We Hold These Truths to be Self Evident…Part II

James Madison frequently remarked that “all just and free government derives from social compact.” Indeed, this is the basis of government in the Declaration of Independence, which specifies that the “just powers” of government derive from the “consent of the governed.” Because “all men are created equal”—because, that is, no one by nature has the right to rule anyone else—the only legitimate source of rule is the consent of those who are to be ruled, and the only legitimate reason for consent is for the “safety and happiness” of those who agree to be ruled. In agreeing to join civil society, each individual freely accepts the obligation to protect the rights of fellow citizens in return for the protection of his own rights. The “just powers” of government are thus directed to the equal protection of the equal rights of those who consent to be governed. Equal rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—derive from “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” Equal protection of those rights is the very definition of the rule of law. Equal protection of the laws is thus intrinsic both to the social compact and to the Constitution.

The Constitution states that “We the people . . . do ordain and establish . . . this Constitution,” not that the Constitution creates the people. The people were created by the Declaration of Independence, which mentions the people both in their political capacity—“one people”—and in their moral capacity—a “good people.” Once the people are established, Madison says, a second contract is necessary, this time between the people in its political capacity and the government. By this second contract, the people consent to be governed under the forms of the Constitution and those who occupy the constitutional offices of government pledge to use their powers exclusively to “promote the general welfare” and “secure the blessings of liberty” to the people. However, should the government act in a settled way to disfranchise the people of their rights, the people always reserve the right to alter or abolish the government in order to secure new forms that are better calculated to promote their “safety and happiness.” This is what has come to be known as the right of revolution, a necessary attribute of the people’s sovereignty which serves as the ultimate guarantee of every other right. The right to alter or abolish government is the only obligation mentioned in the Declaration because it is the ultimate expression of the people’s sovereignty.

The Constitution was intended by the Framers to put the principles of the Declaration into practice. But as in all things political, it is never possible to translate theory directly into practice. Insofar as the Constitution allowed the continued existence of slavery, it was only an incomplete expression of the Declaration’s principles. Madison argued that the compromises with slavery were necessary to secure the adoption of the Constitution—otherwise the slave-holding states would have bolted the Constitutional Convention. And as the most thoughtful of the Federalists understood, without a strong national government the prospects of ever ending slavery—of ever bringing the Constitution into complete harmony with the Declaration—were remote. Thus the prudential compromises regarding slavery in the Constitution were actually in the service of eventual emancipation. Adoption of the Declaration made the abolition of slavery a moral imperative.

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