Updating the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence is considered to be one of the most important documents in human history. Not only was it the seminal document in the political formation of the United States, it also was arguably the first time that a nation was expressly formulated with an understanding of the essential nature of human rights, despite not living up to it. It inspired many more rebellions against tyranny around the world in places as far removed as Vietnam and Haiti, and continues to inform our understanding of the relationship between a people and their government.

However, while its syntax is beautiful, it also no longer rings true to everyone who reads it. This is both because of our updated understanding of who political rights should be applied to (all human beings), and because not every reader is familiar with the assumptions and meanings inherent in the eighteenth century English of its writers. I don’t think we should literally update a historical document, but I do think it’s important to be clear about what the Declaration means to us today.

Here is the language in the Declaration’s most famous section:

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.

Here is my interpretation of the Declaration’s most famous section in the simplest language that can represent what it means to me in today’s context, and no simpler:

We believe that all people should be treated equally under the law. There are universal human rights including, but not limited to, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Government exists to ensure these rights. Government’s only legitimate power comes from the people it governs. Governments that infringe on human rights or derive their power from a source other than the people, are illegitimate. It is the right and duty of people to replace such governments.

This is my personal interpretation of the Declaration. This is what it means to me today. And it’s how I will parse it for my children. Maybe I have some details wrong and I’ve changed some of its intent. But I think the spirit is right and I think the language will be very easy for them to understand and contextualize for the modern world.

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I teach Computer Science to college students, develop software, podcast, and write books about programming including the Classic Computer Science Problems series. I'm the publisher of the hyper local newsletter BTV Daily.

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Based on tdSimple originally by Lasantha Bandara and released under the CC By 3.0.