Dark Times, the Declaration, and the Despotic Executive

It’s been a year since my last little piece on the Declaration of Independence, and what a year it’s been.

On the Right of our political spectrum, one could sum up its events and eventfulness in one word: Trump. A party has been captured by an outsider, the disaffection of millions of its rank-and-file revealed. At the national level, the Grand Old Party is not so grand or even particularly coherent, and some fear it might not last as a party. Something similar can be said of the party of the Left. Substitute “Clinton” and “Sanders” and comparable deep fissures emerge, although perhaps with less likelihood of disintegration.

What light, in terms of principles and manner of thinking about politics, might this context shed?

It cannot give us direct insights about parties and their role in our liberal democratic order. As Stephen Skowronek noted a while back, the Declaration was penned in a much different context: at the beginning of a period of “patrician politics” in which parties were deemed equivalent to factions, dead set against the common good.[1] Harvey Mansfield’s classic study, Statesmanship and Party Government,[2] deftly analyzed the arguments that led to their acceptance in Great Britain, while any number of fine studies of American political development have detailed their roots in, and rise in the aftermath of, the Washington administration.[3] Therein, however, lies a clue.

Among other things, American parties are “constitutional” parties, that is, they express differing views of the nature and purposes of our constitutional republic. Similarly, they have distinct “takes” on the Declaration of Independence.

Many liberals and Democrats today tend to have an incoherent view of the Declaration, but one that jibes with their worldview and serves Progressive purposes. On the one hand, they insist that the Declaration was penned by misogynist, slave-holding, privileged white males; on the other, it’s the American charter of egalitarian freedom, setting forth “ideals” and “aspirations” that History will make good.[4]

Partisans on the Right tend to have a more positive view, sometimes speaking of the Founders’ wisdom, other times using it as a marker to indicate “just how far we’ve departed.” And its revolutionary spirit continues to resonate with many who suffer or perceive the menacing hand of arbitrary government.

In previous essays (here and here) I laid out the leading characteristics of what Jefferson called “the American mind,” as expressed by him in the Declaration. It was a mind rational and logical. It was possessed by a lover of liberty, someone “manly” or willing to venture treasure and blood in liberty’s defense. It was a mind, moreover, that had thought deeply about the principles of politics, the origins, ends, and means of liberal government, that is, of self-government by a sovereign people under God and his laws. In the storm and stress of political contestation, that mind stayed cool, applying principles to facts, drawing inferences and conclusions. And when push came to shove, it subjected tumultuous events to rational judgment and made the bold political act of revolution itself a dictate of reason.

In all this, Americans displayed a remarkable sense of drama, seeing in the welter of events a contest between two sorts of agents, one despotic, the other, liberty-loving. They situated themselves in a dramatic history of colonial liberty’s establishment, assault and defense, referring to predecessors who resisted usurpations and injuries by otherwise duly constituted authority; and they cast their situation as, fundamentally, a moral-political contest wherein liberty, individual and collective, was the stake. In so doing, they had models of manly action they followed, and their leading spokesmen, the signers of the document, presented themselves as exemplary leaders, men of precedent, principle, and prudence.

Nor was their eye simply on the looming threat from king joined by parliament. Previously, they had attempted to persuade their civic brethren to their cause, and now, when they judged themselves compelled to cast off previous allegiances and ties, they were aware of the widest audience and made their justifying case to “mankind.”

From the beginning, therefore, the American mind had a certain capacious, even cosmopolitan, cast, its principles based upon universal truths, acting under the judgment of a universal Deity, and appealing to the common rational faculty and moral sense of humanity. Its concern for the particular, this “people,” therefore, was rooted in and shaped by universals. More broadly, the combination of attention to principles and facts, prudently assessed, constituted its distinctive blend of theory and practice.

In the foregoing, there’s ample material that is of contemporary relevance. The parties and their partisans, in our day, both loathe and fear the other party’s standard-bearer and angrily denounce him or her with jarring epithets, of which “crook” and “liar” are two of the mildest, escalating to “authoritarian,” “fascist,” and “dictator.”

The Declaration’s description of the moral character and nefarious deeds of George III can serve as something of a portrait and checklist for assessment of the validity of the charges, Left and Right.

The Declaration took seriously the reality of the tyrant or despot. As that prospect surfaces in today’s agitation, we might as well look it squarely in the face, but guided by articulable principles and a concern for facts. The Declaration points toward a tripartite analysis of the agent’s moral character; of his or her aims or “design,” whether declared or inferred from acts; and of his or her “troops” or accomplices, legislative or other. Following this template can help change epithets to understanding.

Secondly, all of this is to be judged within a normative framework of rightly constituted government, with “guard[ian]s” of “security,” “liberty,” and “the public good” at the helm, in the case before us, with an especial focus upon the responsibilities of the executive. Primary among them is the view of “legislative bodies,” “legislation,” and “law” that is held by the prospective chief executive. Why primary? Because the legislative is the first of the just powers of government, and law or legislation is the first topic in the list of usurpations and injuries by the crown with which the Declaration deals. Of the 27 listed, it occupies the first eight, with two more later in the list.

This should not surprise. What is to be executed by the chief executive if not the laws?

Lastly, the Declaration indicates that political thinking and analysis are tied to action, perhaps even bold action. As such, it necessarily involves risk-taking and hope. The Declaration exhibits its own grounds for such hope in its conviction of the rightness of its cause, the regard of the Deity, and the resolve and collaboration of like-minded lovers of liberty. Here we have a double-mirror, one in which to consider the two candidates, the other, ourselves. For we too have to ask, what are we citizens to do, given our analysis and assessment of the two candidates and the political situation more generally?

The Declaration indicates that even revolutionary action can be warranted. But it also lays down strict criteria for such action. It thus cautions boldness to tether itself to reason, while challenging reason to entertain even the boldest thoughts.

[1] Stephen Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make (Harvard University Press, 1993).

[2] Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., Statesmanship and Party Government (University of Chicago Press, 1965). Law and Liberty held a forum on the book upon the 50th anniversary of its publication, whose main essay was by Mark Blitz, with respondents George Thomas, Russell Muirhead, and Greg Weiner.

[3] I would recommend The American Constitution: Its Origins and Development (W. W. Norton and Co., 1991 (7th edition)), by Alfred H. Kelly, Winfred A. Harbison, and Herman Belz. I’m also partial to Harry V. Jaffa’s “The Nature and Origin of the American Party System,” in Political Parties USA, edited by Robert A. Goldwin (Rand McNally, 1964).

[4] For an exception to this general rule, see Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence (Liveright, 2014) and my review of it for this site.