The signers of the Declaration of Independence boldly announced that "[w]e hold these truths to be self-evident," but more than two centuries later the debate over the nature and meaning of "these truths" still is waged with vigor and, on many occasions, great passion. Indeed, the descriptive term "self-evident" is enough in itself to inspire fundamental disagreement. To Americans about to enter a twenty-first century era of ultra-technology, it sometimes must seem that unless an idea is as "self-evident" as the arithmetical concept that 1 + 1 = 2, it is not self-evident at all.
The "self-evident" truth that "all men are created equal" has illuminated and yet bedeviled the national experience of the United States. With its additional reference to an indeterminate list of "unalienable rights," the Declaration of Independence clearly implied the existence of certain rights that in some sense are absolute and eternal, rights that are essential for the preservation of mankind. "Governments are instituted among [mien" as the instruments for securing these rights, and as a mere instrument (and a discardable one at that), a government must bow to the ultimate sovereign-to the governed-in order to obtain the consent necessary for its continued legitimacy.
Joseph E. Claxton, Slavery and Race: An Essay on New Ideas and Enduring Shibboleths in the Interpretation of the American Constitutional System, 44 Mercer L. Rev. 637 (1993).