On the reverse side of the great seal of the United States there is a Latin inscription—Novus Ordo Seclorum—meaning “A New Order of Things.” This new order of things was designed and accomplished in the American Revolution, which was the expression of two distinct ideas: First, that government is of the people; and, second, that government is of right entirely separate from religion.

These two ideas are but the result of the one grand fundamental principle, the chief cornerstone of American institutions, which is the rights of the people.

This is briefly comprehended, and nobly expressed, in the following words of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: 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. That to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that when any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Thus in two sentences was annihilated the despotic doctrine, which had become venerable, if not absolutely hallowed, by the precedents of a thousand years—the doctrine of the divine right of rulers; and in the place of the old falsehood, and despotic theory, of the sovereignty of the government and the subjection of the people, there was declared, to all nations and for all time, the self-evident truth and divine principle of the subjection of the government and the sovereignty of the people.

In declaring the equal and inalienable right of all men to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that governments derived their just powers from the consent of the governed, there is not only declared the sovereignty of the people, but also the entire capability of the people. The declaration, in itself, presupposes that men are men indeed, and that as such they are fully capable of deciding for themselves as to what is best for their happiness, and how they shall pursue it, without the government’s being set up as a parent or guardian to deal with them as with children.

In declaring that governments are instituted by the governed, for certain ends, and that when any government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness, it is likewise declared that, instead of the people’s needing to be cared for by the government, the government must be cared for by the people.

In declaring the objects of government to be to secure to the people the rights which they already possess in full measure and inalienable degree, and to effect their safety and happiness in the enjoyment of those rights; and in declaring the right of the people, in the event named, to alter or abolish the government which they have, and institute a new one on such principles and in such form as to them seems best; there is likewise declared not only the complete subordination but also the absolute impersonality of government. It is therein declared that the government is but a device, a piece of political machinery, framed and set up by the people, by which they would make themselves secure in the enjoyment of the inalienable rights which they already possess as men, and which they have by virtue of being men in society and not by virtue of government—the right which was theirs before government was, which is their own in the essential meaning of the term, and “which they do not hold by any sub-infeudation, but by direct homage and allegiance to the Owner and Lord of all” . . . ,1 their Creator, who has endowed them with those rights. And in thus declaring the impersonality of government, there is wholly uprooted every vestige of any character of paternity in the government.

In declaring the equality of all men in the possession of these inalienable rights, there is likewise declared the strongest possible safeguard of the people. For, this being the declaration of the people, each one of the people stands thereby pledged to the support of the principle thus declared. Therefore, each individual is pledged, in the exercise of his own inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, so to act as not to interfere with any other person in the free and perfect exercise of his inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Any person who so acts as to restrict or interfere with the free exercise of any other person’s right to life, or liberty, or the pursuit of happiness, denies the principle, to the maintenance of which he is pledged, and does in effect subvert the government. For, rights being equal, if one may so act, every other one may do so; and thus no man’s right is recognized, government is gone, and only anarchy remains.

Therefore, by every interest, personal as well as general, private as well as public, every individual among the people is pledged in the enjoyment of his right to life, or liberty, or the pursuit of happiness, so to conduct himself as not to interfere in the least degree with the equal right of every other one to the free and full exercise of his enjoyment of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. “For the rights of man, as man, must be understood in a sense that can admit of no single exception; for to allege an exception is the same thing as to deny the principle. We reject, therefore, with scorn, any profession of respect to the principle which, in fact, comes to us dogged and contradicted by a petition for an exception. . . . To profess the principle and then to plead for an exception, let the plea be what it may, is to deny the principle, and it is to utter a treason against humanity. The rights of man must everywhere all the world over be recognized and respected.” . . .2

The Declaration of Independence, therefore, announces the perfect principle of civil government. If the principle thus announced were perfectly conformed to by all, then the government would be a perfect civil government. It is but the principle of self-government—government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And to the extent to which this principle is exemplified among the people, to the extent to which the individual governs himself, just to that extent and no further will prevail the true idea of the Declaration, and the republic which it created.

Such is the first grand idea of the American Revolution. And it is the scriptural idea, the idea of Jesus Christ and of God. Let this be demonstrated.

The Declaration holds that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Now the Creator of all men is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and “is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also” [Romans 3:29]. And as h “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26), “there is no respect of persons with God” (Romans 2:11).

Nor is this the doctrine of the later Scripture only; it is the doctrine of all the Book. The most ancient writings in the Book have these words: “If I did despise the cause of my manservant or of my maidservant, when they contended with me; what then shall I do when God riseth up? and when he visiteth, what shall I answer him? Did not he that made me in the womb make him?” (Job 31:13–15). And, “The Lord your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward; he doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. Love ye therefore the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:17–19). “The stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself” (Leviticus 19:34).

All men are indeed created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.

And this is the American doctrine—the doctrine of the Declaration of Independence. . . .

The conclusion of the whole matter, the end of all that can be said, is that, where the Declaration of Independence says that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, it asserts the eternal truth of God.

This article is excerpted from The Rights of the People, one of Alonzo T. Jones’s finest books on the topic of religious freedom.

1. Stanley Matthews, argument in Cincinnati case recorded in John Bernhard Stallo, George Hoadly, Stanley Matthews, John D. Minor, Cincinnati Board of Education, and Ohio Superior Court, Bible in the Public Schools (Cincinnati: R. Clarke, 1870), 241.

2. Stallo, Hoadly, Matthews, Minor, Board of Education, and Superior Court, 242.

Liberty and God's Truth

by Alonzo T. Jones
  
From the July 2024 Signs