The U.S. Declaration of Independence’s Relationship to the U.S. Constitution and Statutes

The U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, obviously preceded and in many ways inspired the U.S. Constitution of September 17, 1787. But in my three years as a student at the University of Chicago Law School, 1963-1966, and my 35 years as a practicing litigator-attorney (including some constitutional cases), 1966-2001, I never encountered the question of whether and how the Declaration should and could affect the interpretation of the Constitution.

George Will

Now noted author and commentator George Will in the “Introduction” to his new book, The Conservative Sensibility, says “We [conservatives] seek to conserve the American Founding” with a “clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking.” Indeed, “Americans codified their Founding doctrines as a natural rights republic in an exceptional Constitution, one that does not say what government must do for them but what government may not do for them.”

Therefore, according to Mr. Will’s book, “The doctrine of natural rights is the most solid foundation—perhaps the only firm foundation—for the idea of the political equality of all self-directing individuals.”

One of Will’s recent columns extends these thoughts. He says, “the Declaration expressed, as Thomas Jefferson insisted, the broadly shared ‘common sense of the subject.’ Rather than belabor the Declaration’s (to them, unremarkable) assertions, the Constitution’s framers set about creating institutional architecture that would achieve their intention: to establish governance that accords with the common sense of their time, which was that government is properly instituted to “secure” the preexisting natural rights referenced in the Declaration.” Therefore, the “The Declaration’s role is the locus classicus [classical location] concerning the framers’ intention [and original meaning and continuing purpose], which is surely the master key to properly construing what they wrought.”[1]

Jeffrey Rosen

Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and a law professor at George Washington University, shares some of the ways that the Declaration has influenced the Constitution.[2]  As President Lincoln noted in 1861, “the expression of the principle [of Liberty for All] in our Declaration of Independence . . . was the word ‘fitly spoken’ which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it.” As Lincoln recognized, “the two documents are closely linked. From the Founding era until today, conservatives, liberals and everyone in between have agreed that the theoretical basis of the U.S. Constitution—and American political life in general—can be found in Thomas Jefferson’s” words in the Declaration, “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.”

However, Rosen says, conservatives and liberals often disagree about what these words of the Declaration mean in terms of government policies and laws, as has been true throughout our history. This has been true in political debates in some Supreme Court cases. For example, in last week’s case about partisan gerrymandering, Justice Kagan in dissent cited the Declaration’s statement that governments derive “their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed” to justify her opinion that the courts need to intervene in gerrymandering cases. On the other hand, conservatives today cite the Declaration’s “all men are created equal” to support their assertion that there is a fundamental right to life that trumps a woman’s right to an abortion.

Reactions

The notion that the Declaration is relevant to interpreting the Constitution is superficially attractive. But most of the Declaration is a bill of particulars against “the present King of Great Britain” and his “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having, in direct object, the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States.” Those words do not appear to be helpful in interpreting the subsequent Constitution.

More importantly for Will and other like-minded individuals, the Declaration holds “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.” This apparently is the central assertions that should be used in interpreting the Constitution.

But immediately after these words, the Declaration states, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” For this blogger, those words strongly suggest, if do not require, an examination of the words adopted by the government in constitutions and statutes in order to construe those rights.

This blogger would appreciate intelligent reactions and comments on these issues as well as citations to any U.S. Supreme Court cases that use the Declaration to interpret the Constitution.

=====================================

[1] Will, To construe the Constitution, look to the Declaration, Wash. Post (July 3, 2019).

[2] Rosen, The Declaration of Independence Unites and Divides Us, W.S..J. (July 4, 2019),

Published by

dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s