Massachusetts document, was an answer to the much-asked question about what the "pursuit of happiness" meant in the revolutionary era. All of the above, New Hampshire seemed to say-life, liberty, and property.
In none of these documents is there any evidence whatsoever that the Declaration of Independence lived in men's minds as a classic statement of American political principles. Not one revolutionary state bill of rights used the words "all men are created equal." Nor, for that matter, did the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen adopted by the French National Assembly on August 26, 1789, which is sometimes said to be a descendant of the American Declaration of Independence. DURING THE FIRST fifteen years following its adoption, then, the Declaration of Independence seems to have been all but forgotten, particularly within the United States, except as the means by which Americans announced their separation from Great Britain. The histories and political writings of the 1780s generally describe the document "primarily as the act of independence." Participants in the extensive debates over the creation and ratification of the federal constitution mentioned the Declaration, again, very infrequently and then generally cited its assertion of the people's right to "abolish or alter their governments" and to found new ones that "to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness." 2
American Scripture, Making the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier, Vintage Books-A Division of Random Books, Inc, N. Y. (July 1998) pp. 164-166
The Declaration is not only part of our history; we are part of its history. We have cited it, over the years, for many purposes, including the purpose of deceiving ourselves; and it has become a misshapen thing in our minds. Jefferson never intended it for a spiritual Covenant; but it has traveled in an Ark that got itself more revered the more it was battered.
The best way to honor the spirit of Jefferson is to use his doubting intelligence again on his own text. Only skepticism can save him from his devotees, return us to the drier air of his scientific maxims, all drawn with the same precision that went into his architectural sketches. The pollster on the street wants us to "endorse" Jefferson's Declaration. But Jefferson would be the first to ask what such an exercise could mean. Despite his hostility to Plato, he liked Socrates and thought the unexamined life not worth living. Even more, the unexamined document is not worth signing. The Declaration has been turned into something of a blank check for idealists of all sorts to fill in as they like. We had better stop signing it (over and over) and begin reading it. I do not mean seeing it. I mean reading it.
That is a more difficult task than one might at first suppose. The Declaration is constantly invoked but rarely studied. There have, in fact, been only three important books on the document written in this century-John Hazelton's in 1906, settling the outstanding historical problems of the paper's passage and signing; Carl Becker's in 1922, enshrining the Lockean interpretation of its content; and Julian Boyd's first volume of the Jefferson Papers in 1950, establishing the text with magisterial thoroughness. Other books have done little but recast, popularize, or misquote these seminal works in three different fields connected with the Declaration.
Why such exiguous scholarship around a paper so loved, so often put to questionable political use, so omnipresent at the merely verbal level? A preliminary hint or two may be given here, to be explored more fully later. For one thing, the Declaration is not a legal instrument, like the Constitution. Each phrase of the latter document has been tested in courts and in legal classrooms, under strict rules of interpretation, with consequences of the most serious kind riding on the results of such inquiry. Men go free or go to jail, depending on the reading of a phrase. The Declaration, having no such force of law, has not undergone this discipline of "construction," strict or loose.
Besides, for the Constitution we have the long drafting process recorded in Madison's notes, the arguments of the framers voiced in protracted debate, the records of ratifying conventions in each state, along with the authoritative exposition of federal doctrine by "Publius." There are no notes from the drafting or acceptance of the Declaration, which was by comparison the work of a few days. Nor did the Declaration call forth early attack or exposition of a fruitful sort. It had, indeed, astonishingly little immediate effect in the world of ideas, and quickly sank into an obscurity not fully dispelled for almost half a century. When serious scrutiny did begin, it was occasioned by distorting acrimony. As the document grew in importance, so did the myths and partisan uses. The time of obscurity yielded to almost a century of blinding glare and misrepresentation, until Hazelton began the scholarly reclamation of the paper.
Inventing America, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence , by Garry Wills, Vintage Books (June 1979) Prologue, pp. xiii-xxiv
The Declaration of Independence had a function, a role to play and that role was to (1) explain to the world why the Contential Congress had passed a Resolution on July 2, 1776 that created Independence from England, (2) seek foreigh aid from other European nations, most notibly France and perhaps Spain..
All the additional meanings that have been heaped on afterwards, the religious meanings, the moral meanings, the hints and implication that it a fundamental founding document of this naiton or that it is THE founding document of this nation, that it is a preamble to the Constitution, that it proves this is a Christian Nation, that it bases our laws on Christianity or the Bible, etc have all been added by others many years, many generations after the founders wrote, debated, passed and signed it. None of those invented, imagined, created meaning were part of its original meaning or purpose.
The Declaration of Independence (1776)
Jefferson's Declaration of Independence did not use the word "Creator"
Declaration of Independence Is Not Law
The Declaration of Independence Was an Explanation
Declaration of Independence: Its Purpose
Declaration of Independence: Preamble
Lincoln's reinventing of the Declaration of Independence
The United States Supreme Court and the Declaration of Independence