When the Continental Congress created the Declaration of Independence that body not only declared the reasons for the separation from Great Britain—the stated purpose of the document—it also presented a political philosophy in opposition to the divine right of kings. Where kings rule by divine right, there is no right of rebellion. By the time of George III, the principle of divine right had been pretty badly battered by the execution of Charles I in 1649, and securely chained by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Declaration of Right. The kings became sworn to rule according to statutes, laws and customs. The Declaration of Right set forth the grievances against King James II, and claimed a list of limitations on the crown and recognized certain rights belonging to the citizens. Thus a constitutional monarchy had already been established. However, the Glorious Revolution was more of a coup d’état than a popular uprising. The writings of John Locke and the Declaration of Independence would put stakes through the heart of the undead creed of the divine right of kings. The Declaration is a proclamation to the world on the purpose of government.
George III was the head, the symbol, the reigning monarch of Great Britain. The colonists initially sought relief from the king against Parliament. However, George III, as a constitutional monarch, would not take the side of the colonists against Parliament. In fact, he became inflamed against the colonies and remained adamantly opposed to their cause until the end. When it became clear that Parliament was never going to let the colonies control their own destiny and that the king would not intervene on their behalf, many colonists came to believe that separation was the only solution. In making their case to the world for a revolt against established authority, Jefferson and the Congress, before setting forth the catalog of oppressions which forced the separation from Great Britain, recognized in the Declaration a right of rebellion:
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 Continental Congress declared as a self-evident truth—equal with the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—the duty to overthrow an abusive government and to create a more responsive one, a new guard for future security. John Locke had previously written of the Supreme Power of the people to remove a government in violation of its fiduciary responsibilities and to replace it as might be best for their safety and security. (Locke, Second Treatise, sections 149-243). Where Locke asserted that the people were absolved from obedience to a tyrannical government, Jefferson and the Congress found a duty to throw off such government in favor of a new one.
What was to be the basis of the new guard? It must govern by the consent of the people, and secure the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Locke uses “property” instead of “the pursuit of happiness,” as do many state constitutions. Jefferson may have selected his term to add to the memorable cadence of the first sentence. The entire paragraph possesses a distinct rhythm—a subliminal poetry—not found in the writings of Locke.
The Declaration of Independence is more than a list of oppressions and a formal statement of separation of one people from another. It is an announcement and affirmation to all mankind. “The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind,” wrote Thomas Paine. “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth.” It is an assertion of fundamental rights conferred by Divinity and places governments in the position of safe-guarding those rights.” It is a founding document of the United States of America, and establishes the principles the Constitution and all other laws are meant to protect.