We saw in the preceding series how the Declaration of Independence recognized that individuals have natural unalienable rights that cannot be taken away by any government. We also saw that the Declaration of Independence only mentions that among these rights are the rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. In this series about the Constitution, we will explore what are these natural unalienable rights within the constitutional context.
Before we enter into the Constitution, we should be clear on the legal differences between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Declaration of Independence was, as a legal document, just that: A declaration that the Thirteen Colonies were becoming States independent from Great Britain. It is not a “law” proper, but rather a starting point from were a legal system will be established, which legal system will be the one making laws. There is debate among scholars about whether the principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence are obligatory on the legal system that is thereafter established. The consensus is that technically such principles are suggestive but not obligatory, as the Declaration is not a “law” proper. How important the principles are though, have been subject of great debate, and in many ways such debate was evidenced dramatically in the Civil War, wherein one side affirmed that those principles were applicable to all, while another side said that they were only applicable to some. More recently, the famous “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King was predicated on exactly those principles and how they should apply to our modern American society.
The Constitution, on the other hand, is a law; the supreme law of the Nation. It itself tells us in its Article VI, in its so-called Supremacy Clause, that “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof, . . . shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” So the Constitution is the supreme Law of the Land. This means that nothing can stand against it. All laws must be according to its terms and conditions, or are otherwise unconstitutional, unenforceable, null and void. Contrary to the Declaration of Independence, which aside from declaring independence only has a suggestive value, the Constitution is mandatory on all things and all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States.
Now that we have a clear understanding of the legal status of the Constitution, we will explore how it embodies or specifies in more detail with the force of law the natural unalienable rights upon which the Declaration of Independence was based. We will do this in multiple blogs, beginning with the next one in this series.