Classics and the Western Canon discussion

71 views
Interim Readings > The Declaration of Independence

Comments (showing 1-50 of 95) (95 new)    post a comment »

Everyman | 5859 comments The next Interim Read is our own Declaration of Independence. The text can be found many places, but I suggest this as a good site for it:

http://www.ushistory.org/Declaration/...

I’m sure that most of you can quote from memory significant passages from the first two paragraphs of this document. But how recently have you read and considered the entire document?

In my case, that answer is not for many years.

I’m sure I read it in high school, but not many of the details stuck, and I have forgotten almost all I knew about the causes of the Declaration, memory retaining only a few choice items as the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre (which in fact was no massacre at all but an attack by a large mob on a sentry and the resulting deaths of five of the mobsters), and the Stamp Act (whatever that was – all I recall of it is the name). And if I ever learned it, I had totally forgotten how important the French and Indian War was in leading up to the causes of the Revolution.

On re-reading and thinking about the Declaration of Independence a few weeks ago, I was struck by two things.

One: how revolutionary some of the ideas really were. When I read it in high school I had very little knowledge of the history of political philosophy, but now that I’ve read Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Machiavelli, and others, and know a bit more about the political history of Europe, it’s clear how revolutionary these ideas actually were.

Two: how relevant to the world today some of the complaints made still are. One of the charges of the Declaration, for example, is “For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury.” Isn’t that exactly what our government today is proposing for certain American citizens suspected of being terrorists, which is exactly how the British would have described the American revolutionaries?

And isn’t the basic complaint the Declaration makes, that the king is distant from the people, is making laws not for the benefit of the liberty and rights of the people but for the benefit of the few, pretty much exactly the same basic complaint that both the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement have today?

Of the many texts of the Declaration on the Internet I gave the site above because of the great supplemental materials it has, including the biographies of all the signers (how many of those names do you actually recognize? in my case, eleven, but three of them only because my college had buildings named after them), some great timelines and links, and a very interesting comparison of two earlier drafts against the final adopted version.

I also found fascinating the 1774 Declarations and Resolutions of the First Continental Congress, to be found here:

http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/...

I’m sure there are some people in this group who know a whole lot more than I do about the events leading up to the Declaration, and have some thoughts about what it means for today. And others who may be re-reading the Declaration, as I did, for the first time in many years and finding some fascinating things there that they had forgotten about. Let’s discuss.


Roger Burk | 937 comments According to http://www.founding.com/the_declarati..., the Declaration's complaint about lack of trial by jury stemmed from the British use of admiralty courts to handle violations of commerce and revenue laws. Basically, the objection was that non-juried military courts were being used for civil matters. I doubt the Founders would have objected to military courts for trial of illegal enemy combatants.

The British called the colonials rebels, not terrorists. Terrorists use acts that instill terror, such as mass murder of innocents, to advance their cause. That was hardly the policy of the Americans.


Victoria (vikz writes) (VixtoriaVikzwrites) | 180 comments If you like audio versions, you can find it here http://librivox.org/us-historical-doc... alongside other historical documents


message 4: by Thomas (last edited Dec 21, 2011 10:47AM) (new)

Thomas | 2255 comments A somewhat tangential point (but interesting, I think) -- John Adams (later elected President) was the lawyer representing the sentries who fired on the mob during the Boston "Massacre." He wrote this in his diary after his clients were acquitted of murder:

"The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.

"This however is no Reason why the Town should not call the Action of that Night a Massacre, nor is it any Argument in favour of the Governor or Minister, who caused them to be sent here. But it is the strongest Proofs of the Danger of Standing Armies."


http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects...


Keith | 1 comments It's interesting that a statement of revolution later became better known as a statement of rights. That largely happened after the 1820s. Lincoln, in fact, looked at the Declaration as an ideal ("all men are created equal") for the United States to work toward achieving, and his Gettysburg address largely builds on the Declaration.

For those interested in the context and history of the Declaration, I highly recommend Pauline Maier's American Scripture. It's a quick, entertaining read.


Jesse | 11 comments This is a fantastic idea and I look forward to re-reading this in the next few days. Like you, I have not read the Declaration of Independence since high school. And it is indeed something I should have re-acquainted myself with years ago, along with the Constitution and the Federalist Papers.


Roger Burk | 937 comments Keith wrote: "It's interesting that a statement of revolution later became better known as a statement of rights. That largely happened after the 1820s. Lincoln, in fact, looked at the Declaration as an ideal ("..."

The Declaration says nothing about revolution. It does not proclaim a desire to destroy any government, or to establish a new one. The colonies wanted to continue to be governed by their own assemblies, as they always had.


Thomas | 2255 comments I would like to believe that all men (and women) are created equal, but in what way? Surely not in all ways?

Why is this self-evident? What makes a truth self-evident?


Everyman | 5859 comments Thomas wrote: "A somewhat tangential point (but interesting, I think) -- John Adams (later elected President) was the lawyer representing the sentries who fired on the mob during the Boston "Massacre." He wrote..."

Proving he was a true lawyer -- recognizing that even those he strongly disagreed with deserved a competent defense. Good find!


message 10: by Everyman (last edited Dec 21, 2011 08:45PM) (new)

Everyman | 5859 comments Thomas wrote: "I would like to believe that all men (and women) are created equal, but in what way? Surely not in all ways?

Why is this self-evident? What makes a truth self-evident?"


That's something that I wonder about, too.

Also, what are these "Laws of Nature" which entitle people to a "separate and equal station"? Where do these Laws come from? Who interprets them? What are some of the other Laws of Nature? (Is, for example, the right of men to be superior to women a Law of Nature? Surely it was considered that by most people in 1776.

And if that was truly a Law of Nature, how come the South wasn't simply permitted to dissolve the political bands which tied them to the North and assume among the powers of the earth a separate and equal station? How about California or Texas today?


Roger Burk | 937 comments Perhaps this declaration that truths are "self-evident" is just a declaration of faith. This is what they believe, they don't feel the need to justify that belief, and if you don't agree they really don't care.


Laurel Hicks (goodreadscomlaurele) | 1941 comments This edition of Imprimis just came out.

Home > News & Events > Imprimis
 
About Imprimis
Imprimis is the free monthly speech digest of Hillsdale College and is dedicated to educating citizens and promoting civil and religious liberty by covering cultural, economic, political and educational issues of enduring significance.  The content of Imprimis is drawn from speeches delivered to Hillsdale College-hosted events, both on-campus and off-campus.  First published in 1972, Imprimis is one of the most widely circulated opinion publications in the nation with over two million subscribers.





December 2011

Larry P. Arnn
President, Hillsdale College

Email this issue to a Friend

PRINTABLE PDF

Share this Issue:

| More

The Unity and Beauty of the Declaration and the Constitution

An Interview with Larry P. Arnn  
LARRY P. ARNN, the twelfth president of Hillsdale College, received his B.A. from Arkansas State University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in government from the Claremont Graduate School. From 1977 to 1980, he also studied at the London School of Economics and at Worcester College, Oxford University, where he served as director of research for Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill. From 1985 until his appointment as president of Hillsdale College in 2000, he was president of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. In 1996, he was the founding chairman of the California Civil Rights Initiative, the voter-approved ballot initiative that prohibited racial preferences in state employment, education, and contracting. He is the author of Liberty and Learning: The Evolution of American Education and The Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk By Losing It (forthcoming February 2012).

The following is adapted from an interview by Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institution for his show “Uncommon Knowledge.” The interview took place on October 3, 2011, at Hillsdale College, and it can be viewed in full at hoover.org/multimedia/uncommon-knowle....

 


Peter Robinson: Larry, I am quoting from you: “You can read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in a few minutes. They are simple. They are beautiful. They can be understood and retained.” Place the documents in their historical context. Why did they matter?

Larry P. Arnn: There are three incredible things to keep in mind about the Declaration. First, there had never been anything like it in history. It was believed widely that the only way to have political stability was to have some family appointed to rule. King George III went by the title “Majesty.” He was a nice and humble man compared to other kings; but still, when his son wanted to marry a noble of lower station, he was told he mustn’t do that, no matter what his heart said. That was the known world at the time of the American Founding.

Second, look at the end of the Declaration. Its signers were being hunted by British troops. General Gage had an order to find and detain them as traitors. And here they were putting their names on a revolutionary document and sending it to the King. Its last sentence reads: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” That is how people talk on a battlefield when they are ready to die for each other.

The third thing about the Declaration is even more extraordinary in light of the first two: It opens by speaking of universal principles. It does not portray the Founding era as unique—“When in the Course of human events” means any time—or portray the Founding generation as special or grand—“it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” means any people. The Declaration is thus an act of obedience—an act of obedience to a law that persists beyond the English law and beyond any law that the Founders themselves might make. It is an act of obedience to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” and to certain self-evident principles—above all the principle “that all men are created equal” with “certain unalienable Rights.”

For the signers to be placing their lives at risk, and to be doing so while overturning a way of organizing society that had dominated for two thousand years, and yet for them to begin the Declaration in such a humble way, is very grand.

As for the Constitution, first, it is important to realize that some of the most influential modern historians suggest that it represents a break with the Declaration—that it represents a sort of second founding. If this were true, it would mean that the Founders changed their minds about the principles in the Declaration, and that in following their example we could change our minds as well. But in fact it is not true that the Constitution broke with the Declaration. It is false on its face.

The Constitution contains three fundamental arrangements: representation, which is the direct or indirect basis of the three branches of government described in the first three articles of the Constitution; separation of powers, as embodied in those three branches; and limited government, which is obvious in the Constitution’s doctrine of enumerated powers—there is a list of things that Congress can do in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, and the things that are not listed it may not do. And all three of these fundamental arrangements, far from representing a break with the Declaration, are commanded by it.

Look at the lengthy middle section of the Declaration, made up of the list of charges against the King. The King has attempted to force the people to “relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.” He has “dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.” He has “refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” So he has violated the idea and arrangement of representation.

What about separation of powers? As seen in the charges above, and in the charge that he would call together legislatures “at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant...for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures,” the King was violating the separation of the executive and legislative powers. And in “[making] judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries,” he was violating the separation between the executive and judicial powers.

Similarly, he violated the idea of limited government by sending “swarms of Officers to harrass [the] people, and eat out their substance,” by importing “large Armies of foreign Mercenaries,” by “imposing Taxes on [the people] without [their] Consent,” and in several other ways listed.

By violating these arrangements—which would become the three key elements of the Constitution—the King was violating the principles of the Declaration. This is what justified the American Revolution. And the point of this for our time is that in thinking about the American Founding, we should think about the Declaration and the Constitution together. If the principles and argument of the Declaration are true, the arrangements and argument of the Constitution are true, and vice versa.

PR: I quote you again: “Woodrow Wilson and the founders of modern liberalism call these doctrines of limited government that appear in the Declaration and the Constitution obsolete. They argue that we now live in the age of progress and that government must be an engine of that progress.”

Wilson was dealing with conditions that the Founders could scarcely have imagined: industrialization, dense urban populations, enormous waves of immigration. So what did he get wrong?

LPA: The first thing he got wrong was looking back on earlier America as a simple age. There was nothing simple about it. The Founders had to fight a war against the largest force on earth. They had to figure out how to found a government based on a set of principles that had never formed the basis of a government. The original Congress was called the Continental Congress, although no one would understand the extent of the continent until Lewis and Clark reported to President Jefferson in 1806. They had to figure out a way for the first free government in history to grow across that continent. These things took vast acts of imagination. And this is not even to mention the crisis of slavery and the Civil War. So the idea that the complications of the late 19th century were something new, or were greater by some order of magnitude, is bunkum.

The second mistake Wilson makes is fundamental, and goes to the core of the American idea. Wilson is opposed to the structure imposed on the government by the Constitution—for instance, the separation of powers—because it impedes what he calls progress. But what idea was behind that structure? James Madison writes in Federalist 51:

[W]hat is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.

 

In other words, human nature is such that human beings need to be governed. We need government if we are not to descend into anarchy. But since human beings will make up the government, government itself must be limited or it will become tyrannical. Just as we outside the government require to be governed, those inside the government require to be governed. And that has to be strictly arranged because those inside the government need, and they will have, a lot of power.

Against this way of thinking, Wilson argued that progress and evolution had brought human beings to a place and time where we didn’t have to worry about limited government. He rejected what the Founders identified as a fixed or unchanging human nature, and thought we should be governed by an elite class of people who are not subject to political forces or constitutional checks and balances—a class of people such as we find in our modern bureaucracy. This form of government would operate above politics, acting impartially in accordance with reason.

Now, it’s pretty easy for us today to judge whether Wilson or the Founders were right about this. Look at our government today. Is the bureaucracy politically impartial? Is it efficient and rational, as if staffed by angels? Or is it politically motivated and massively self-interested?

PR: You’ve spoken about restoring a rounded and rigorous sense of constitutional government, and you have put forward, in a tentative way, four ideas or “pillars” to suggest how to begin doing that. The first pillar is this: “Protecting the equal and inalienable rights of individuals is government’s primary responsibility.”

Here’s a problem though: Something like 47 percent of Americans now pay no federal income tax, and we hear a great deal about the tipping point—the point at which more people become dependent on the federal government than pay into it. What is it within the Constitution, or within a revived constitutional government, that prevents this majority from simply voting itself the property of the minority?

LPA: Well, the first thing is the majority’s larger self-interest rightly understood. Is that practice working out in Greece right now? As Margaret Thatcher used to say, pretty soon you run out of other people’s money.

I myself am not particularly gloomy about the tipping point you mention. I do understand that there will come a time, if we do not repair our problems, when we will not be able to repair them. But given that so many people today clearly think the government is out of hand and does not represent them anymore, I t


Laurel Hicks (goodreadscomlaurele) | 1941 comments Imprimis, cont.
LPA: Well, the first thing is the majority’s larger self-interest rightly understood. Is that practice working out in Greece right now? As Margaret Thatcher used to say, pretty soon you run out of other people’s money.

I myself am not particularly gloomy about the tipping point you mention. I do understand that there will come a time, if we do not repair our problems, when we will not be able to repair them. But given that so many people today clearly think the government is out of hand and does not represent them anymore, I think we won’t pass that tipping point. I’ve had the privilege of studying Winston Churchill for a long time, and his great belief—and I think this should be the model for us today—was to make the great political questions clearer to the people and then to have faith in them. I am optimistic partly because the explanations of the great political questions given to Americans have not been very good or very clear since Reagan. What if we were to get better in explaining them? That is our hope, I think.

PR: Okay, pillar two, still quoting you: “Economic liberty is inversely proportional to government intrusion in the lives of citizens. We must liberate the American people to work, to save, and to invest.”

But here’s a constitutional question that Milton Friedman noticed and that James Buchanan won a Nobel Prize for writing about: The benefits of federal spending accrue to small groups who have incentives to organize and agitate for more and more spending, whereas the costs of federal spending are diffused across the whole population, so that no one has a counterbalancing incentive to organize and agitate against spending. Therefore, you get this ratchet that always leads in the direction of greater spending. Did the Constitution not foresee this problem?

LPA: Two points. The first is that we should not blame the Constitution. It is the longest surviving and greatest constitution in human history, and the effort by Progressives to overturn it is now more than 100 years old. It is not a failure of the Constitution, but the success of the political rebellion against it—which has been systematic and going on for a very long time—that brings us to where we are today.

Second, public choice theory as you describe it is a true and sufficient explanation of things as far as it goes. But is there not more to it today? Milton Friedman used to say that subsidies to farmers are going to grow and subsidies to old people are going to decline. Why? Because there are so many old people that for us to give them $100 will cost us $175, whereas there are so few farmers that for us to give them $100,000 will cost us only $10. That is public choice theory in a nutshell. But isn’t the fact now that a growing number of people know we are broke? And that they are going to have to pay more and more to sustain the voracious appetite of the bureaucratic state?

I believe there is an abiding or overarching sense of fairness that touches a majority of the American people. If there is, constitutionalism will look more attractive than it used to look. I think that if Americans are provided a good and clear explanation of the choices before them, they will be willing to begin moving back toward constitutional government.


Laurel Hicks (goodreadscomlaurele) | 1941 comments PR: On to pillar three: “To accomplish its primary duty of protecting individual liberty, the government must uphold national security.” That seems perfectly straightforward. You also write: “Promotion of democracy and defense of innocents abroad should be undertaken only in keeping with the national interest.”

Where do you place your views on the spectrum between Ron Paul and George W. Bush?

LPA: I side with Thomas Jefferson when he said, “We are the friends of liberty everywhere, custodians only of our own.” Foreign affairs are prudential matters, and prudential matters are not subject to narrow rules laid out in advance. But that practical statement by Jefferson is a brilliant guide.

Also, we have to remember that it is a very dangerous world. Churchill believed that one of the effects of technology is to make us both wealthier and more powerful. And both wealth and power can turn to destruction. The great wars of modernity have been much larger in scale than ancient wars, and equal in intensity. Churchill believed that liberal society contains in this respect and others seeds of its own destruction. It is the work of statesmen to find the cheapest possible way to defend their countries without consuming all the resources of those countries.

I pray that Iraq is going to be a free country, and I think there is a chance of it, and I give George W. Bush credit for that. But I have been skeptical, and it is a more complicated question than many seem to understand. A senior person in the White House said to me one time, “Don’t you think the Iraqis want to be free?” And I said: “Sure they do. But have you read The Federalist Papers? Do you divine from its arguments that wanting to be free is sufficient?” As it turns out, it is hard to obtain civil and religious liberty, and it is hard to maintain it.

But do I think we did a good thing imposing a new constitution on Japan after World War II? Sure I do. Japan did a terrible thing to us, we conquered it, and there was an opportunity in that. It would have been a false economy not to seize that opportunity. Does that mean that in every country where there is a threat to us, we won’t be perfectly safe until they are democratic? Maybe. But even so, is trying to make them democratic practicable and the most practical way to serve our security? Probably not. Again, these are matters of prudence.


Laurel Hicks (goodreadscomlaurele) | 1941 comments PR: Pillar four: “The restoration of a high standard of public morality is essential to the revival of constitutionalism.” What is your distinction between public morality and morality per se?

LPA: Public morality means laws about morality. Murder is a moral harm, and we have laws against it. Public morality also includes laws supporting the family. Human beings were made for the family, and we should uphold that. It is hard to raise kids right, and it takes a long time. Laws should support that effort, not undermine it. This extends to reducing the size of government so that it does not become a burden on families. The Gross Domestic Product of the United States is about $15 trillion, and state, local and federal spending is about $6.7 trillion. So we are $800 billion away from taking half of GDP out of the private sector, and the new health care bureaucracy is coming. Once it comes, if it does, government will be larger than society.

The principles of our country stem from the laws of nature and nature’s God. This word “nature” is full of rich meaning. It comes from the Latin word for birth, so of course the nature of man, and natural rights, must be understood to include the process of begetting and growth by which human beings come to be. This process takes longer, and is more demanding and expensive, than for any or nearly any other creatures. If families do not raise children, then the government will. What then becomes of limited government?

PR: And as a constitutional point, do things that undermine public morality and degrade people include the garbage language in some pop songs, or the proliferation of pornography on the Internet?

LPA: Yes. At this college, students are supposed to be civil, and we don’t have many problems because they subscribe to that before they come. Having an honor code makes for good order and operation. Teachers, students, and staff come together and make a common effort. A well-functioning college is a microcosm of constitutional rule, and shows what can be achieved in a country when everyone is governing himself.

It is important for all of us to understand that free people are not governed by rules. Here at Hillsdale we are governed by goals, and then the rules are very broad. Tell the truth, be straight, do not cheat, do not be foul, take care of other people. Those are rules. But the federal rules pertaining to colleges number now more than 500 pages. We at Hillsdale do not live under these rules because we do not take federal money. But I asked our lawyer once to send me the list to read anyway, and he said I wouldn’t be able to read it. I replied that even though I am not a lawyer, I am a pretty smart guy, maybe I can. No, even he can’t read it, he replied, it is incomprehensible.

Ask yourself, who gets powerful under a system like that? The answer is, whoever has the power to interpret the rules. They can do whatever they want.

This is the point I hope every American will come to understand—that in our country, we are supposed to have a very powerful government in order for it to do what it must, but also a government of a far different character than the kind we have today. The distinction between constitutional government and bureaucratic government is fundamental.

PR: How can we get there from here? I am quoting you once again: “There is only one way to return to living under the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the institutions of the Constitution. We must come to love these things again.” How?

LPA: First, you have to know about them. I am like the hammer who looks at everything as if it were a nail. Everything is a teaching opportunity. Teaching is, of course, what we do here at Hillsdale. But the great presidents are teachers as well. It is a generous and fine thing to do, to labor to make important things clear to people—which of course you cannot do unless you are able to make them clearer than if you are just talking to yourself. That is why Abraham Lincoln’s speeches are beautiful. You cannot read many of them unless you read them carefully. An example is Lincoln’s Peoria address on the history of slavery. He labored for months putting it together, and Americans could learn how slavery moved in our country because he laid it out. And then at the end of the speech he combined that history with a lovely explanation of why the principles of our country are capable of reaching and protecting every human being, and ennobling them, because they get to participate in rule. To know that about the principles of our country is to love them. I see that happen all the time in the classroom. So what we need is for people to know and understand our country’s principles. Love will follow.


Laurel Hicks (goodreadscomlaurele) | 1941 comments Copyright © 2011 Hillsdale College. The opinions expressed in Imprimis are not necessarily the views of Hillsdale College. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the following credit line is used: “Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.” SUBSCRIPTION FREE UPON REQUEST. ISSN 0277-8432. Imprimis trademark registered in U.S. Patent and Trade Office #1563325.


Jim Laurele wrote: "This edition of Imprimis just came out..."

Great comparison of the relation between the two documents.


Everyman | 5859 comments Roger wrote: "Perhaps this declaration that truths are "self-evident" is just a declaration of faith. This is what they believe, they don't feel the need to justify that belief, and if you don't agree they real..."

I would hope that they intended more than that. If they meant no more than that, it would have been easier just to say "we have the right to rebel and we're taking it." But it seems to me that they were trying to make a case for acceptance by thinking people of the right of national self-determination. From their saying "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation" I believe that they intended to speak to the societies of Europe, at least (that being at the time all of mankind that really counted) and expected, or at least hoped, that they could persuade opinion to be on their side. As indeed with many people they did; not only did the French support them (which may well have been less a matter of principle than a matter of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend"), but also there were many in England who supported the cause. It seems to me that they were speaking to these people not only defending their right to separate from England, but also making a case which they hoped would be more widely accepted for the acceptance of their right to do so.


Everyman | 5859 comments Laurele wrote: "Copyright © 2011 Hillsdale College. The opinions expressed in Imprimis are not necessarily the views of Hillsdale College. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the ..."

Great find, Laurel. I agree with the view that the Declaration was intended to be a universal statement of principles, not merely a defense of the specific action of the few.

We have to keep in mind that it came following roughly a century of significant interest in political philosophy and turmoil. The English Civil War, which challenged the concept that monarchy was the only feasible form of government, started in 1642. Hobbes published Leviathan in 1651. John Locke's Two Treatises on Government came out in 1689. Berkeley, Hume, Rousseau, and others were positing other principles of social order and principles of government. The Declaration didn't come out of thin air, but gathered together questions about monarchical authority which had been percolating for over a century.


Roger Burk | 937 comments The Declaration indeed appeals to universal principles, but what are these principles based on? Only their being self-evident, it seems. If someone else objects that they're not self-evident to him, where does that leave you? On what basis can you argue?


message 21: by Patrice (last edited Dec 22, 2011 11:09PM) (new)

Patrice | 4569 comments Some random thoughts.

When Herman Caine was running for president he said that he would listen to military commanders in order to decide what action to take. Whoops! Declaration of Independence says civil authority comes before military.
We don't want to be Egypt, ruled by the army.

Everyman's description of the Boston Massacre sounds like the British view. When I was teaching Junior High I observed a terrific lesson given by the social studies teacher on the Boston Massacre. The entire lesson consisted of dividing the class into two groups. One half read the British newspaper account and the one half read the American newspaper account. Then they discussed. What a wonderful lesson that was!

I recognized about 17 of the signers. Every year, for many years, we would show our kids the movie "1776". It was one of the best things we ever did. The kids felt they knew these people intimately. What a wonderful movie that is, and very accurate too.

Reese Witherspoon is a descendent of the Witherspoon who signed the declaration.

I think it reads a bit like a legal case, as though they were trying the king.

I think the self-evidence of equality does come from religious faith. But also empirical, rational evidence. All babies come into the world naked and equal and we all go out of this world the same. Where is there evidence that a baby is born a duke or a king?
Goodness knows George III and Louis the XVI were morons. It was obvious to one and all that there was nothing superior about them other than their titles. I think today the word "equal" is bandied about so much that we forget what it really means to be born into a class or caste.
People today are irate that there is no equality in outcome, that some have more than others in property, social standing, talent. What the signers were after was equal opportunity, not equal outcome. And I do think that they achieved that, or at least achieved it as much as any other people ever did anywhere else in the world.


message 22: by Patrice (last edited Dec 22, 2011 05:52PM) (new)

Patrice | 4569 comments I think it's important to remember that there was a long history of self-rule in the Protestant Church. These people were following a tradition of equality and self government that they saw as coming from God.

Also, as a not very religious Jew, I recently took a course in the religion. The structure of the religion was amazingly similar to the American government. Many of these people were very familiar with the bible and I think they may have modeled some of their ideas on this system. In Judiasm the bible is akin to the constitution. There are many laws in separate books, discussions and disputes that try to clarify what was the real intent of the bible and how it was to be applied and interpreted in each age. A kind of common law. Then there is a supreme court that rules on the biblical validity of the law when disputes come up. No law can exist that is deemed in conflict with the bible, just as no law can be in effect that is deemed unconstitutional. As Everyman has pointed out, these documents did not come out of a vacuum.

As we hear optimistic reports of the "Arab Spring" I can't help being skeptical. It's as though we expect meetings on the village green. We can only hope and pray!


Everyman | 5859 comments Patrice wrote: "I think it's important to remember that there was a long history of self-rule in the Protestant Church. "

That's a good point, as is the point I think Roger made that the colonies had for some time had a fairly strong level of self-government. The Mayflower Compact set up a government structure for the New World which established at the beginning the concept of having some autonomy for the settlers, most of whom were, as you point out, Protestants accustomed to a high level of self-government.


Thomas | 2255 comments Roger wrote: "The Declaration indeed appeals to universal principles, but what are these principles based on? Only their being self-evident, it seems. If someone else objects that they're not self-evident to h..."

This seems right to me. It is written as a declaration, not an argument. It is interesting though that the drafters still appeal to principles, as if it were an argument from Natural Law. It isn't clear what Natural Law is, exactly, and this document doesn't address that. In a section of the Declaration removed by Congress, Jefferson wrote quite passionately against slavery, "a cruel war against human nature itself." The fact that this section was removed is ironic, and in hindsight tragic. I think it shows that this was primarily a practical notice to the KIng, and not an expression of philosophical doctrine.


Laurel Hicks (goodreadscomlaurele) | 1941 comments Patrice wrote: "I think it's important to remember that there was a long history of self-rule in the Protestant Church. These people were following a tradition of equality and self government that they saw as com..."

Those are excellent points, Patrice. These ideas were self-evident because they were presented by and to a people who had a long history of self-discipline and participatory government. They are Bible ideas, and once the Bible is removed, I don't think they will stand. We're already seeing Egypt going backwards again.


message 26: by Patrice (last edited Dec 22, 2011 11:06PM) (new)

Patrice | 4569 comments Thomas wrote: "Roger wrote: "The Declaration indeed appeals to universal principles, but what are these principles based on? Only their being self-evident, it seems. If someone else objects that they're not sel..."


From my constant watching of "1776", which I think holds up in historical accuracy, Jefferson dearly wanted that left in the document but the south would not sign it if it was left in. I think it was Rutledge, from South Carolina who walked out of the convention because of that phrase and the rest of the south followed. Franklin begged Jefferson to delete it, saying that there would be no new nation to call free if it was left in. So he grudgingly deleted the phrase.


message 27: by Patrice (last edited Dec 23, 2011 12:32AM) (new)

Patrice | 4569 comments One way in which I think the document differs from a religious one is that the emphasis is on "rights" and not responsibilities and obligations towards others.
I think Jefferson was deriving a lot from Locke. The point of government is to protect the individual's right to live his life, to own property, etc. The government is not there to be responsible for or to take care of the individuals needs.

I once heard Obama criticize the constitution for this very reason. He said that the founders missed an opportunity. I don't agree.


Andreea (andyyy) | 111 comments Patrice wrote: "One way in which I think the document differs from a religious one is that the emphasis is on "rights" and not responsibilities and obligations towards others.
I think Jefferson was deriving a lot ..."


I am puzzled by this notion that a welfare state is a religious one, would you care to explain? There's very little about being responsible for providing the livelihood of others in the Bible beside general advice about being kind to others and helping the poor. Not to mention that Locke was religious, but the world's strongest welfare states, the Scandinavian countries, are also some of the world's most atheist.


message 29: by Patrice (last edited Dec 23, 2011 05:57AM) (new)

Patrice | 4569 comments I'm not sure that I agree with you that religions do not insist on responsibility for one's fellow man. I think the basis of the bible is that you are your brother's keeper. In fact, when it was written, it was the first time, in that time and place, that what is now called "social justice" was developed into law. Taking care of the poor and the weak was a new concept in a world where might made right. Perhaps we are thinking of different bibles? I am Jewish and so I am more familiar with the Old Testament, though hardly an expert. There are many protections for the poor. For instance, when gathering the harvest one must leave the edges of the fields for the poor to come and glean. Charity is a requirement, not a choice. You know about tithing, right? Ten percent of everything you make must be given?

It's true that socialist states are not overtly religious but I do think think it is possible to see that the values are derived from religious ones. I recently read some Marx in a class and many quotes came from the New Testament. I think the government in the US was intended to protect individual rights from the government and to stay out of the individual's life as much as possible. Religions emphasize our obligations to each other not to ourselves and encourage involvement in each others lives. It's not enough to to stay out of each others way, we must be actively involved.

The founders were providing an environment of freedom from government control. They understood how abusive government could be. With no state religion there would be total freedom for each individual to observe in any way they liked or not at all. I think they assumed that citizens would pursue their own morality through their own religions, they would not have to be compelled to be moral.


Roger Burk | 937 comments I believe that religion is a red herring here. The Declaration makes no reference to revealed religion. The signers belonged to a variety of Protestant denominations, from Church of England to New England Congregational. Not all were as skeptical of organized religion as Jefferson, but I know of none that was more than conventinally pious. What they believed in was Locke's idea of Natural Law--that's what they declared was self-evident. The signers had no idea of increasing the care government took of individuals--none of the listed complaints addressed that. They wanted to govern themselves, as they always had. They were resisting the imposition of an outside British government which had not previously interfered significantly with the internal affairs of the colonies.


Jesse | 11 comments I agree with Roger on this point. In re-reading the Declaration, I do not find it to be a tangibly religious document whatsoever. "Laws of Nature," "Nature's God," and "Creator" are, to my mind, philosophical terms (i.e. Locke) and I must remind myself that these were men of the Enlightenment. In re-reading, I was also taken aback by the derogatory reference to Native Americans; while I am certainly well versed in the genocide of Native Americans at the hands of the U.S. government, I had forgotten that they were referenced in this document.


Thomas | 2255 comments The Declaration doesn't say anything about how the government should be constituted, morally or otherwise, and it appeals to God in terms of natural, not Biblical law. This must be intentional; it isn't intended to be a constitution. Glancing at the sections that were removed from Jefferson's original draft, it looks like most of the language was simply not necessary to the declaration (or Mr. Jefferson getting a little too blustery.) It seems to have a strictly utilitarian purpose.


Patrice | 4569 comments Roger wrote: "I believe that religion is a red herring here. The Declaration makes no reference to revealed religion. The signers belonged to a variety of Protestant denominations, from Church of England to Ne..."


But the rights derived are from the Creator, capital C.
I don't think it matters whether or not these people went to church every Sunday. I'm with Laurele here, I don't see how there can be any real conviction in the rights of man otherwise.

I also think of the American Revolution as the fulfillment of the English Civil War which definitely had a religious context.


Jesse | 11 comments I appreciate your points, Patrice, but please help me understand. It seems to me that "Creator" and "God" are not mutually exclusive terms. In fact, I think the employment of the word "Creator," as opposed to "God" or any specific religious deity only reinforces the notion that the Declaration is not an inherently religious document. Furthermore, the "rights" at issue, as the document makes clear, derive their power "from the consent of the governed"-- the "governed" being those who institute Government.

I think you correlation between the American Revolution and the English Civil War is fascinating and I would love to hear more about your views on that.


Everyman | 5859 comments Roger wrote: "I believe that religion is a red herring here. The Declaration makes no reference to revealed religion. "

I agree in part but not in whole. It definitely makes no reference to any specific religion, presumably because the drafters themselves came from several different Protestant faiths (I'm not aware of any original signer who was a Catholic, though I'm happy to be corrected if I'm wrong."

But they were definitely deists, including Jefferson, who was perhaps the most skeptical, or at least the best known skeptic, of organized religion.

Historically, I think it's important to recognize that a major cause of the settlement of the New World was the search not for political freedom but for religious freedom. Established state churches dominated Britain and much of Europe. New England was founded by Puritans seeking the right to exercise their religious practices free from obligation to the state churches. Pennsylvania was founded by Quakers fleeing persecution (who found persecution in other colonies, particularly Massachusetts), and Rhode Island was also a safe haven for Quakers.

While political liberty was the formal reason for the Declaration, I think we can't overlook the reality that religious liberty was still as very important element of life in the colonies, with the Church of England still dominating English life (Quakers, Catholics, and other heretics were, for example, banned from attendance at Oxford or Cambridge universities).

So while you're right that the Declaration was not the product of any specific religious sect or church, I think it isn't accurate to say that religion is a red herring, or that the concept of religious liberty (enshrined not much later in the Bill of Rights) wasn't a major factor in the move toward independence.


Jim Everyman wrote: "I agree in part but not in whole. It definitely makes no reference to any specific religion, presumably because the drafters themselves came from several different Protestant faiths (I'm not aware of any original signer who was a Catholic, though I'm happy to be corrected if I'm wrong."..."

You sparked my curiousity, so I pulled this off of wikipedia, because I always thought of Maryland as a Catholic (not entirely) colony


Anti-Catholicism was official government policy for the English who settled the colonies along the Atlantic seaboard.

Most English colonies had official established churches; none of which were Catholic. In fact, some English colonies had anti-Catholic laws and anti-Catholicism was rampant. Maryland was founded by Lord Baltimore as the first 'non-denominational' colony and was the first to tolerate Catholics. In 1650, the Puritans in the colony rebelled and repealed the Act of Toleration. Catholicism was outlawed and Catholic priests were hunted and exiled. By 1658, the rebellion had been suppressed and the Act of Toleration was reinstated.

English Catholics reintroduced Catholicism with the settling of Maryland (1634). This was a rare example of religious toleration in a fairly intolerant age. In 1649 the Maryland Toleration Act was enacted; it was repealed five years after passage, in 1654. There were no persecutions or executions of Catholics in the 13 colonies. In Maryland in 1690 Cecilius Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore came under attack for sponsoring Catholics and his failure to declare for William III and Mary II. Later, Baltimore was stripped of his political power (but not his property rights). The Calvinist and Anglican majority in Maryland assured Protestant control. By 1785, Catholics in the U.S. numbered 35,000 , less than two percent of the white population.


Of course, it's wikipedia, so not sure of the accuracy. Also, Charles Carroll was Catholic and longest-lived (and last surviving) signer of the Declaration.


message 37: by Roger (last edited Dec 23, 2011 06:19PM) (new)

Roger Burk | 937 comments None of the grievances cited in the Declaration have anything to do with freedom of religion. Such issues were just not on the minds of the signers, despite (or maybe because) of the wide variety of religious organization and practice in the colonies. However, I believe it is incorrect to characterize all the signers as Deists. Jefferson certainly was, but Carroll was a Catholic (as has been noted), John Adams was a Congregationalist, and Witherspoon was a Presbyterian clergyman. I think we'd find that most of them were church members.


message 38: by Andreea (last edited Dec 24, 2011 04:24AM) (new)

Andreea (andyyy) | 111 comments Patrice wrote: "But the rights derived are from the Creator, capital C.
I don't think it matters whether or not these people went to church every Sunday. I'm with Laurele here, I don't see how there can be any real conviction in the rights of man otherwise.
"


Capitalization rules only became standardized recently, in the last one hundred years or so. In 1774 capitalizing abstract notions or just important words was very common, this is why 'Laws of Nature' or 'the Right of the People' are capitalized. So 'Creator' wouldn't necessarily refer to a Christian god, although the fact that its Creator, not Creators does suggest a Christian bias.

-

Patrice wrote: "I'm not sure that I agree with you that religions do not insist on responsibility for one's fellow man. I think the basis of the bible is that you are your brother's keeper. In fact, when it was ..."

The major/accepted by political organisms flavours of Protestantism and Catholicism which were around in the 18th century were about as socialist as they were democratic, which is to say not at all because they supported the absolutist rulers which gave them a lot of benefits. The Catholic Church remains very critical of modern socialism and welfare states because it claims it's all pointless because it won't bring you salvation. The Catholic Encyclopedia says on modern welfare states:

The best idealism of earlier times was fixed upon the soul rather than upon the body: exactly the opposite is the case with Socialism. Social questions are almost entirely questions of the body — public health, sanitation, housing, factory conditions, infant mortality, employment of women [...]. All these are excellent ends for activity in themselves, but all of them are mainly concerned with the care or cure of the body. To use a Catholic phrase, they are opportunities for corporal works of mercy, which may lack the spiritual intention that would make them Christian. The material may be made a means to the spiritual, but is not to be considered an end in itself. This world is a place of probation, and the time is short. Man is here for a definite purpose, a purpose which transcends the limits of this mortal life, and his first business is to realize this purpose and carry it out with whatever help and guidance he may find.

[...]The Christian replies to him [the Socialist]: "You cannot maintain this widespread distribution, for the simple reason that you have no machinery for inducing men to desire it. On the contrary, you do all you can to increase the selfish and accumulative desires of men: you centre and concentrate all their interest on material accumulation, and then expect them to distribute their goods." This ultimate difference between Christian and Socialist teaching must be clearly understood. Socialism appropriates all human desires and centres them on the here-and-now, on material benefit and prosperity. But material goods are so limited in quality, in quantity, and in duration that they are incapable of satisfying human desires, which will ever covet more and more and never feel satisfaction.


You can read the rest of the entry here.


Roger Burk | 937 comments The signers were not interested in social services or aiding the less fortunate. They wanted to retain he political freedom they had always enjoyed.


Everyman | 5859 comments Roger wrote: "However, I believe it is incorrect to characterize all the signers as Deists. Jefferson certainly was, but Carroll was a Catholic (as has been noted), John Adams was a Congregationalist, and Witherspoon was a Presbyterian clergyman. I think we'd find that most of them were church members. "

I used the term deist to indicate believer in God, whether or not one believed in any organized religion's view of God. Perhaps I misused the term and should have said theist.


Victoria (vikz writes) (VixtoriaVikzwrites) | 180 comments I know that I am stating the obvious.But, not all men are seen as equal in this text. Native Americans are seen as a threat to the new world, A threat to be protected from and eradicated


Roger Burk | 937 comments Indians are said to be vicious and savage, not unequal. Nothing is said about eradicating them. And the British themselves are blamed for "Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages," so if they can be equal, I suppose the Indians can too.


Thomas | 2255 comments Victoria (vikz) wrote: "I know that I am stating the obvious.But, not all men are seen as equal in this text. Native Americans are seen as a threat to the new world, A threat to be protected from and eradicated"

Less obvious are the numerous voting restrictions that were in place at the time. Restrictions varied by state, but included race, gender, and economic class. (This seems important since the government here is said to be by consent of the governed. Voting rights would be central to that, I would think.)

I'm not sure what is meant by "equal" in this document, and it isn't really explained. I don't think we can search too deeply for a philosophical foundation here without running aground pretty quickly.


Patrice | 4569 comments Roger wrote: "Indians are said to be vicious and savage, not unequal. Nothing is said about eradicating them. And the British themselves are blamed for "Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbar..."

Well said Roger.


Roger Burk | 937 comments I doubt that the colonies had a race requirement to vote. Indians couldn't vote, but that was because they were not citizens and not subject to colonial laws (except in relations with colonials). There was generally a property requirement to vote, which would probably have excluded the few free blacks. I would guess that race never came up as a voting issue.

The Founders seemed to view the franchise as a collective right. The community is self-governing, but you have to be a man with a certain standing in the community, not a pauper or a vagabond, to participate in the self-government.


Jesse | 11 comments Roger wrote: "Indians are said to be vicious and savage, not unequal. Nothing is said about eradicating them. And the British themselves are blamed for "Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbar..."

With all due respect, the reason nothing is specifically stated regarding the equality of "Savages" has everything to do with the fact that the were not considered human. The early written depictions of Native Americans by white settlers overwhelmingly designates them as demonic and monstrous. As for blacks, designating the property requirement as the reason any free blacks were excluded from voting is as naive (I'm being kind) as suggesting the literacy tests common in the Jim Crow-era South had nothing to do with racism. I am all for an honest discussion of the Declaration but let us please refrain from the realm of fantasy.


Jesse | 11 comments Roger wrote: "The Founders seemed to view the franchise as a collective right. The community is self-governing, but you have to be a man with a certain standing in the community, not a pauper or a vagabond, to participate in the self-government."

This is an excellent point, Roger. In this respect, it is rather similar to the voting regulations of Athens. It wasn't enough to be an Athenian male citizen. There was an expectation of community standing.


Thomas | 2255 comments Roger wrote: "The Founders seemed to view the franchise as a collective right. The community is self-governing, but you have to be a man with a certain standing in the community, not a pauper or a vagabond, to participate in the self-government. "

Perhaps the Declaration should have read "deriving their just powers from the consent of those with a certain standing in the community." But it does not. The notion of equality is problematic in this document, and it will remain so for some time.


message 49: by Patrice (last edited Dec 25, 2011 01:07AM) (new)

Patrice | 4569 comments I just don't see this problem with equality. These people were born into a world in which people were, from birth, considered unequal. Some were born to rule and others to obey. Some were born "better" by law. By eliminating titles they took a huge step forward. To my way of thinking that was a revolution worth celebrating. Yes there are limitations on who can vote. Is that so terrible? Should felons have the vote? Are age restrictions wrong? What about the insane? During the last election they went into nursing homes for the mentally ill and told them who to vote for. Is that right? That is real equality! To say that the fact that women could not vote or that the destitute could not vote is not to invalidate this huge step forward that said that all men that fulfilled the qualifications were equally eligible. That a poor boy born in a log cabin can grow up to be president. That was a very new idea!

I think limits are not always a terrible thing. For instance, at my polling place instructions are in many languages. I think voters should be required to understand English, to be literate. How else can they be informed of the issues?
Is it wrong to require legal citizenship? To require identification? A president must be 35, does that mean that a 34 years old is unequal?


Patrice | 4569 comments Jim wrote: "Everyman wrote: "I agree in part but not in whole. It definitely makes no reference to any specific religion, presumably because the drafters themselves came from several different Protestant faith..."

I think the original colonists did escape religious persecution only to set up communities that were religiously persecuting. But that was early on. By the time they were setting up the government they were all afraid of any official religion. By keeping religion out of the government they insured freedom of religion for everyone.


« previous 1
back to top

unread topics | mark unread