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.


It is self-evident that "self-evident" is not meant here to be in the epistemological sense; as in cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) or the law of non-contradiction. Note the tone of "WE hold…" YOU may not hold these truths to be self-evident (it is for certain George III did not) but we aren’t entertaining any arguments on it anymore, and if YOU want to argue about it, bring muskets and come get some….
Was what they held to be "self-evident" something brand-spanking new and original to them? Not hardly. Most of us (hopefully) learned in school that this phraseology came from John Locke’s Second Treatise, though Locke would have preferred the word "estate" to the more ephemeral "pursuit of happiness." We sometimes say that Locke would have said "property," but he reserved that word to mean whatever is ours or belongs to us, including ourselves, so that all of these "unalienable rights" are actually "property" in this sense.
Of far more influence than Locke in the minds of these "revolutionaries" was the recent compilation of Common Law by Blackstone entitled Commentaries on the Laws of England. It became quite popular in the colonies, often being all that was available upon the subject to aspiring attorneys at law. After all, it would be most difficult if not impossible, to haul all the cases in British history that make up the Common Law (which by definition is not statutory) across the Atlantic; let alone drag them all over the frontier. Remember also what was mentioned in an earlier stop – just about every other American colonist, especially in New England, considered himself to be some kind of half-assed lawyer, and this was an "easy read" relatively speaking.
It is no historical coincidence that the two oldest colonies, Virginia and Massachusetts, were the most active in this cause. They had been running their own affairs – governing themselves for the most part with this Common Law, and statutes of their own making – for over 150 years. Within the Common Law lay the ghosts of Alfred the Great, the Magna Carta, and the promise between a king and his "commoners" forged at Agincourt (see previous posts). It is no wonder then, how Burke, the father of modern conservatism, was able to see the American point of view on these matters, while at the same time being horrified and disgusted by what would soon occur in France.
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