Resenting the Declaration

It was on this day 241 years ago that Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was signed. It’s ideas, influenced heavily by the Enlightenment and English Liberal thinkers, laid the foundation for a new nation. A nation that would quickly become the wealthiest, the freest, and the most comfortable country in the history of the world. It should not be taken for granted that we as humans had to strive to this point. We are, after all, the same humans that lived in caves. This is the future. Things are different. Things are better… for all. Yes, all.

There are two disclaimers I must make. I cannot pretend to give or know the full historical scope of how we have become so advance and so relatively civil, and I will not sit behind a computer and tell anyone that our history, even just since the signing of this Declaration, has been perfect for all people. In fact, it’s littered with atrocities so numerous and awful I cannot begin to list them; to leave but one out would, to me, be inexcusable. Each of you knows what I’m referring to. Nevertheless, the “self-evident truths” about equality of men and their rights that at first were only protected for a few, have since been expanded. That is to say, we have as a people rooted in these ideas pressured the government to expand its protections of rights to all people (as they are inalienable they cannot be granted, only protected). But does the fact that all rights were not protected from the beginning discount the validity of these ideas and their roots? At times, it can feel like the answer to that would be yes. However, I’m going to venture to say no. I’m taking the position that it is because of the ideas in the Declaration that we have since its signing taken the initiative as a country to expand what “all men” means. The ideas are certainly better than the execution, but look at how far we’ve come and the potential for improvement. Before we, based on the possible sins of those who came before, turn our backs on our founding principles, we should try to really examine how it was that we have, in fact, constructed the most liberty-minded place ever.

Take another look the famous excerpt below. We often only think of the Declaration’s philosophical declaring of rights, but really, it’s practical use was to declare sovereignty of the colonies from the King. The liberal language regarding equality and rights was not necessary to achieve that goal. So why include it if not to lay the very foundation upon which this liberal project, this free society would spring?

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness…” Read the full text here.

Michael Gerson of the Washington Post explored this very topic yesterday in his Op-Ed America isn’t a normal country.

As Abraham Lincoln noted, the Declaration could have established national independence without its second paragraph about the human rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” “The assertion that ‘all men are created equal,’” Lincoln argued, “was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain.” As he saw it, the Founders, while constrained by the political realities of their time, set out a non-arbitrary, timeless truth “for future use.”  

“They meant simply to declare the right,” said Lincoln, “so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for . . . even though never perfectly attained.”

Has there been a long record of horrendous activities against certain groups of people in this country? Yes. Is there still more work to do? Of course. Have we been able to make improvements for the good of all people, just as our founding maxim intends? Undoubtedly yes.

Be critical of this nation’s flawed history. It is absolutely necessary. If we are intellectually honest, we cannot and should not overlook the ways in which our ancestors have fallen short, especially when they did so purposefully. But we cannot stop there with our honesty. We must try to recognize not only the ways in which we have failed, but also the ways in which we have triumphed, the ways in which freedom has expanded in this country.

It is my belief that if we want to continue the expansion of freedom, then we must not neglect the liberal ideas that have gotten us this far. Divinity of every individual, free thought, free speech, reasoning, objective truth, and objective morality are inherent within liberalism and are embedded into the document that was signed this day 241 years ago. We would do ourselves great harm to disregard them now.

Happy Independence Day, John Osterhoudt

4 thoughts on “Resenting the Declaration

  1. I am entirely supportive of the basic thrust of your argument, which (I’m sure you will agree) is surprising. However, I have a question for you. The basic argument of late in neolibertarian/conservative circles (of the last twenty years) has been that the government that has been trying to insure the basic equality of all people, to protect the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is the oppressive force. In other words, the fact that our government now attempts to protect the inalienable rights of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, LGBTQ, etc., is ITSELF viewed as oppressive, and the language of libertarian/conservative dialogue has been co-opted into this space of oppression. Libertarian now is the moral equivalent the permission to oppress. How does this square with your thoughts?

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    • Thanks for the reply Dr. O’hara, and yes, your agreement is rather a nice surprise.

      Now for your question, I would say quickly that it doesn’t really square too well with my thoughts. I think we would agree on the basic principle that the role of the government would ideally be to protect the inalienable rights of its citizens (though I’m sure we will disagree on exactly what the government should do in a society and what “rights” actually are). Where I think we will part in this particular discussion is that most libertarians (myself included) would make the argument that, in fact, the government does not play its protector role as defined here. Rather, what it does is take away the rights of people and then grant some of them back to us effectively as privileges. You stated, “The basic argument of late in neolibertarian/conservative circles (of the last twenty years) has been that the government that has been trying to insure the basic equality of all people, to protect the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is the oppressive force.” And I think that the only people making that claim might be some members of the two main parties, particularly “moderate” Republicans. Libertarians wouldn’t dare make that assertion because they see most operations of the state to be acts of aggression against natural liberty. I take quite the issue with your statement that “Libertarian now is the moral equivalent the permission to oppress” because it seems like false moralizing that attempts to characterize these viewpoints as evil, which seems unproductive to me. Either way, for libertarians, classic liberals, etc., what it comes down to is that we see the state as a monopoly on violence that coerces individuals in numerous ways, so to oppose aggressive/violent actions of the state is to actively oppose this aggression and breaching of rights. So then, for me and any competent liberty-minded person, the priority is figuring out the best way to decentralize power and force in a long-lasting way. (Many would say the Declaration and constitution have been quite ineffective in this effort.)

      But even with that, there are many arguments happening all the time within libertarian circles dealing with the question “do we actually need a government to protect our rights? Or will that always devolve into a centralization of power and violence?”

      I hope this fully answers your question. Thanks for discussing this with me; you are consistently challenging.

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  2. This is a lie.

    The members of the founding generation did philosophically believe in liberty for ALL men, even black men.

    Here is something they did not teach you in government propaganda public school which is probably where you got all your biased knowledge about history.

    All of the early drafts of the Declaration of Independence contained in the list of grievances with the king, the fact that he and parliament saddled the colonies with what they all considered horrid and disgusting anti freedom practice of slavery and they had no idea how to get rid of it.

    Here is what Jefferson had in all his drafts:

    “He [the king] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”

    It was replaced in the final draft with the phase “incitement domestic insurrections among us” because of complaints by the delegates from South Carolina, but had problems with the words, but they were certainly a small minority of the delegates.

    The write off the whole founding generation as bigot slave owners is a complete injustice, and re-writing of history for political purposes, which ignores their real philosophical beliefs, and even ignores free black men who were involved in the revolution.

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    • I never claimed anything that you said I claimed. Did you read what I wrote? The point of including the source from Lincoln was to show how they meant for their ideas to take root and one day free more people than was possible in their time. Also, this is clearly meant to connect more to an audience of the left, so if you read it in that context (or read it all as I’m not convinced you did) it’s plain to see why I used the language I used. You and I are arguing for the same point, so relax.

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