The present deformation of rights was not fated from the beginning, as some prominent conservatives have claimed.
If democracy is to endure, thoughtful citizenship is a requirement for a critical mass of the citizenry. We have an opportunity to live up to that obligation today. America’s birthday offers an opportunity to go back to the self-conscious beginnings of our common enterprise, where we meet the Declaration of Independence.
In a letter to Richard Henry Lee, Jefferson famously characterized the Declaration as “an expression of the American mind.” Let’s spend a few minutes considering that mind. We will find it to be: 1) logical; 2) liberty-loving; 3) manly; and 4) gesturing towards, and calling for, philosophical and theological reflection.
In other words, it is a quite impressive mind. We have a lot to live up to.
The Declaration nicely divides into five parts:
A preamble announcing the purpose of the document;
A statement of principles of politics, principles of evaluation and of construction;
A list of 27 grievances against the Crown and Parliament, “injuries and usurpations” effected by the metropole;
A brief reference to the repeated efforts at redress by the colonists, all without success; and
The logical conclusion of the foregoing.
Given these theoretical principles of political right, given these facts—that is, the misdeeds of king and parliament which evince a settled design of despotic ambition—it is the colonists’ right, it is their duty, to determine that they will not acquiesce in their own subjection, but declare their independence as a people. They are warranted in this bold act by “the laws of nature and of Nature’s God.”
Much could be said, in terms of matter and form, about the Declaration’s display of logical thinking. One central point will have to suffice. Perhaps most remarkable is the confidence it shows in the power of reasoning. Subjects not always deemed to be amenable to rational analysis and determination— political right order, tyranny, and revolution—find themselves directly and coherently dealt with. To be sure, doing so requires a variety of reason’s activities: the articulation of principles, the discernment of relevant facts, inferring causes from effects, knitting together ends and means.
The Declaration does all this and more despite the highly fraught and even violent political situation that brought it about. Its confidence in the ability of reason to understand and guide politics, including revolutionary activity, is so remarkable that one could raise it up as a model of capacious political reflection, effective rhetoric, and deliberate action. The Framers of the Constitution and Abraham Lincoln certainly did. Why not Americans today?
To be sure, the Declaration’s mind is not merely logical, not simply cerebral. All this thinking is at the service of something else: in a word, of liberty, both individual and collective. And liberty, while Nature’s and God’s gift and humanity’s birthright, needs to be loved as well as understood, and sometimes defended with life and fortune. The Declaration’s argument is motivated by just such a spirited love.
Hence the need for “manliness” on the part of liberty-lovers. After giving the argument for independence on behalf of “the good people of these colonies,” the 55 representatives pledge to one another their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor. They are willing to risk everything for the justness of their cause. Liberty is worth these sacrifices. In so risking, they insert themselves into an ongoing history of the defense of liberty in the colonies, one that is limned in the text itself. Earlier legislatures, it says, had resisted “with manly firmness” the Crown’s encroachments. Now it is their turn, and they find inspiration in the stout character and actions of their predecessors.
This points to the dramatic character of the Declaration. It self-consciously casts its composers and signers as dramatis personae, as participants in a mighty contest between encroaching tyranny and lovers of liberty. Both parties—tyrants and throwers-off of tyranny—exhibit relevant character traits, and the text is not shy about using a language of virtue and vice. One might even be moved to see the Declaration as the first epic poem that Americans penned about themselves.
The last-mentioned trait, philosophical and theological reflection, remains to be considered. The mind at work in the Declaration is, we could perhaps say, assertively comprehensive—or even, though it’s a bit awkward—philosophical-theological lite. I hasten to explain.
On one hand, its vision is comprehensive. It includes doctrines of God (four references to the Deity); of Nature or the world; of man or human beings; of government (its origins; ends; and proper structure); of “the course of human events” (history); of the fundamental distinction between civilization and barbarism. And it exhibits an awareness and concern for the opinions of contemporary mankind. In other words, it’s a mind with broad and deep vistas.
Yet its fundamental views are for the most part merely asserted. For example, God is asserted or “declared,” but not argued for. His existence and nature and activities are premises of a further argument, not the subjects of inquiry or demonstration. The same is true for the principles of politics in the second part of the document.
This is not to say that arguments could not be given to support the assertions. Their absence, however, does tell us something more about the character of the Declaration. It is a practical document with important theoretical content. It wants to reason and argue, but its argument’s purpose is primarily practical: to declare the causes that impel separation. A thoughtful reader should acknowledge the Declaration’s practical aim, as well as ask: what philosophical and theological arguments were implied, or need to be supplied, to justify its assertions?
On the 238th anniversary of this marvelous document, perhaps a distinctive sort of American studies is therefore in order. Americans could sit down and reread it. Encountering what it explicitly says, they could then speculate about its missing premises and arguments. And they could critically appraise the explicit words as well as the concepts that are tacitly in play.
If that happened, the first and the current generation of Americans would be thoughtfully connected. Not only that—we would be exercising two American virtues: filial gratitude and intellectual freedom. And that would make for a very fine Fourth of July.