Anderson, “The Declaration of Independence and God: Self-Evident Truths in American Law”

In October, Cambridge University Press will release “The Declaration of Independence and God: Self-Evident Truths in American Law” by Owen Anderson (Arizona State University). The publisher’s description follows:

“Self-evident truths” was a profound concept used by the drafters of the American Declaration of Independence to insist on their rights and freedom from oppressive government. How did this Enlightenment notion of self-evident human rights come to be used in this historic document and what is its true meaning? In The Declaration of Independence and God, Owen Anderson traces the concept of a self-evident creator through America’s legal history. Starting from the Declaration of Independence, Anderson considers both challenges to belief in God from thinkers like Thomas Paine and American Darwinists, as well as modifications to the concept of God by theologians like Charles Finney and Paul Tillich. Combining history, philosophy, and law in a unique focus, this book opens exciting new avenues for the study of America’s legal history.

Rakove Reviews Tsesis on the Declaration of Independence

I have not read Alexander Tsesis’s new book about the Declaration of Independence.  From this review by Jack Rakove, though, it appears that Professor Tsesis makes some “powerful moral claims” about the nature and scope of the “self-evident” “truth[]” “that all men are created equal.”  I have always been struck by the powerful religious text grounding the various principles enunciated in the Declaration, but at a quick glance, it does not seem that Professor Tsesis makes very much of this (though perhaps there are portions of the book where this text is discussed).  He does (again, according to Professor Rakove’s review) appear to advance the claim that the Constitution needs to be amended and updated to reflect a core egalitarian creed that he reads into the Declaration.  Professor Rakove has this to say:

In short, Tsesis collapses into the Declaration a host of claims that text and context simply cannot support, assigning to it qualities and purposes it was not originally intended or understood to possess. His most basic misunderstanding goes to the great equality principle that Jefferson condensed into “all men are created equal.” Americans have long read that to mean that we are or should become equal to one another as citizens. That, in effect, is how we have democratized the Constitution since 1776—as Tsesis ably demonstrates. When inequalities are perceived and become objectionable, we cite the Declaration in support of our leveling claims. Often we do that not merely because the inequalities are unjust in themselves, but also because we believe that the Declaration instructs us to oppose them. But the intended meaning of 1776 was never about inequality within American society. It was instead a statement that Americans as a people, as a collective whole, were equally endowed with other peoples with the right to oppose tyranny, to “alter and abolish” unjust governments and establish new governments in their stead. This form of equality means little to us now, but in the revolutionary circumstances of 1776, that was the equality Americans needed to assert.