Nearly twelve score years ago, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Interdependence:
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds 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.
Okay, the Declaration of Interdependence sounds a lot like the Declaration of Independence.
By saying that it is a self-evident truth that all humans are created equal and that our inalienable rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, our Founding Fathers were telling us that we are all in this together, that we are interdependent, that we have a moral duty to protect these inalienable rights for all humans. President Lincoln, perhaps above all others, was instrumental in making clear that the second sentence of the Declaration was “a moral standard to which the United States should strive,” as Wikipedia puts it.
The double appeal to “Nature” — including the explicit appeal to “the laws of Nature” in the first sentence — is particularly salient. For masters of rhetoric like the authors of the Declaration, a repeated word, especially in an opening sentence, is repeated for the singular purpose of drawing attention to it.
Some argue that the phrase “laws of nature” meant something different to Jefferson than it does to us (see here).
But I don’t think most people understand just how deeply steeped in science — and Sir Isaac Newton’s “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica” — the founding fathers were, particularly Jefferson. Because the connection between science and politics is so important today, I’ll do a post discussing this point in detail later.
It’s worth noting now that for nearly two decades — including the entire time Jefferson was Vice President and President of this country — he was also President of The American Philosophical Society, the nation’s oldest scientific society, which was founded by the great American scientist Ben Franklin. “Natural Philosophy” was the phrase used for the natural sciences back then, which is why it’s in the title of Newton’s famed Principia.
In his book, “Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence,” the historian Gary Wills calls the Declaration a “scientific paper,” and explains that “the Declaration’s opening is Newtonian. It lays down the law.” The Principia, of course, famously lays out Newton’s 3 laws of motion, which many at the time called the “laws of nature.”
How familiar was Jefferson with the Principia? Very. Newton’s masterpiece was widely revered among the founding fathers. But Jefferson in particular had studied it closely, and he even wrote a letter identifying what he calculated to be a tiny mathematical error in it.
Jefferson was grounding the nation’s Declaration of Independence in the scientific laws of nature — a key point detailed at length in the book “Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison,” by I. Bernard Cohen, the great historian of 18th century science. That is why, for instance, Jefferson wrote about truths that were “self-evident,” which is to say axiomatic.
Today, it is the laws of Nature, studied and enumerated by scientists, that make clear we are poised to render those unalienable rights all but unattainable for billions of humans on our current path of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions. It is the laws of Nature that make clear Americans can’t achieve sustainable prosperity if the rest of the world doesn’t, and vice versa.
Moreover, founding fathers like Jefferson firmly believed we had an equal duty to future generations, as is clear from The Constitutional Law Foundation’s discussion of “Intergenerational Justice in the United States Constitution, The Stewardship Doctrine”:
The most succinct, systematic treatment of intergenerational principles left to us by the founders is that which was provided by Thomas Jefferson in his famous September 6, 1789 letter to James Madison. The letter was Jefferson’s final installment in a two year correspondence with Madison on the proposed Bill of Rights. Given the importance of this letter as background material for the bill of rights, and its independent value as a brilliant statement of intergenerational equity principles, it serves as the natural starting point for a discussion of the founders’ views on specific intergenerational issues.
The key question for Jefferson was very simple: Must later generations “consider the preceding generation as having had a right to eat up the whole soil of their country, in the course of a life?” Soil was an obvious focal point for examining the issue of intergenerational equity for a Virginia planter like Jefferson.
The answer to Jefferson was another self-evident truth: “Every one will say no; that the soil is the gift of God to the living, as much as it had been to the deceased generation.”
It is immoral for one generation to destroy another generation’s vital soil — or its livable climate. Hence it is unimaginably immoral to Dustbowlify their soil and ruin their livable climate irreversibly for many centuries if not millennia. Yet that is what we are currently on track to do according to a 2015 NASA study — along with many other recent studies.
Let’s return to the Declaration of (Inter)dependence. Ironically — or perhaps intentionally — the toughest inalienable right to maintain is “the pursuit of happiness.” Certainly, the catastrophic global warming we know we face (thanks to our understanding of the laws of nature) threatens life and liberty (see “Syria Today Is A Preview Of Memorial Day, 2030“).
But if we keep listening to the deniers and delayers, if we fail to sharply reverse our current emissions path nationally and globally, then we are headed toward 4°C (7°F) planetary warming or more by century’s end — with sea level rise of 4 to 6 feet or higher, rising perhaps six to twelve inches a decade or more for centuries, widespread Dust-Bowlification, a large fraction of species extinct, and much of the ocean a hot, acidic dead zone.
Not bloody many people will be pursuing “happiness” under those conditions. They will be desperately trying to avoid misery, when they aren’t cursing our names for betraying our moral values.
If we don’t aggressively embrace the clean energy transition starting immediately — and help lead the entire world to a similar transition — then the Ponzi scheme we call the global economy will probably be in some stage of obvious collapse by our 250th anniversary, July 4, 2026.
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.
And so “happiness” is repeated also, underscoring its importance to the Founders. “Life” and “Liberty” are really the very minimum we owe our fellow humans. We have a moral obligation to work toward freedom from want and care for all.
We live in perilous times. We must all hang together or we will surely all hang separately.
Happy Interdependence Day Century!