The Declaration of Independence as Law

Monday, November 14, AD 2011

Debates sometimes arise as to whether the Declaration of Independence is law. The Declaration isn’t law as a law saying go on green and stop on red is, although it is set forth under the United States Code.  It is much more important than that.  It is one of the essential building blocks of what we as a people believe.  It has been held to be such in numerous decisions of the United States Supreme Court and I cite one of them below:

The equal protection demanded by the 14th Amendment forbids this. No language is more worthy of frequent and thoughtful consideration than these words of Mr. Justice Matthews, speaking for this court, in Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, 369 , 30 S. L. ed. 220, 226, 6 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1064, 1071: ‘When we consider the nature and the theory of our institutions of government, the principles upon which they are supposed to rest, and review the history of their development, we are constrained to conclude that they do not mean to leave room for the play and action of purely personal and arbitrary power.’ The first official action of this nation declared the foundation of government in these words: ‘We hold these truths to be selfevident, 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.’ While such declaration of principles may not have the force of organic law, or be made the basis of judicial decision as to the limits of right and duty, and while in all cases reference must be had to the organic law of the nation for such limits, yet the latter is but the body and the letter of which the former is the thought and the spirit, and it is always safe to read the letter of the Constitution in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. No duty rests more imperatively upon the courts than the enforcement of those constitutional provisions intended to secure that equality of rights which is the foundation of free government.’

Cotting v. Goddard, 183 US 79 (1901)

When any law passed seems to conflict with the Declaration, it would be a very good idea to take a very hard look at that law.

5 Responses to The Declaration of Independence as Law

  • Somewhere in the US Constitution it says something about bon homme Whomever will be deprived “life, liberty or property” without “due process.”

    The rub: Central planners, collectivists, control economists invented brave, new definitions of “due process”, as in you have what you have if the regime allows . . .

    Seems some liberal genius’ (e.g., the #OccupyWallStreet crowd) idea of “greater good” trumps “life, liberty, happiness.”

    There just ain’t enough bullets.

  • Nah, I think I’ll pass on using the Declaration as an adjunct Constitution, since it was not intended as a governing document, not received as such, and much mischief ensues when courts begin parsing out philosophical statements such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

    Courts need to stick to interpreting legislation according to the plain meaning of the law, the orginal intent of the drafters, and if, and only if, necessary, examining whether a given law is in accord with the Constitution, again, according to its plain meaning and original understanding.

    There’s been enough trouble keeping judges to these simple principles. Inviting them to look to an extra-legal source like the Declaration is to invite even more of the same.

  • As a matter of judicial interpretation Tom, I would agree with you. If I were a legislator however, the Declaration would be one of my guiding stars in carrying out my duties.

  • I also agree with Tom, and would note that Don makes an insightful distinction, and one I admit I never considered. Good on you both.

  • Ditto Mike on dittoing Don and Tom.