The Declaration’s affirmation of inalienable rights limits individual autonomy, but it does so in the service of liberty.
July 4 is separated from Bastille Day by a week and a half on the calendar but by eons in political culture. The interim is an appropriate interval for reflection on why exactly the two events were so different. One reason is arguably that America is precisely not what one might be led to believe from exclusive emphasis on the Declaration of Independence: a simply creedal nation bound solely by political belief. The creation of a new people connected by creed alone rather than shared tradition and history would, like the French Revolution, have been a radical event. As Willmoore Kendall would remind us, the American Revolution is better understood as a restorative or conserving one.
That is not to reduce the American Founding to the age-old debate between creed and culture—even if, despite the valuable nuances added to this discussion by James W. Ceaser and Bradley C.S. Watson, the simply creedal perspective remains largely ascendant in much of popular discourse. It is, rather, to hypothesize that creed versus culture may be a less helpful framework than creed versus conservation. Conservation, in turn, better frames the Revolution and Declaration than creed.
The simply creedal perspective, which is inherently forward-looking, holds that the American people were constituted—and continue to exist—based on subscription to discrete beliefs articulated in the Declaration. Yet the Declaration instantly signals otherwise: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another. . . .” This is a sentence written from inside unfolding political time, not at L’année Une; it refers to a people that already exists—here I would disagree with Kevin Gutzman’s critique of Watson, even while being sympathetic to its underlying perspective—not to the creation of a new one. The Declaration proceeds to propound those people’s beliefs, but the beliefs, like the people, are the product of a steady process of evolution that by then has been under way at least since the Mayflower Compact.
The Compact’s animating symbol is deliberative self-government, not individual rights, and an examination of early colonial documents shows a steady trajectory along which rights, duties and community are balanced—a trajectory on which the Declaration is a point rather than from which it is a departure. Rights in the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, for example, were governed by the legislature rather than framed in absolutes, as in: “No mans life shall be taken away, no mans honour or good name shall be stayned, no mans person shall be arrested, restrayned, banished, dismembered, nor any wayes punished … unless it be by vertue or equitie of some expresse law of the Country warranting the same …” This is, as I recently suggested in this space, the same model of rights to which the Declaration subscribes.
Indeed, if the Declaration was meant suddenly to erupt with a newfound commitment to individual rights that had not been located in the colonies until then—again, a radical event—the revolutionaries must quickly have retreated into reaction. As Donald S. Lutz has shown, the state Bills of Rights adopted during the post-Revolution burst of constitution-making were admonitory rather than absolute in nature: their form was typically that a right “should” or “ought” not be infringed: a guideline, in the timeless political theory of Ghostbusters, not a rule. The prevalence of established churches in the states during the founding period—not to mention the fact that it took until nearly the 20th century for it to dawn on the Supreme Court that the national Bill of Rights might be a tool for insulating minorities from majority rule—further undercuts the idea that the early American regime was based on absolute individual rights as reservations from the community. (On this point, see also Barry Alan Shain, The Myth of American Individualism.)
The Declaration’s ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are better understood as continuous with this tradition rather than as a sudden juke away from it. The Revolution’s purpose was not to create the world anew but rather to conserve a tradition from which King George III had departed. The complaints in the Declaration are directed to the restoration of an antecedent political state with which the colonists appear to have been more or less satisfied. King George III has “depriv[ed] us” of trial by jury,” “suspend[ed] our own Legislatures,” “alter[ed] fundamentally the Forms of our Governments,” and so forth. Severance from the king requires the colonists to “alter their former Systems of Government” mainly insofar as they must, of necessity, reframe them without monarchy, but they do not appear to intend radically to reconstitute them. This antecedent state draws on centuries of British political culture as gradually modified by a century-and-a-half of American political experience. Similarly, when the delegates met in Philadelphia 11 summers later, they were able to recur to decades of experience with various forms of colonial and state self-government that supplied bases for many of the major features of a Constitution that was, in the end, successful precisely because it was in many respects not revolutionary.
None of this is to deny that Americans are devoted to certain elements of a creed or, crucially, that the creed informs and shapes the political tradition the Revolution was intended to conserve and restore. Similarly—contra many adherents of the cultural view, such as Samuel Huntington, who fear that immigration will overrun it—immigration in the American experience provides the opportunity to join the tradition in part by subscribing to the creed. Immigration, put otherwise, is part of the political culture, not a threat to it.
It is the notion of a forward-leaning, teleological creed that stands above and separate from the culture that is the radical idea, insisted upon in many of the same exceptionalist circles that would foist on America the duty of spreading those beliefs and achieving that telos. The very fact that experiments in doing so have faltered on the shoals of political culture—in places where the creed would establish something new rather than conserving the essence of a tradition marinated in decades or centuries—is a reminder of the wrong-headedness of a simply creedal orientation.
America as a cautious, conserving and prudent regime seems far less historically grandiose than the exceptionalists understand us to be. It is a notion less given, perhaps, to the triumphalism that has, needlessly, overtaken American self-understanding, in which our national self-esteem seems to depend on an excessively radical interpretation of the Founding. Of course the question is why this should be—why denying a creedal rather than conserving foundation for America should be seen as an act of lèse majesté rather than one of respect for the regime. It was the very moderation of the American Revolution that was its glory and, not incidentally, its triumph. We are, after all, heading into our 238th year of independence, which seems plenty exceptional. The republican French, creed and all, only made it to L’année Quatorze.