Reading the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States back-to-back makes clear the Founding Fathers’ focus on individual liberty. The Founders understood that “in order to form a more perfect union,” it was critical for government to stay out of the way. The laundry list of grievances against the King of Great Britain—which is what the Declaration mostly is, referring to them as “facts” for a “candid world”—reveals the colonial belief that people cannot be free under a tyrant. In fact, the Declaration makes the bold claim that a tyrant “is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” This phrase served as the announcement to a listening world that the medieval notion of the “divine right of kings” was official dead in America. With a few strokes of his pen, Thomas Jefferson escorted the European idea of nobility to the exit.
That the Constitution was to be understood as a continuation of the Declaration is made clear by its final paragraph:
Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth.
Dating the Constitution according to both the Gregorian calendar (the year of our Lord 1787) and the Declaration (1787 being the twelfth year after 1776) was an indication of both its place in history and its source of authority. Matthew Spalding writes:
The language here is neither insignificant nor unintentional: these dates serve to place the document in the context of the religious traditions of Western civilization and, at the same time, to link it to the regime principles proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution having been written in the twelfth year after July 1776. The usage stands in contrast to both the contemporary British tradition, in which documents were dated to the reign of the sitting monarch (see the Magna Carta of 1215 and the Petition of Right of 1628), and the French decision in 1793 to reject the Gregorian calendar altogether and begin measuring time starting with the French Revolution.
This dating of the Constitution, which may seem like a mere formality to us today, is nothing short of a bold statement. It proves that the Founders did not see themselves as “revolutionaries” as we are so quick to label them, but as continuers of the Western tradition. It means that they understood themselves to be reformers. It means that they understood Britain to be the real revolutionaries, not themselves. Britain had long since left the “religious traditions of Western civilization” and the Founders saw it as their responsibility to restore it in the States by means of the Declaration and the Constitution.
Interestingly, a quick read over the Declaration should be enough to convince any reasonable American that our own government has become just as—more so even—corrupt and tyrannical as King George III. It only serves to confirm Lord Acton’s famous dictum that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Perhaps the time has come for a second Declaration, substituting “Congress” for “King” and addressing it to Washington instead of Great Britain.