One way to put the Declaration into context is through the concepts of "natural rights" and the "state of nature" in order to get students to think about social contract theory. I like to introduce my students to Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, George Mason, and a book called The Pyrates written under a pseudonym but assumed to be by Daniel Defoe.
State of Nature:
Hobbes’ Leviathon (1651): Hobbes justifies absolute monarchy by describing the state of nature, a hypothetical time of radical freedom before government or law, as a “war of all against all.” Because every single person has the same right to life, a state of chaos and anarchy exists. In order to establish life-preserving peace, the monarch is set up to protect us from this terrible state of nature, described as follows:
In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
- because a successive covenant cannot override a prior one, the subjects cannot (lawfully) change the form of government.
- because the covenant forming the commonwealth results from subjects giving to the sovereign the right to act for them, the sovereign cannot possibly breach the covenant; and therefore the subjects can never argue to be freed from the covenant because of the actions of the sovereign. [In other words, the sovereign is the law, so he cannot break the law.]
Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (1689): Locke proposes a defense against Hobbes’ thesis by defining the idea of “natural law.”
To properly understand political power and trace its origins, we must consider the state that all people are in naturally. That is a state of perfect freedom of acting and disposing of their own possessions and persons as they think fit within the bounds of the law of nature. People in this state do not have to ask permission to act or depend on the will of others to arrange matters on their behalf. The natural state is also one of equality in which all power and jurisdiction is reciprocal and no one has more than another.
I like to ask my students to look closely at the language of the following three passages to think about what each writer names as a "natural right" and to consider the differences between these rights. What does it mean to substitute "possessions" with "happiness"? Are those the same thing or different things? How do you know and why does it matter?
John Locke: The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that... no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.
George Mason: [A]ll men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
Jefferson et al: 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.
Social Contract Theory
We can see these thinkers reacting against Hobbes in the way they take the concept of natural rights and then apply it to the social contract theory.
[G]overnment is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community; of all the various modes and forms of government, that is best which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration. And that, when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community has an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.
[To] secure these [natural] 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… 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.
Remember the idea that Hobbes stated—that subjects cannot (lawfully) change the form of government? A key word in this phrase is “lawfully.” What are the ways that Mason and Jefferson take to prevent the “insidious” words of treason and lawlessness from being levied against them? It's useful to send students to www.ushistory.org to see a side-by-side copy of of the various drafts of the Declaration, so that they can see how carefully each word was chosen.
We consider classic, Aristotelian logic:
- Logos (logical claims built on premises – look for syllogisms)
- Pathos (emotional claims made to provoke the reader’s feelings)
- Ethos (claims about the speaker’s authority or reputation asking the reader to trust the speaker)
This activity impresses students by showcasing the masterful way that Jefferson and his co-writers forestall the accusation of treason or lawlessness. The economy with which Jefferson establishes his syllogism, the emotion that he provokes in calibrated turns by increasing the violence in his list of grievances, and the ethos of authority he creates with his appeals to philosophy, "self-evident" truth, and God: all of these rhetorical appeals work together to create a document that is both compelling and poignant.
Plus, it's a good excuse to post the picture of Johnny Depp in his role as Capt. Jack Sparrow.