Happy Birthday, America!
Once again, in celebration of America’s birthday, here are excerpted gems from previous postings about our beloved country – brought together in one posting:
President Calvin Coolidge gave a powerful speech in 1926 on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. If you want to rediscover some of the majesty of the principles underlying our Founding, read Coolidge’s entire speech. Here are some key excerpts:
There is something beyond the establishment of a new nation, great as that event would be, in the Declaration of Independence which has ever since caused it to be regarded as one of the great charters that not only was to liberate America but was everywhere to ennoble humanity.
It was not because it proposed to establish a new nation, but because it was proposed to establish a nation on new principles, that July 4, 1776, has come to be regarded as one of the greatest days in history…
…Three very definite propositions were set out in [the Declaration’s] preamble regarding the nature of mankind and therefore of government. These were the doctrine that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that therefore the source of the just powers of government must be derived from the consent of the governed…
While these principles were not altogether new in political action, and were very far from new in political speculation, they had never been assembled before and declared in such a combination…
It was the fact that our Declaration of Independence containing these immortal truths was the political action of a duly authorized and constituted representative public body in its sovereign capacity, supported by the force of general opinion and by the armies of Washington already in the field, which makes it the most important civil document in the world…
…when we come to a contemplation of the immediate conception of the principles of human relationship which went into the Declaration of Independence we are not required to extend our search beyond our own shores. They are found in the texts, the sermons, and the writings of the early colonial clergy who were earnestly undertaking to instruct their congregations in the great mystery of how to live…
In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignity, the rights of man – these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in religious convictions…Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish…
About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.
In all the essentials we have achieved an equality which was never possessed by any other people…The rights of the individual are held sacred and protected by constitutional guarantees, which even the government itself is bound not to violate. If there is any one thing among us that is established beyond question, it is self-government — the right of the people to rule. If there is any failure in respect to any of these principles, it is because there is a failure on the part of individuals to observe them. We hold that the duly authorized expression of the will of the people has a divine sanction…The ultimate sanction of law rests on the righteous authority of the Almighty…
…We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all of our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren sceptre in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it…We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed…
This Power Line posting elaborates further on the uniqueness of the American creed:
Knowledge of American history holds the key to much of the current discussion of political issues, such as the ongoing liberal attack on Christian belief and on arguments premised on belief in God…Absent knowledge of American history, one would never know that the United States is founded on the basis of a creed, rather than on tribal or blood lines, in which God plays a prominent part. Absent knowledge of history generally, one would never know that this fact makes America unique.
What is the American creed?…The American creed is expressed with inspired concision in the words of the Declaration of Independence…
But does the Declaration have any legal status such that these words can be truly deemed to state the American creed? It does, although virtually no one seems to know it. In 1878 Congress enacted a revised version of the United States Code that included a new first section entitled “The Organic Laws of the United States.”
The Code is Congress’s official compilation of federal law; the organic laws of the United States are America’s founding laws. First and foremost of the four organic laws of the United States is the Declaration of Independence…
Professor Jaffa [of the Claremont Institute] teaches us that the Declaration contains four distinct references to God: He is the author of the “laws of…God”; the “Creator” who “endowed” us with our inalienable rights; “the Supreme Judge of the world”; and “Divine Providence.” Americans declared their independence, “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions.”
The Declaration states the American creed, the creed that recognizes the source (Nature and Nature’s God) of our rights.
Anchor Rising’s own Mac Owens gave a speech entitled Limited Government to Protect Equal Rights, published on this blog site, which elaborates further on the uniqueness of the American Experiment:
Before the American founding, all regimes were based on the principle of interest – the interest of the stronger. That principle was articulated by the Greek historian Thucydides: “Questions of justice arise only between equals. As for the rest, the strong do what they will. The weak suffer what they must.”…
The United States was founded on different principles – justice and equality…It took the founding of the United States on the principle of equality to undermine the principle of inequality…Thanks to the Founders, the United States was founded on a principle of justice, not the interest of the stronger. And because of Lincoln’s uncompromising commitment to equality as America’s “central idea,” the Union was not only saved, but saved so “as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of saving…”
“Every nation,” said Lincoln, “has a central idea from which all its minor thoughts radiate.” For Lincoln, this central idea was the Declaration of Independence and its notion of equality as the basis for republican government – the simple idea that no one has the right by nature to rule over another without the latter’s consent…
Indeed, it is the idea of equality in the Declaration, not race and blood, that establishes American nationhood, constituting what Abraham Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land…”
The United States is a fundamentally decent regime based on the universal principle that all human beings are equal in terms of their natural rights…
…the only purpose of government is to protect the equal natural rights of individual citizens. These rights inhere in individuals, not groups, and are antecedent to the creation of government…
Roger Pilon wrote the following in a 2002 Cato Institute booklet containing the Declaration of Independence and Constitution:
Appealing to all mankind, the Declaration’s seminal passage opens with perhaps the most important line in the document: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident.” Grounded in reason, “self-evident” truths invoke the long tradition of natural law, which holds that there is a “higher law” of right and wrong from which to derive human law and against which to criticize that law at any time. It is not political will, then, but moral reasoning, accessible to all, that is the foundation of our political system.
But if reason is the foundation of the Founders’ vision…the method by which we justify our political order…liberty is its aim. Thus, cardinal moral truths are these:
…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.
We are all created equal, as defined by our natural rights; thus, no one has rights superior to those of anyone else. Moreover, we are born with those rights, we do not get them from government…indeed, whatever rights or powers government has come from us, from “the Consent of the Governed.” And our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness imply the right to live our lives as we wish…to pursue happiness as we think best, by our own lights…provided only that we respect the equal rights of others to do the same. Drawing by implication upon the common law tradition of liberty, property, and contract…its principles rooted in “right reason”…the Founders thus outlined the moral foundations of a free society.
Dr. Pilon concluded his essay by writing:
In the end, however, no constitution can be self-enforcing. Government officials must respect their oaths to uphold the Constitution; and we the people must be vigilant in seeing that they do. The Founders drafted an extraordinarily thoughtful plan of government, but it is up to us, to each generation, to preserve and protect it for ourselves and for future generations. For the Constitution will live only if it is alive in the hearts and minds of the American people. That, perhaps, is the most enduring lesson of our experiment in ordered liberty.
The powerful words from and about our Founding appeal to timeless moral principles grounded in both our Declaration of Independence and the great moral traditions that preceded our Founding. It is these principles that make America unique and inspire us to be proud, engaged citizens who are vigilant stewards of freedom and opportunity for all Americans.
Happy Birthday, America!
Power Line has these words from Abraham Lincoln.
The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation released its E Pluribus Unum: The Bradley Project on America’s National Identity report last month.
I received an email last night from The Claremont Institute which included these words by Christopher Flannery about our Founding:
American children are not born understanding the principles of their country, and most American college students—if reports can be believed—are still largely unfamiliar with them when they graduate. So it is a useful tradition, as the Fourth of July comes around each year, to reflect again—and again—on the American political principles famously proclaimed on the original Independence Day, which, as many college graduates know, happened sometime in the past, possibly during summertime. Lest we seem to rest all our political expectations on the capacity of the next generation for self-government, let us admit that the grownups, as well, can benefit from an annual refresher.
As Thomas Jefferson said late in life, when explaining the genesis of the Declaration of Independence, the ideas expressed in it were “the common sense of the subject” in Revolutionary America. In drafting the Declaration, he had not meant to proclaim any “new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of,” but merely to express “the American mind.” The Declaration contains a stunning summation of the principles of free government; but it was only because the American people had already learned to understand and to embrace these principles that it was possible to establish an American republic. As the Declaration proclaims, the just powers of government are derived from “the consent of the governed.” Only a people prepared to consent to a republic is capable of establishing one—or capable of keeping it, as Benjamin Franklin later reminded his fellow citizens. Are we still such a people? No one else can answer this question for us. It is up to this generation, as it has been up to each generation that preceded us and will be up to each generation that succeeds us, to demonstrate our capacity for self-government. This we do for our own sake and for the sake of the cause to which our country was dedicated on that Fourth of July long ago.
Through the Declaration of Independence and the long war that followed it, the American people “assume[d] among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle[d] them.” The most famous passage of the Declaration explained to the world what Americans regarded as the principled foundations and purposes of their political independence:
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.
The self-evident truth “that all men are created equal” is the most fundamental and far-reaching principle affirmed in the Declaration. This is the central idea of the American political experiment from which all other ideas radiate. It is a philosophical idea about human nature, the natural relation of each human being to all others, and the place of all human beings in the natural or created universe.
The revolutionary and founding generation of Americans expressed this idea of human equality in a variety of ways. The language of the Declaration of Independence is “that all men are created equal.” To express the same idea, the Virginia Declaration of Rights (June 12, 1776) stated that “all men are by nature equally free and independent.” The Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (March 2, 1780) stated that “All men are born free and equal.”
All of these phrases are different ways of expressing a doctrine about the “state all men are naturally in,” which the American colonists had learned in large part from the English philosopher John Locke. Locke had written, less than a century before the Declaration of Independence, that all men are naturally in
a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.
A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another: there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the Lord and Master of them all, should by any manifest declaration of his will set one above another, and confer on him by an evident and clear appointment an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.
To say that all men are by nature equal is to say that human beings are not naturally subordinated one to another: No man is by nature a master; no man is by nature a slave. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, in his last extant letter, written just the week before he died: “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” Human beings, then, are naturally free as they are naturally equal. It is from natural human equality and freedom that the founders derived the idea that government could only justly be founded on consent. Because human beings are not naturally subordinated to one another—that is, because they are equal and free—their consent must be obtained before any human being may rightfully exercise authority over them. It is the voluntary consent of the people that gives authority to government.
Government among free and equal men is formed, the American Founders would say, by “social compact.” In the words of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780: “The body-politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: It is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people.” The American body-politic is a social compact in which each citizen is pledged to the defense of all and all to the defense of each for the sake of the ends set forth in the American Declaration of Independence, through the means established in the United States Constitution. This is the political community begun when, in the last words of the Declaration of Independence, “for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge[d] to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
Because they are equal and free by nature, human beings may not rightfully consent to just any government—to a form of tyranny, for example. In the idea of natural human equality and freedom is the recognition of human rationality and of the limits of human rationality. As Locke wrote, “we are born free as we are born rational.” Because human beings are by nature rational beings, one man may not rightly rule over another as he may rightly rule over a non-rational being (like a dog or a horse). But also, because no man is all-knowing or all-good—that is, because human reason is limited and fallible and subject to human passions—one human being may never rightly subject himself to the unrestrained will or unlimited power of another. This is what James Madison meant when he wrote that “government… [is] 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 framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.
Human nature or human equality—the fact that human beings are neither angels nor mindless brutes—gives rise to the idea of constitutional or limited government. This is a political constitution that conforms to the natural constitution of man. Because human beings are fallible and because their reason is subject sometimes to their passions, human government must be subject to law. Human beings would only reasonably consent to be ruled by laws made by another if that other agreed to be bound by the same laws.
A nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” will—if circumstances permit—be under a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” In other words, the principle of equality gives rise most naturally to a democratic or republican form of government. James Madison expressed this idea in Federalist 39, where he considered whether the government proposed under the new constitution would be “strictly republican.” “It is evident,” he wrote,
that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.
This brings us votaries of freedom back to where we began. So let these suffice for our Fourth of July reflections this year, save one final thought. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld thought it prudent recently, in the Wall Street Journal, to offer his fellow Americans the following sober reminders:
The years after our war of independence involved a good deal of chaos and confusion. There were uprisings such as Shays’ Rebellion, with mobs attacking courthouses and government buildings. There was rampant inflation caused by the lack of a stable currency and the issue of competing paper monies by the various states. There were regional tensions between mercantile New England and the agrarian South. There was looting and crime and a lack of an organized police force. There were supporters of the former regime whose fate had to be determined. Our first effort at a governing charter—the Articles of Confederation—failed miserably, and it took eight years of contentious debate before we finally adopted our Constitution.
Even for the heroic Revolutionary generation of Americans, there was much to learn and much to overcome on the way to ensuring that free government would be good government. So let us gather again on Constitution Day, September 17, to continue the conversation. It will do us all good—young and old alike.
Roget Kimball writes about Thoughts on July 4, America, and multiculturalism.