• The Heritage Network
    • Resize:
    • A
    • A
    • A
  • Donate
  • Is the Declaration of Independence Illegal?

    Silly Brits. After all these years, they still don’t understand natural rights.

    During a moot debate last week at Franklin Hall in Philadelphia, British lawyers argued that the 1776 American Declaration of Independence was not only illegal, but actually treasonable. “There is no legal principle then or now to allow a group of citizens to establish their own laws because they want to,” the British barristers maintained.

    Well, of course seceding from Great Britain and renouncing allegiance to King George III was both illegal and treasonable by British legal standards. That’s why the American colonists  appealed not to their rights as British subjects for a redress of a grievances (as they had done up until 1774) but to the universal supra-political “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” and the natural rights that go along with them.

    Alexander Hamilton’s words to set his Tory opponent straight in The Farmer Refuted (1775) come to mind:

    The fundamental source of all your errors, sophisms, and false reasonings, is a total ignorance of the natural rights of mankind….The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.

    When the Declaration announces that “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security,” this right to “alter or abolish government” is of course not to be found in British common law. It is a natural right to which all men can appeal, regardless of the constitution under which they live.

    There is a long history of British lawyers not understanding the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence. In 1776, a few months after independence had been proclaimed, a British barrister by the name of John Lind published “An Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress” in which he completely ignored the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence and focused instead on trying to refute the 27 charges leveled against King George III. Americans never bothered replying to him, busy as they were winning the War of Independence.

    Two centuries later, the debate in Franklin Hall ended more cordially. The legality of the Declaration of Independence was put to a vote before the audience, and the Americans carried the day, surely because their lawyers had better arguments (though the location of the venue—a few blocks from where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration—may have had something to do with it).

    Posted in Featured, First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    11 Responses to Is the Declaration of Independence Illegal?

    1. Geronimo Berstein says:

      Farmer Refuted!!! Wow, slow down, college. Actually, it is good to see someone quoting Hamilton from a writing other than the Federalist. Well done!

    2. CrazyHungarian says:

      Of course it was illegal by English law. That was the whole point!

      A better question would be: How legal was the formulation of the British Empire in it's domination and plundering of a majority of the world?

    3. John G says:

      "Silly Brits. After all these years, they still don’t understand natural rights."

      The question is whether the founders had the legal authority to do what they did, not whether they had the right to or not. By all indications the Declaration was illegal under British law. Legal and moral are not always synonymous, meaning while I (or gov) may have the legal authority to do something (gov making it illegal to drink alcohol or take drugs for example), it does not mean they have the moral authority (does it violate someone's rights) to do that.

      • river says:

        Your lawyer talk is exactly what the founders told the British they could stuff.

        • John G says:

          My point was to compare natural rights with legal authority is to compare apples and oranges. I have the natural right to my body, yet our gov has given itself the legal authority to jail me if I put something in my body the gov't doesn't like. A moral right does not inherently exist simply because a legal right does. Hence why I say the DoI was illegal in the sense that it broke British law, but the founders had every moral right to do what they did.

    4. Bobbie says:

      That's right! ALL RIGHTS are the individuals that doesn't violate civility which needs no spelling out!! the Declaration of Independence is only illegal to those whose controlling interests (American/world government) it conflicts. God given rights are a threat to those that oppose or deny God! Satan and his evil ones.

      Our God given rights will not be given to government authority! When government refuses to respect people have rights, it will be the force of government that must be fought against!

    5. annick martin says:

      God bless America and the declaration of Indepence

    6. pottsdc says:

      Leave it to lawyers to debate an irrelevancy. Of course the Declaration was illegal under British law. That's why those who drafted the Declaration did so in the course of creating a new political entity. The Declaration was essentially ratified by the Treaty of Paris after the British Crown and Government decided that retaining control of the colonies was no longer worth the cost. Had Britain won the war, British courts would have had no difficulty convicting the American leaders of treason and the Declaration would have been a document for historians and philosophers to argue over. The lesson of the Declaration is that rights and freedoms are meaningless without the power to enforce them.

      One interesting part of the Philadelphia debate came when the British team argued that it was inconsistent to affirm the legality of the Declaration while denying the legality of secession by the Confederacy in 1861. The irony is that secession is actually legal under the plain language of the Constitution. But unlike the rebels of 1776, the Confederates were unable to defend their independence against a central government determined to retain control by military force.

    7. AD-RtR/OS! says:

      Change a few words about, and some "silly buggers" in DC should be concerned.
      It is not only Brit barristers who don't understand Natural Rights – we seem to have quite a few roaming about on Capitol Hill, and among the warrens on K-Street (not to mention Pennsylvania Avenue).

    8. kofi says:

      Keep in mind these lawyers have to pass the BAR exam……does anyone know what BAR stands for? British Accredited Registry, they study to pass an exam written by the British! Its all a hoax, that's why the have cliches and make strawman arguments.

    9. lets bring back the old custom of tar and feathers for these nanny state supporters

    Comments are subject to approval and moderation. We remind everyone that The Heritage Foundation promotes a civil society where ideas and debate flourish. Please be respectful of each other and the subjects of any criticism. While we may not always agree on policy, we should all agree that being appropriately informed is everyone's intention visiting this site. Profanity, lewdness, personal attacks, and other forms of incivility will not be tolerated. Please keep your thoughts brief and avoid ALL CAPS. While we respect your first amendment rights, we are obligated to our readers to maintain these standards. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    Big Government Is NOT the Answer

    Your tax dollars are being spent on programs that we really don't need.

    I Agree I Disagree ×

    Get Heritage In Your Inbox — FREE!

    Heritage Foundation e-mails keep you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.