Was the Declaration of Independence Illegal?

The BBC reports on a debate held in Philadelphia between American lawyers and British barristers. (source)

The American side of the debate:

The Declaration is unquestionably “legal”. Under basic principles of “Natural Law”, government can only be by the consent of the people and there comes a point when allegiance is no longer required in face of tyranny.

The legality of the Declaration and its validity is proven by subsequent independence movements which have been enforced by world opinion as right and just, based on the fundamental principles of equality and self-determination now reflected in the UN Charter.(source)

And the British:

The 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. What if Texas decided today it wanted to secede from the Union?

Lincoln made the case against secession and he was right. The Declaration of Independence itself, in the absence of any recognised legal basis, had to appeal to “natural law”, an undefined concept, and to “self-evident truths”, that is to say truths for which no evidence could be provided.

The grievances listed in the Declaration were too trivial to justify secession. The main one – no taxation without representation – was no more than a wish on the part of the colonists, to avoid paying for the expense of protecting them against the French during seven years of arduous war and conflict. (source)

Naturally, I side with the American view. However, it seems that both sides’ arguments are awfully hypocritical. To argue that the government can only be by the consent of the people, and that independence movements are just and right flies in the face of the fact that more Americans died trying to prevent an independence movement than in all other U.S. wars combined. Independence and its lofty rhetoric didn’t do much for the south when it decided that it no longer consented to rule from Washington. Apparently the view is that Independence was legal once, but from that point forward, never again.

On the other hand, for anyone in the United Kingdom to argue about the illegality of secession turns my stomach. I would like to see the same barristers explain how it is illegal to seek to leave an empire, but somehow legal to subjugate Ireland, India, South Africa, and so on. Is the position the Crown may take, but what the Crown takes, it must never give up until it is damn good and ready?

5 Responses to Was the Declaration of Independence Illegal?

  1. Man Mountain Molehill says:

    Both arguments leave out two universal principals; might makes right, and the victors write the history. To put it simply, we won. Therefore it was legal, and the founders are heroes, fathers of their country and so on.If the British had won, Jefferson, Madison et al would all be traitors of the worst sort.

    Seriously, how else could it be? Law is a human construct. It can be made to be anything the prevailing government wants it to be.

  2. The British wrongly say that “natural law” is an undefined concept. Natural laws, being natural, and not artificial, do not need to be “defined.” They govern, whether we understand them or not. Men make laws that are ill defined, and can be disobeyed through ignorance. Natural law is inescapable.

    Self-evident truths are not truths for which no evidence can be provided. They are truths that are, themselves, evidence for other thing propositions. What we might call “facts.”

    You may require that I give facts to support a theory. The *theory* of gravity is supported by the *fact* that apples fall toward the earth when dropped. There is no need for me to give “evidence” for the behavior of apples. The truth of their behavior is self evident. If you doubt me, go find an apple. If, after examining the apple, you disagree that the truth is self evident, you will only have persuaded me that you do not understand the nature of apples, and there is no point in continuing to reason with you.

    Likewise, if you say you disagree that all men have been endowed by their Creator with the inalienable right to live, to be free, and to seek happiness, you demonstrate only that you do not understand the nature of mankind. If you think that it is natural for men to be enslaved, oppressed, and unhappy, go spend some time with them. I assure you that none of them find it natural, and neither would you.

    Men are drawn to seek life, freedom, and happiness, just as sure as apples are drawn toward the center of the earth. Whether this self evident truth supported the revolution is a proper subject for debate. Debating whether the self evident truth is, in fact, a self evident truth is a waste of time.

  3. John Kindley says:

    The American side of the debate is of course the correct one, and I don’t see how we can charge that side with hypocrisy in the absence of an explanation of how they responded to the barristers’ invocation of the War of Northern Aggression and the prospect of Texas seceding. The Constitution was America’s original sin, the fruit of which was the Civil War. The Articles of Confederation were far better, being more consistent with natural law and the principle that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. The thirteen colonies were constructs of the British Empire, which the Revolutionaries cast off. Instead of amalgamating them into a Union we should have divided them into a confederation of “ward republics,” as Thomas Jefferson advocated late in life.

  4. Scott Jacobs says:

    I suppose we shouldn’t bother mentioning that Texas actually DID leave the union once. And then it came back.

    Man, who’d have thought that the Brits would still be pissy about the revolution?

  5. Richard Hershberger says:

    You want illegal? How about the ratification process of the US Constitution? The Articles of Confederation laid out a process, which the constitutional convention decided to ignore. Of course Rhode Island eventually came around and made the argument moot, but still…

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