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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Helpful clarity about the Declaration of Independence

One of the things that amazes me, as a lawyer and as an educator, is how much confusion there is about what the Declaration of Independence is and what it isn't, and not just among regular citizens but among historians and legal scholars.  In my day job, I've published on the non-binding legal character of the Declaration, and over at the Law & Liberty blog Greg Weiner has published a helpful post reinforcing that point by pointing out the nature of the document: What the Declaration Doesn't Say.  In words that echo the fundamental insights of men like Russell Kirk and M.E. Bradford, Weiner writes:
[T]he Declaration must be properly contextualized. It is a founding document but not a framing document, which is to say it does not have legal standing in the same way the Constitution does. When Justice Brennan, for example, grounded his activist jurisprudence partly in the ideals of the Declaration, he imported a document into constitutional law that simply has no place there. But this is not a liberal trope alone. As Ralph Rossum has shown, the Declaration plays a prominent role in Justice Thomas’ jurisprudence as well: the Constitution, in his understanding, was meant to fulfill the aspirations of the Declaration. 
While there is no question that the Declaration is a key document in American history and expresses in a unique and almost sacred way the key principles of the American Revolution, it is not a constitutional document. It is a pre-constitutional one, establishing the conditions upon which the American Republic could frame its fundamental legal charters -- first the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution of 1789. While the Constitution builds upon many of its insights (particularly the protection of natural rights through the due process clauses of the 5th and the 14th Amendments), the Declaration is not a legally authoritative document.

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