Is the Declaration of Independence part of the federal Constitution? The short answer, of course, is “no.” For the Declaration to be part of the Constitution, it would have to have been included in the original document ratified by at least nine of the conventions held in the original 13 states between 1787 and 1789, or added by amendment, which requires a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress and the assent of three quarters of the state legislatures. The Declaration was never ratified by either method. It is also possible to add amendments through a new national constitutional convention, with ratification by state legislatures, but this has never happened.

Some political theorists claim that the principles of the Declaration were incorporated into the Constitution during the Civil War, through some quasi-magical amendment process conjured up, through executive fiat, by President Lincoln. This occurred sometime around when he extraconstitutionally emancipated the slaves in the states that had seceded from the Union or, perhaps, when he delivered the Gettysburg Address. Some law professors have sought to find an incorporation of the Declaration through the Reconstruction amendments; while it is true that those amendments did bring us closer to some ideas found in the Declaration, they could not—either explicitly or implicitly—make the Declaration part of the Constitution.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to conclude that the Declaration has no relevance for interpreting the Constitution, and as we celebrate the Declaration’s 225th anniversary, it is useful to remember just what the Declaration was and how it relates to the Constitution.

The Resolution of Independence from Great Britain, which preceded the Declaration, was an act of the representatives of the 13 colonies and might properly be viewed as the act of 13 newly sovereign states. These states were the entities that ratified the federal Constitution in 1789, and while the states’ representatives certainly approved of the Declaration, the Declaration itself held no constitutional force. As Jefferson (or whoever drafted the phrase) made clear, the Declaration was the submission of “facts” to a “candid world” to support the decision to break with our mother country. It was an explanation of a political act and might be regarded today as something similar to legislative history; that is, we might consider it helpful in interpreting what happened, but it has no independent force of law. Or we might think of it simply as propaganda—seriously trumped-up charges against Parliament and the king calculated to secure the aid of the French and other European powers in our struggle with England.

The validity of some of the facts alleged in the Declaration is doubtful, though it does contain some timeless philosophical truths—truths that touch constitutional interpretation. One is the notion that whatever rights we have in a temporal government must ultimately be viewed as the gift of “Nature’s God,” Who regards all men as equal in His sight: not equal in terms of abilities, entitlements to worldly goods, or accomplishments, but with a claim to be treated equally under the law. This notion of equality before the law, and nothing more grandiose, is what was meant by the 14th Amendments guarantee of “equal protection,” “due process,” and “privileges and immunities” to all Americans. I’he Declaration should not be viewed, as some have urged, as a device for the easy removal of contract and property rights, or for redistribution of wealth to achieve equality of result.

In its confirmation of equality before the Creator, the Declaration did not exhaust the natural-law foundations of any legal system—those that have been recognized since the time of Aristotle and Cicero, on through Aquinas, and by Burke and the Framers themselves. These include the guarantee that your property will not be taken without just compensation, that you cannot be punished for an act that was not a crime when you committed it, and that you cannot be both judge and party in your own case. Some of these are now express constitutional guarantees, but Supreme Court Justice Salmon Chase believed—as did Blackstone and Coke—that these limitations were fundamental aspects of any government—monarchy, aristocracy, or republic—that purported to be bound by the rule of law. Natural law is part of the foundation of our Constitution, as of every legitimate constitution, but the words of the Declaration have no continuing legal or constitutional status.