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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The Use Of The Declaration Of Independence

Title:     The Use Of The Declaration Of Independence
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

When young people begin to study geometry, they expect to begin with hard reasoning on the very first page. To their surprise, they find that the early pages are not occupied by reasoning, but by a few simple, easy, and rather commonplace sentences, called "axioms," which are really a set of pegs on which all the reasoning is hung. Pupils are not expected to go back in every demonstration and prove the axioms. If Almira Jones happens to be doing a problem at the blackboard on examination day, at the high school, and remarks in the course of her demonstration that "things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another," and if a sharp questioner jumps up, and says, "How do you know it?" she simply lays down her bit of chalk, and says fearlessly, "That is an axiom," and the teacher sustains her. Some things must be taken for granted.

The same service rendered by axioms in the geometry is supplied in America, as to government, by the simple principles of the Declaration of Independence. Right or wrong, they are taken for granted. Inasmuch as all the legislation of the country is supposed to be based in them,--they stating the theory of our government, while the Constitution itself only puts into organic shape the application,--we must all begin with them. It is a great advantage, and saves great trouble in all reforms. To the Abolitionists, for instance, what an inestimable labor-saving machine was the Declaration of Independence! Let them have that, and they asked no more. Even the brilliant lawyer Rufus Choate, when confronted with its plain provisions, could only sneer at them as "glittering generalities," which was equivalent to throwing down his brief, and throwing up his case. It was an admission that, if you were so foolish as to insist on applying the first principles of the government, it was all over with him.

Now, the whole doctrine of woman suffrage follows so directly from these same political axioms, that they are especially convenient for women to have in the house. When the Declaration of Independence enumerates as among "self-evident" truths the fact of governments "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," then that point may be considered as settled. In this school-examination of maturer life, in this grown-up geometry class, the student is not to be called upon by the committee to prove that. She may rightfully lay down her demonstrating chalk, and say, "That is an axiom. You admit that yourselves."

It is a great convenience. We cannot always be going back, like a Hindoo history, to the foundations of the world. Some things may be taken for granted. How this simple axiom sweeps away, for instance, the cobweb speculations as to whether voting is a natural right, or a privilege delegated by society! No matter which. Take it which way you please. That is an abstract question; but the practical question is a very simple one. "Governments owe their just powers to the consent of the governed." Either that axiom is false, or, whenever women as a class refuse their consent to the present exclusively masculine government, it can no longer claim just powers. The remedy then may be rightly demanded, which the Declaration of Independence goes on to state: "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 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."

This is the use of the Declaration of Independence. Women, as a class, may not be quite ready to use it. It is the business of this book to help make them ready. But so far as they are ready these plain provisions are the axioms of their political faith. If the axioms mean anything for men, they mean something for women. If men deride the axioms, it is a concession, like that of Rufus Choate, that these fundamental principles are very much in their way. But so long as the sentences stand in that document they can be made useful. If men try to get away from the arguments of women by saving, "But suppose we have nothing in our theory of government which requires us to grant your demand?" then women can answer, as the straightforward Traddles answered Uriah Heep, "But you have, you know: therefore, if you please, we won't suppose any such thing."

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: The Use Of The Declaration Of Independence