Among the political charters penned through the ages, few if any are as venerated or as important as the American Declaration of Independence. With 1458 words, 13 colonies threw off the shackles of the old world and laid the groundwork for a new experiment in ordered liberty.
Despite the number of times I have read this critical document, I recently realized that I had missed something key about the Declaration of Independence. For, within its eloquent prose and heady talk of human rights lies another bold declaration–a declaration of dependence. At first glance, these declarations (a declaration of independence and a declaration of dependence) seem to be at odds. But, they are not. In fact, they point to something forgotten but vital to our divided republic. Here’s what I mean:
1. The Forgotten Declaration
We are all familiar with the opening lines of the second paragraph of the Declaration, which states: “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…” But, we are much less familiar with the closing paragraph of the Declaration, which reads:
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
So, in this great treatise on human rights, the drafters included a declaration of dependence on the “Supreme Judge” of the world and on “Divine Providence.” Empty words to a distracted deity, you say? That is not reflected in the historical record. For example, in the first prayer before the Continental Congress in 1774, Reverend Jacob Duché struck a similar note: “…look down in mercy, we beseech Thee, on these our American States, who have fled to Thee from the rod of the oppressor and thrown themselves on Thy gracious protection, desiring to be henceforth dependent only on Thee.”
Simply stated, though the founders were influenced by enlightenment philosophy, they were also heavily influenced by Christian thought. And, this Christian thought was expressed in a declaration of dependence in the critical concluding paragraph of the world’s most famous declaration of independence.
2. Complementary, not Contradictory
At first glance, these declarations seem contradictory. If thirteen colonies were declaring independence from the King of England, why would they declare dependence on the King of Heaven? The simple answer is that these declarations were complementary, not contradictory.
I have often wondered why the American War for Independence succeeded in light of Romans 13:1: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” Verse 2 states that those that resist governing authorities will receive judgment. So, why would God (at least it appears this way) bless a revolution against governing authority? Here’s my working theory: The colonists did not rebel; rather, George III voluntarily relinquished his authority over the colonies by removing his protection of the colonies and declaring war on them. Under feudal law, vassals submitted to a lord’s authority in exchange for the lord’s protection. If the lord removed his protection, his vassals were free to seek another lord.
This is exactly what happened between the colonies and Britain. The colonies sent King George the Olive Branch Petition, and his administration responded with the Prohibitory Act, which declared a blockade against the colonies and removed the colonies from the king’s protection. These event are summed up in the Declaration of Independence as follows, “He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.” So, the colonists transferred allegiance from the King of England to the next available level of government, their colonial legislatures.
In sum, the American War for Independence was not an outright snub of the concept of authority and a declaration of absolute personal autonomy unbridled by God, morality and law. Rather, it was a recognition of human dignity in the creation order and a reluctant transfer of allegiance from the British crown to the colonial legislatures. And, in this risky war against the greatest power on the planet, the colonists looked to Heaven for protection and vindication. So, I say again, these declarations were complementary, not contradictory.
3. A New Declaration of Dependence
I pointed out all of the above to say this: In 1776, we declared independence from Britain while raising our hands in prayer and declaring dependence on Heaven. In 2019, we declare independence from Heaven while raising our fists in defiance and declaring dependence on ourselves. Flushed with success in dethroning King George, we now rush to crown a new and worse tyrant–the one that looks back at us in the mirror.
This is a revolution for sure, but it is missing a key ingredient of the success of our founding women and men. Faced with impossible odds, complex questions and an uncertain future, they knew they did not have the wisdom, courage and strength to prevail. So, they launched into an uncertain future with a “…firm reliance on Divine Providence.”
Our divided republic now faces global threats, a destabilizing economic revolution, the breakdown of the American family, the rise of socio-political tribalism, a crippling drug crisis and grave moral questions surrounding the use of artificial intelligence and other technologies.
Fortunately, as Americans, we have a template for responding to such a crisis. We should dare with everything we possess–our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor. And, we should work tirelessly to speak the truth, build a better society and preserve our experiment in ordered liberty. But, we must be mindful of this critical lesson from history: don’t declare independence from the likes of King George without also declaring dependence on King Jesus. May we follow the founders in renewing this firm reliance on the King of Heaven this 4th of July.
P.S. This 4th of July, I encourage you to read the full text of the Declaration of Independence