I am getting ready to teach another semester of that most political of legal subjects: constitutional law (“conlaw”). When I teach conlaw, I like to begin with the Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776, one of this country’s most important founding documents, in which the North American colonists commit treason by stating their reasons for declaring their political independence from Britain. (By the way, my favorite line from the Declaration is “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.“) In particular, I like to pose two questions regarding the Declaration of Independence: one practical, the other theoretical:
1st. The Declaration lists a “long train of abuses and usurpations” to justify the separation of the colonies from Britain, but how “bad” were these abuses in reality, or are they just a pretext to justify the insurgent or law-breaking acts of the American revolutionaries?
2nd. Although the Declaration is an important document, does it have the force of law like the Constitution or a statute? When was the last time a constitutional lawyer actually cited the Declaration, and when was the last time a court actually relied on the Declaration to reach a decision?
(So why bother studying the Declaration of Independence? Why is the Declaration so important? Be ready to discuss these questions on the first day of class.)