Penmanship Fit for a King, Words Fit for a Free People

Jul 3, 2019 | Blog | 0 comments

We all know that Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, but who wrote the Declaration? Who took pen to paper—actually, quill to parchment—and inscribed the words on the document displayed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.? The name Timothy Matlack has largely been lost to history, but in addition to having exceptional penmanship, Matlack actually played a significant role in the events we celebrate on the Fourth of July. More importantly, the words Matlack transcribed set into motion a conception of government completely new in world history. While Matlack’s elegant calligraphy appears fit for a king, Jefferson’s elegant prose—directed at a king—had far more lasting consequences.

So what of these consequential words? We’ve all read them at some point, or perhaps been required to memorize them in school. Was the Declaration just a flowery way of saying “no taxation without representation!” Hardly. As Abraham Lincoln later consistently argued, the Declaration of Independence represented “the Father of all moral principle” among Americans and the animating spirit of our laws. Accordingly, the Declaration can rightly be called our organic law. To put it in modern terms, the Declaration serves as a sort of mission statement, or organizing principle, for the American form of government.

“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.”

Nearly every word of this eloquent statement is loaded with meaning. Let’s take each part separately. 

We are created equal and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights. 

This statement captures the Founders’ belief in a theory of natural rights. We are each created by God, and as such, we receive our basic liberties (our natural rights) from God and not from other men. Our rights are not a dispensation from government, but something we possess anterior to, or independent from, any government. Moreover, the Founders regarded this principle as self-evident—so obviously true as to constitute the natural order of things, not something they dreamed up.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. 

Here, the Founders spelled out the broad categories of natural rights they thought fundamental to each individual. The rights to Life and Liberty are easy enough to understand, but what does the Pursuit of Happiness mean? In modern times, we tend to define the pursuit of happiness as doing whatever feels good at any given moment, or “following your bliss.” This idea would have been unrecognizable to the Founders. 

Others point out that Jefferson’s original draft used the word “property” instead of pursuit of happiness, which mirrors the Lockean notion of natural rights—life, liberty, and property. That is true as far as it goes, but it was not all that was meant by happiness. The pursuit of happiness included the right to acquire property, but the concept was broader than just a property right. 

The Founders conceived of happiness along the lines of the Greek concept of eudaimonia, evoking a sense of well-being or a state of human flourishing that is the result of living a virtuous life. A life of virtue contemplates more than “if it feels good, do it,” instead speaking to a higher moral calling. It includes the right to acquire property and achieve prosperity, but cannot be said to consist solely of such. Note also that the right described is to pursue happiness, not that happiness itself is guaranteed.

To Secure these Rights, Governments are Instituted Among Men. 

Governments are created for the purpose of protecting our individual rights, not for the purpose of ruling over us or pursuing some utopian vision of a perfect society. Again, we have natural rights that pre-exist the government. We are not granted these freedoms as subjects of a king and his government, but as free people created by God. We allow the government to have certain powers, not the other way around. Note that governments are not created to make sure everyone has a certain standard of material comfort, but to secure our natural rights. 

Governments Derive Their Just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.

If we are free people, created by God, each given the same natural rights by God (thus, created equally), does it not follow that it is illegitimate for one man to exercise force or dominion over another man without his consent? Therefore, when we create a government to secure our natural rights, that government is only legitimate to the extent that it is consented to by those who will be governed by it. This is a statement about self-government. It speaks to what we might refer to as democratic legitimacy—that is, the political process we as a free people undertake in order that we remain free, subject only to valid (i.e., consented to) restriction.

I imagine that Timothy Matlack must have taken great care in drawing those cursive letters in 1776, knowing that none other than King George would be reading them, but I wonder if he had any idea we would still be admiring his handiwork nearly 250 years later. Whatever Matlack thought of his work, Jefferson and the others tasked with authoring the Declaration clearly understood that though their words were directed at a king, they were meant for history.

Happy Independence Day, and welcome to our blog. Here, we hope to introduce you to the principles 1889 Institute seeks to advance—principles like free enterprise, the rule of law, limited and responsible government, and robust civil society. We hope to demonstrate how these principles can provide guidance for public policy questions facing Oklahoma today. Above all, we hope to play our own small part in “securing the blessings of liberty, for ourselves and our posterity.”

by Benjamin Lepak, 1889 Institute Legal Fellow