The crucial section of the American Declaration of Independence is a mere three sentences:
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.The average American, if asked to paraphrase these words, would probably offer something like this: "Everybody's basically the same. We all have the right to live and do as we please, and if the government interferes with that, then we have the right to get rid of it and elect another." This represents not merely a dumbing-down of what Jefferson wrote, but a crucial misunderstanding, not least because most people couldn't articulate what it is they mean by a "right" or on what basis it is thought that individuals have them.
Begging to differ with the Founders, these propositions were not in the least "self-evident." The aristocracy and monarchy of England (and the rest of Europe) were based on the assumption that all people were, in fact, not "created equal." The concept of "rights" was invented as a part of the "social contract" political philosophies of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Rejecting the "divine right of kings," these philosophers went back to a hypothetically original "state of nature" in which human beings coexisted without any sort of governing institutions. "Rights" (i.e., the ability and moral authority to do anything) were inherent to individuals, and to all individuals equally. This was the cornerstone of Enlightenment political thought. Rather than rulers having all the rights, and their subjects gaining only such rights as the ruler deemed permissible, the individuals comprising societies had the rights, which they ceded to the government only insofar as doing so benefitted the individuals in that society. The government has no rights except those ceded by the individuals comprising the society; as a result, proper government is that which derives from the "consent of the governed."
Where, in turn, did Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau get this focus on the individual and the equality of all individuals? It pretty clearly derives from the Protestant Reformation, in which a relationship to God is asserted to be the province of the individual, not a Church hierarchy; the "priesthood of all believers" was asserted in place of a class of priests that took Christ's mediatorial position; and the Bible was translated into the vernacular so that all could read and interpret for themselves. Thus, the dignity of the individual was recognized and the hierarchical nature of feudal society was undermined. If I have the same access to God as the King, then why should the King rule over me, other than by my consent and for my benefit?
It was this dignity of the individual that the colonists were trying to preserve when they came to this continent, fleeing from oppression and religious persecution. This dignity of the individual was what made the rightness of a radical break from England seem "self-evident." It has become all too "self-evident," I fear, to the point where we forget in our political discourses that it is God who grants us any rights we have. Some are radical individualists, and need to be reminded that not anything and everything we desire can be construed as a "right," because we don't have the moral authority to obtain anything we want. But others need to be reminded that ultimately it is not the US Constitution that grants us our rights, and not every right need be spelled out in its text (hence the ninth and tenth amendments). What rights we do have are given to us by God; those of us blessed to live in the United States need to be thankful that we live in a nation whose foundations recognize our dignity as individuals, and prayerful that we can continue to "live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness" (1 Tim. 2:1-2).