Last year I penned an analysis and something of a paean to the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps a follow-up is in order. Who knows, perhaps it could become a fourth of July tradition? Certainly there is a good deal more in the famous text than one entry could survey. In fact, the general purpose of this one is to provide material for reflection. That would be a thoughtful way of being patriotic on this day of commemoration and celebration.
The Declaration applies various sorts of principles – theological; anthropological; and political – to a set of “Facts” – chiefly “injuries and usurpations” on the part of the British monarch (and, belatedly, Parliament). It judges the facts as evincing a design of tyranny, and concludes, as it began, with the necessity and duty of revolution and independence, understood as self-government by and for free men and women.
“I understand you are preparing to celebrate the ‘Fourth,’ tomorrow week. What for?” —Abraham Lincoln‘s words to the people of Springfield in 1857, reacting to the newly announced Dred Scott decision
The ferocity of the dissents in the final days of the Supreme Court’s term obscured the most profound of the dissents, that of Justice Clarence Thomas in the same-sex marriage case, Obergefell v. Hodges. In fact the Thomas opinion gives the most radical recent account of how American government has deteriorated.
Editor’s note: This Fourth of July oration was first delivered by G. M. Curtis III on July 1, 1989 in Lone Mountain, Montana, for a conference on American citizenship.
As an American historian and as an American citizen who looks forward to the 21st. century, I place great stock in John Adams’s early 19th. century exhortation to future generations that they remember and celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Technically speaking, I suppose that we are jumping the gun by about one day, since the Continental Congress first agreed to the Declaration on the 2nd. of July 1776. Actually, the past five days in one way or another has represented a remembrance and a reconsideration of many of those values and beliefs that John Adams cherished enough to tender the ultimate sacrifice: his life and property. It is altogether fitting and proper, then, as my historical footnote for these discussions and as a remembrance of the Declaration of Independence, to return to the first principles therein contained, principles that not only retain their merit today, but more importantly, offer us hope for the years to come.
Who would argue with the Declaration of Independence’s claim that “all men are created equal”?
But one immediately runs into trouble. What about the Declaration limiting it to “men”? Are women equal? They did not have the right to vote at the beginning. Yet, Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders certainly believed women were morally equal and were covered under the generic term “men,” for mankind. Was that enough?
For reasons known only to their coaches, the Seahawks decided against going “beast-mode” at the end of last night’s Super Bowl. Instead of running the unstoppable Marshawn Lynch, they flubbed a quick in-route and lost the game in the last seconds. So the Patriots weren’t faced with the challenge of stopping Lynch when it mattered. And that raises to mind a missed opportunity for another Lynch, Loretta Lynch, Obama’s nominee to be Attorney General and chief law enforcement officer of the land. This Lynch, however, has been given the ball. In what some thought might be a Judiciary Committee Superbowl on her nomination, instead turned out to be a fizzle for the constitutionalists. Lynch proved she can shed tackles also (although they were arm-tackles), while making the Republicans sound more like the press-defiant, laconic Marshawn Lynch.
Harry V. Jaffa, who died January 10, at 96, may well be American conservatism’s most consequential thinker, for having attempted to re-found conservatism on the basis of its most philosophic principles and most revered figures. He was also one of the most dismissed, berated, and scorned of scholars, earning derision from former friends and those who knew him only from his writing, much of which had become acerbic.
In his sane and thought-provoking Liberty Forum essay about immigration, Richard Samuelson argues that “America’s very essence” may well be “at risk” because of “two challenges to our status as a nation of immigrants.” They are “the rise of the mega-state” favored by Progressives, and “the rise of a post-national ideal” that “threatens to undermine the understandings that have made assimilation a duty and an obligation.”
David Brooks’ recent column on the relative friendlessness of Americans’ lives captures something of the way we live now. But his idea of establishing summer camp-like meetings of diverse people to plant the seeds of friendship seems clumsy. Abraham Lincoln had civil society thoughts, too; Brooks quotes philosophers but misses out by not referencing Lincoln, who saw the potential in such get-togethers as county fairs, lyceums, and Fourth of July gatherings. Whereas Brooks focuses on the here and now, Lincoln thought of this socializing as rooted in a past that deserves veneration.
In “If Slavery Is Not Wrong, Nothing Is Wrong,” I proposed that the Civil War was fought to restore the original unity of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and that the Thirteenth Amendment, adopted in 1865, was the culmination of that colorblind restoration. In the antebellum period, opponents of slavery could not specify what would result once slavery was ended. Would free blacks have equal rights? Vote? Intermarry with whites? Thus did Stephen Douglas mock Abraham Lincoln. The post-bellum answer of universal freedom nonetheless preserved much of the antebellum distinction between being anti-slavery and being anti-black. While Black Codes prevailed…