our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor

A common twentieth-century criticism of the founding is that it enshrines the principle of self-interest at the heart of the regime. The Declaration speaks of rights, we are told, but it does not seem to have much to say about duties. If rights come first, and if the first right is the right to life, it seems that our obligations to others are contingent on our rights. In other words, what seems to come first in the Declaration is selfishness, looking out for one's own life, liberty, and happiness.

Contrary to this view, the Founders emphatically placed their honor and duty ahead of their private rights. The Declaration says, in its second paragraph, that when a people is subjected to a long train of abuses aiming at absolute despotism, "it is their right, it is their duty," to change the government. This duty is higher than one's own personal survival or selfish interest. It may in fact require the sacrifice of one's own life. That is why the Declaration concludes with these noble words: "We pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."

Honor and duty are superior to rights and self-interest. The Founders' clearest statement of this conviction occurs in the "Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Their Taking up Arms," co-authored by Jefferson and John Dickinson, and approved by the Continental Congress in 1775: "We have counted the cost of this contest, and find nothing so dreadful as voluntary slavery. Honor, justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we have received from our gallant ancestors. . . . We cannot endure the infamy and guilt of resigning succeeding generations to that wretchedness which inevitably awaits them, if we basely entail hereditary bondage upon them. . . . [We are] with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live slaves." If the Founders really believed that selfish interest was the foundation of human rights, they would never have believed that slavery and dishonor are worse even than death.