The Declaration of Independence and the Mandate of Heaven

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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 whenever 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 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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world [1].”

These are the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence, the foundational documents of the United States of America.  This document suggests that the right of a people to rebel against tyranny is a divine right, as opposed to the then-current belief in divine right monarchy.  In other words, the Founders of our nation made a firm declaration that to disobey tyrants is to obey God.  This is a massively important claim that basically invalidated any genuinely and legitimately American acceptance of a tyrannical rule of any kind in any sphere, thus making slavery and authoritarianism anti-American.

Almost as striking (if it is possible) as the divine discontent against tyranny expressed in these immortal words is the belief that this document is submitted to a candid world that is expected to agree with this view of the view of authority.  Now, we are familiar (perhaps too familiar) with the understanding that America’s Founding Fathers belonged to a deist and rationalistic Western European tradition that was reared on classical republicanism from heathen Greece and Rome.  These connections need no further exploration here as they are sufficiently well-known.  A second, perhaps greater, source of inspiration is from the Bible and its obligations towards kingship.  These will be briefly examined below.  The main purpose of this entry, though, is to examine the possibility that the Founding Fathers of the United States of America were aware of and playing to an audience far wider than that of Western Europe, and grasped at an intuitive truth that the belief in the divine right of rebellion was part of the underlying shared “natural law” of the world and not merely an ancestral right as Britons, or even Christian Western Europeans.  While I do not make any dogmatic conclusions, I wish to provide possible avenues of exploration for the suitably interested cultural historian.

Lex Rex

The classic Christian Republican case springs from an accurate Presbyterian reading of the Bible during the English Civil War that demonstrated that the biblical model of rulership was constitutional and limited in nature [2].  As the Bible placed the king under the law (Deuteronomy 17:14-20, for example) and at times clearly sanctioned rebellion against tyrannical leaders [3].  This was turning the “divine right of kings” on its head by showing that the king, rather than being imbued with all the wisdom and glory of God, was simply the servant of God who was to judge according to the standard of God’s law rather than in believing himself to be the standard himself (see Romans 13:1-4).

This belief appears to be very prominent in the defense of the American Revolution by American Congregationalist and Presbyterian ministers in particular.  The biblical case against tyranny, a case I strongly believe in, had consequences beyond merely the rupture between the United States and Great Britain.  It also showed that classic imperialism was fundamentally a fraudulent enterprise devoid of moral standing, thus giving a moral advantage in the future to all future colonies seeking independence.  It also, of interest to future American history, made slavery a moral wrong that the United States had to deal with, making the Civil War the inevitable consequence of a failure by America’s slaveowning elite to commit to the “values” of freedom and equality for all and an eventual end of an institution that mocked our own founding principles.  So, both slavery and imperialism were both placed on the permanent moral defensive within the United States as a result of the Declaration of Independence.

These are not insignificant problems, and they do not exhaust the Christianity that is expressed in subtle ways throughout the American political system.  That said, they demonstrate that at the basis of America’s culture and government is a specific interpretation of scripture that makes tyrannical authority immoral, and resistance to it godly, thus providing justification to any revolution against tyrannical government or oppression, so long as once can prove that tyranny and oppression have actually taken place.  This soil of freedom is often taken for granted, but so long as the Declaration of Independence remains well-read and deeply treasured, it persists to provide pressure against the leaders of families, churches, businesses, and civil governments to accept that they too are under the law and are not truly in charge of their institutions and lords over their wives, children, employees, brethren, and fellow citizens.  Clearly these implications are immense.

The Mandate of Heaven

That said, there appears to be a third stream of influence that has, to my knowledge, scarcely been examined at all.  Far more ink has been spread talking about the speculative Iroquois links of America’s Republican system than about the possible Chinese connection.  Nonetheless, both provide evidence about the “candid world” to which the Declaration of Independence was written.  Additionally, the Founding Fathers, to the extent that they were consciously aware of the Chinese origin of some of the concepts they adopted from the French philosophes, would have immediately grasped their universal application.  It is to that connection that I now turn.

A fascinating and offhand comment in a book I was reading prompted this examination.  The quote is as follows:  “The Book of Mencius, like most other early Chinese philosophical works, was compiled by several hands rather than written personally by its nominal author.  But it is accessible and coherent, and worth reading in its entirety.  There is, moreover, an important reason for modern Americans to read Mencius:  He is a distant ancestor of our own Revolution.  In the seventeenth century, European Jesuit missionaries in China sent back glowing reports of the virtue and moderation of Chinese imperial rule, hoping to show that the Chinese were highly civilized and therefore presumably amenable to Christian conversion.  The Jesuit letters were read avidly by Leibniz, Voltaire, and other leaders of the Enlightenment; Voltaire especially used an idealized vision of China as a platform from which to criticize the European rulers of his day.  From his writings, and other sources, the Mencian idea that people have the right to rebel against a wicked monarch entered the political climate of the eighteenth century.  In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson does not quite say that King George III has lost the Mandate of Heaven; but the resemblances between our founding political documents and the collected saying of an ancient Chinese philosopher are nevertheless not accidental [4].”

To the extent that the Founding Fathers were are of Chinese Confucian belief, which was in general congenial with the American ideal that people were naturally good and that people ought to show honor to their political fathers (namely, themselves), and that strongly emphasized education (the culture from which America sprang never saw a savage wilderness where a church and a school were not soon built).  That said, let us assume the consequences of the Founding Fathers realizing that the principles of the divine right of rebellion were present in the Bible as well as in an apparently unrelated ancient Chinese philosophy.  The existence of the same precious truth in such different cultural contexts would suggest to them that it was a natural law of mankind, eternally applicable and valid no matter how common and lamentable the example of naked tyranny to be found in the world.  By recognizing and applying this law to their precise political circumstance, the Founding Fathers saw themselves as following the self-evident truths accessible to both reason and revelation, truths whose validity was not culturally specific but rather able to be understood by a candid world ranging from Western Europe to China, presumably including any and all civilized nations (since civilization, after all, springs from the recognition of the common dignity in all human beings irrespective of tribe and ethnicity, gender and class).

This recognition would have been not only immediately useful in the sense of practical politics, but it would have been a major fuel for the optimism of the American Revolutionaries.  After all, only optimists make revolutions, because it requires a great deal of faith and hope to rebel against the way things are and seek to establish a more perfect state that only exists in one’s hopes and dreams and plans, given the record of human folly and error in the gloomy annals of history.  The fact that the divine right of rebellion existed in both Confucian Chinese tradition as well as the Judeo-Christian biblical revelation only confirmed their own God-given right to resist tyranny and oppression.  And the American example, by proving successful and enduring, has given hope to innumerable other uprisings and tyranny and oppression around the world, including those in the Middle East and North Africa today.  Beliefs have consequences.

A Failed Confucian Elite

The possibility of the American Founding generation being consciously aware of the Chinese example of Confucianism also explains their disappointment about the political culture of early American Republic, which showed the egalitarian and democratic tendencies (ranging into demagoguery) that destroyed the culture of deference that the American Founders sought to instill as as aspect of virtuous culture [5].

What follows is not said dogmatically, but only as a speculation, for future research.  Given that we know the American Founders were immensely cultured and civilized men and women, well-read in Greek and Roman philosophy and history, astute readers (and believers) in the Bible, and also culturally sophisticated and able to appreciate and appropriate the nobility of such alien cultures as China, we may infer that they considered themselves to be a natural aristocracy as opposed to the corrupt aristocracy of birth that reigned over the ancien regimes of Western Europe (and many other parts of the world as well).

It would appear that the goal of the Founders was to set up a meritocratic state where virtuous and able and intelligent men and women would rise like cream to the top and be recognized and honored as the leading citizens by their peers.  While this expectation may strike us as odd (though I fervently and sincerely wish it were that way myself), it makes perfect sense when viewed in the light of the Chinese examination system.  The cultural elite of China before the Communist Revolution was taken from those people who had passed a very rigorous examination system.  Even those who had failed the exam (very few passed) were local elites.  As C.S. Lewis once said, “Even attempted virtue has its rewards.”

This meant that China’s cultural continuity sprang from the respect and honor given to a well-educated and cultured elite with a high degree of class solidarity, with the reception of offices, honors, and the respect and deference of one’s fellow citizens, all without the unpleasant and unjust connotations of it being as a result of the mere accident of birth, but rather with the pleasant fact of it being the result of hard work and a rigorous education based on important texts.  What more could an intellectual ask for?

It would appear that this was the goal of the Founding Fathers for the United States.  If so, their hopes were sorely disappointed.  The predominant culture of the United States has never throughout its history as an independent nation shown any general inclination to show honor and respect to wise and bookish sorts of people who are well-read, highly cultured and sophisticated, and have a passionate regard for vitally important texts.  To the extent that Americans have indulged in anti-intellectual demagoguery, they have fallen short of the genuine (if obscure) American republican virtue that we were founded to practice.


Therefore, let us examine what these implications mean for us.  The existence of the same truth that tyrannical leadership is without moral standing, a belief that has immense and revolutionary consequences in a wide variety of human institutions, was the fuel of the American Revolution.  The fact that this belief is found in both scripture and the traditions of Confucian China meant that the Founding Generation saw it as a law of nature, and therefore evidence of the common ultimate inheritance of both reason and liberty for all mankind.  It appears that it was the fervent hope and desire of the Founders to create a nation whose Republican virtue would shine like a lighthouse to help illuminate the path for mankind to steer between the Scylla of tyranny and the Charibdis of anarchy, the twin rocks which almost all of the world’s institutions and governments have been dashed against.  This goal required the existence of a republican elite able to skillfully understand, apply, and create texts (whether they be religious texts, legal texts, histories, philosophies, or pamphlets), for liberty has always depended on virtue, and virtue has always depended on wisdom and understanding.  Therefore, let us, if we desire to be free, be wise, and understand and work out the larger implications of our religious and political beliefs.  We have much work to do, and much work that has barely even begun.




[4] Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major, The New Lifetime Reading Plan (New York, NY:  HarperPerennial, 1999), 31.


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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