Some politically minded Christians, having scoured the American Constitution and found neither the word God nor the word of God, have settled on the reference to a “ Creator” that appears in the Declaration of Independence as a wedge to drive home their larger point that the United States is a Christian nation. These Christians (who are, incidentally, well represented on the history textbook adoption board in Texas) argue that because the Declaration states that “all men” gain the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness from a “Creator,” failure to believe in such a creator then erases the foundations of liberty. Atheism, then, is not just blasphemous but un-American.
The problem with this view is that it amounts to an ahistorical reading of the Declaration. Jefferson’s sentiment, in fact, was not intended as a grand statement about human rights but rather as a logical syllogism. The Declaration is like a page from one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks that must be held up to a mirror to be read. The mirror to the Declaration is the doctrine of the divine right of kings. Once the Declaration is held up to its reflection, the real purpose of the document becomes apparent—and the place that formal logical thinking, rather than belief in a vague divinity, has in American history is restored to its proper status.
The divine right of kings is a simple concept that likely dates from the inception of human civilization. It’s the assertion that the ruler derives his or her right to govern from supernatural authority. In other words, one person—the ruler—is elevated above everyone else simply because he is the ruler. This leads to the following syllogism: (1) The king gets his powers to rule from God. (2) Therefore, anything the king says or does is sanctioned by God. (3) Therefore, people should serve and obey the king.
In contrast, let’s look at the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence:
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 a 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.
If the divine right syllogism was a building, then its foundation would be the premise that the king (of Britain, in this case) obtained his powers to rule from God. Jefferson wastes no time in attacking this foundation by stating that “all men are created equal.” This five-word phrase might be the most misunderstood statement in history. Jefferson, who owned slaves, is often called a hypocrite for having written these lines. I won’t defend Jefferson the slaveholder, but Jefferson the logician deserves better. In all likelihood, when he wrote those words he was not trying to make a grand humanistic pronouncement. Instead, he was very probably creating a base for a syllogism. After all, the Declaration was a message to King George III. The Continental Congress was telling the king that no man could be born above others. That is, the rebels in the Colonies no longer accepted the philosophical base of the king’s authority.
The Declaration is the divine right turned upside down. Jefferson’s syllogistic God gave power not to one person but to all persons. Now we have a new base for a syllogism, one that looks like this: (1) All men are given rights by God.
Given this new base, the philosophy of governance is radically altered. If all men have rights granted by a creator, then what is the purpose of government? If government is not sanctioned by a higher power, then it cannot grant rights to people. So, what is its function? Obviously, it must be to protect natural rights. So we now have the second part of the syllogism: (2) Therefore, governments exist to protect those rights. And finally the logical conclusion of this syllogism, but one which is rarely spelled out, is: (3) Therefore, citizens are under no obligation to obey governments that violate their “God-given” rights and in fact are justified in overthrowing those governments.
The reference to a creator here is intended as a syllogistic base, something that someone as schooled in logic and rhetoric as Jefferson (and Adams and Franklin for that matter) would have readily understood as a necessary precondition for a logical argument. Hence, it should not be taken to refer specifically to a deity. Nor should it be inferred that one must believe in a rights-giving god in order to believe that humans have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” One can obviously believe in the sanctity of human liberties without believing they were handed down by a divinity. After all, it was disbelief in a tyrant-sanctioning god that was the real rub between the American continentals and the Europeans. Or one can just as easily posit, as many do, that such a god is directly in opposition to human rights.
This Declaration-as-syllogism interpretation is not new, but it is one that has a proud history. America’s finest president, Abraham Lincoln, seemed to base his entire American philosophy around this vision of the Declaration. Consider what he said in one of his famous debates against Stephen Douglas:
That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world . . . from the beginning of time . . . The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings . . . No matter in what shape it comes, whether from a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.*
Lincoln’s words remind us that the sentiments in the Declaration’s syllogism run counter to any form of tyrannical logic, whether it comes from government, religions, or coercive owners of labor. The American principle is more revolutionary and more antagonistic toward authority of any kind than is commonly understood today. Far from being a religiously inspired document, the Declaration of Independence is a stunning example of how, at our country’s birth, rigorous, logical, and ethical reasoning were applied to derive concepts of justice. Our Constitution and our evidence-based system of law are both built upon the core philosophy so succinctly stated in the Declaration. One won’t find God in the American Constitution, but you will find careful reasoning. Thank logic for that.
*James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 146.