The Declaration’s Principled “We”

After a year’s hiatus, I’m back with my annual “Declaration and us” reflection. My dual purpose remains the same: to commemorate the Declaration and to indicate its ongoing relevance. The two purposes go together. To commemorate the document fitly, one must take seriously its teachings. Among the most basic of its lessons is that even in contentious times such as ours, reason can discern and judge what is going on, and it can guide action, individual and collective. It can discern and judge, when it combines permanent principles of political judgment with a grasp of the relevant “facts” of the situation. More specifically, in their combined light, it can discern the enemy, or enemies, of freedom. At the extreme, it can discern in his (or their) actions a “design” to establish despotism. On the basis of such assessments, it can judge that it is time—indeed, morally imperative—to act in freedom’s defense. While the document itself doesn’t provide a plan of action, its own example contains important lessons about speaking and acting on behalf of freedom. After all, the Declaration itself is a grand speech which is a grand action—it is an argument and an act.

I write this six months into a new presidential administration, the Biden administration. Two of the new chief executive’s initial statements of aims sent mixed messages. He vowed to be a uniter of the country and to be the most progressive President ever. His subsequent deeds indicated which of the two to take seriously. A flurry of executive orders, a number of radically progressive nominees (Xavier Becerra, Kristen Clarke, Neera Tanden), mammoth spending bills that redefined the English language (and paid back supporters, Chicago-style), the mandating of divisive “diversity, inclusion, and equity” programs for all federal agencies, including the military, and the symbolic cementing of the cozy relationship between “Big Tech” and progressive politics with the appointment of Ron Klain as chief of staff—in these actions the Biden administration flew its true colors and showed its transformative ambitions. Many other “facts” in this vein could be adduced—abortion extremism, collusion with legislative allies to abolish important forms of ordered liberty, the memory-holing of the 1776 Commission—but the initial list is enough to indicate a “design” on the part of the Biden administration.

On the Fourth of July, therefore, one could well ask, what would the Declaration have to say about this “designing” administration and its aims? However, I’d like to take things in a different direction. Stipulating that the Biden administration has a partisan ideological design on the country, I’d like to turn my attention to what the Declaration has to teach about resisting such a design. One could call this a contribution to “Resistance Studies.” To do so, I’ll begin with the fundamental unit of the Declaration, what I call “the stout individual”: the individual cognizant of his God-given natural rights and formed in such a way that he is able and willing to assert and defend them before God and men. Then, I’ll segue to the necessary banding together of such individuals into a “we.” The title of these reflections indicates that the “we” is my main focus and that I aim to stay at the level of principles. The reader is invited to make his or her own applications.

Perhaps the first lesson the Declaration imparts to us in our situation is contained in the words of the title itself. In the face of “designing” executives and their legislative enablers, one must declare oneself, one must declare one’s independence. Here, “to declare one’s independence” takes on a specific meaning. It means summoning the moral courage to stand up and to speak out, to both publicly and privately declare oneself against despotic designs, abusive power, and denials (and deniers) of God-given natural freedoms and our precious constitutional forms and liberties. To declare one’s independence is to take a principled stand for principles of ordered liberty against their would-be despotic deniers.

Of course, to do so requires an individual of a certain sort. A close reading of the text would reveal his lineaments. I will reserve that pleasant task for another day. But I would be remiss if I did not note the following: in the text, human equality and freedom are combined with significant ontological and moral content, so they are not free-standing notions, they do not warrant human beings to make of themselves whatever they will. Rather, all three (equality, rights, and moral qualities) are based upon a determinate notion of human nature, and all are placed before the divine Gaze and Judgment. In my judgment, this substantial figure would be a fine model for American civic education and a fine specimen of humanity for the philosophers to consider.

Happily, as the example of the Declaration shows, when one does one’s human and civic duty and stands up, one discovers that one is not alone: there are like-minded others, and “ones” together can form a “we.” About this “we,” the Declaration contains a number of lessons that are relevant to today’s defense of liberty. I will discuss three. The first pertains to the troubling fact that civic friends have to deal with civic enemies, with what we could call civic frères-ennemis. Declaration British-Americans separated from the British government and people because of differences of principle resolvable only by revolutionary change. Today’s Americans are arguably divided by even greater differences of principle concerning justice and human liberty. The Biden administration in particular embodies principles that are antithetical to those of the Declaration, starting with the injustice of making justice a matter of group-identity rather than individual merit and conduct. How to deal with these civic frères-ennemis is a question to which the Declaration makes succinct, but significant, contributions. The second lesson recognizes that a resistant “we” contains leaders and led. There is a division of talents and roles that both must recognize in order for effective resistance. The third lesson unites the two groups in a common ressourcement in a history of the practice of ordered liberty. Our reading of the Declaration participates in that lesson.

The first lesson is, admittedly, a hard one: the “we” which includes people on the basis of shared principles also perforce excludes others on principle as well. Principles entail “principled differences”; they separate as well as unite. As George Santayana wrote: “I have drawn my circle of friends and included you out.” This is the situation in which the signers of the Declaration found themselves as members of the British Commonwealth, this is arguably the situation in which those devoted to ordered liberty under God find themselves today vis-à-vis the current administration and its allies.

What to do with such civic frères-ennemis is a thorny question. To begin with, the Declaration hard-headedly shows the terminus ad quem of such principled disagreements. It is separation, sometimes violent. Inherent in disagreement over fundamental principles, separation can be rationally foreseen and predicted, although its realization or averting is left to human prudence and choice (with accident playing its role). It 1776, one party of “we’s” judged that matters had come to a head. We will get an initial indication of where things stand in 2022, but the battle over principles will no doubt continue thereafter.

The Declaration is not without lessons for us on this score, i.e., of waging civil battle civilly. In its fourth part, it alludes to “repeated” efforts of “humble petition” of king and parliament and “reminders” and “appeals” to shared bonds—natural, civil, and civilizational—with fellow citizens standing apart from the fray. These passages indicate important dispositions to have and kinds of overtures to make to civic frères-ennemis and to by-standing third parties. They provide elements of a possible path to civic reconciliation. They also remind us of the necessary tempering of spirited indignation toward fellow citizens (if not toward their designs). However, one must also note that along with the reminders and appeals went—and go—“warnings” and “conjurings.”

…in the text, human equality and freedom are combined with significant ontological and moral content, so they are not free-standing notions, they do not warrant human beings to make of themselves whatever they will.

With its characteristic realism, the Declaration also lets us know that our best efforts may fail. It even indicates what the complex meaning of “failure” is. Our failure would be a failure to offer arguments on behalf of liberty, theirs would be the failure to even engage the arguments for ordered liberty. The final failure would be to have the designing party declare that it will only be satisfied with the full implementation of its despotic principles. That final failure would entail that the terrible options before the lovers of liberty are yielding to despotism, separation, or the horrors of civil war. To avert this terrible choice is their sincere desire, hence an important reason why they band together. The second and third lessons bear upon characteristics of this banding.

The Declaration shows that the resistant “we” is not a homogenous or an undifferentiated mass, it contains structures and leaders and led. This division of roles is important to their success and important for us to recognize. A political philosopher might say that this is the political problem in nuce or miniature, insofar as the political problem is the problem of conjoining the few and the many. The Declaration expresses a special moment in this eternal drama and its American reconciliation merits celebration and reflection. It also bears repeating, if in different circumstances and ways.

A self-descriptive phrase on the part of the signatories of the Declaration summarizes the American achievement: “We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, do …. in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, … .” Note the progression from a “We” that begins as select and few broadens to include an entire “People.” In turn, the few, the signatories who pledge their “sacred honor,” here speak and act on behalf of—they are authorized by—the many, “the good People of these Colonies.”

The whole formed here is expressly political, with the fundamental tie between the two parts being representation. It is structured by long-time and more recent political structures: “Colonies,” “States,” and “Congress.” With the last item, the Declaration invites us to expand our thinking when it comes to structures and forms, reminding us that a free people can be creative with the forms it adopts. In recalling this, I am not advocating changing the Constitution! Rather, I am pointing to the current need for new institutions and ways to bring resistant-minded individuals together. (Benjamin Franklin’s famous saying comes to mind.) In today’s circumstances, the enemies of freedom and equality under the law possess many of the commanding heights of the economy and culture, as well as the executive branch. Creativity and new forms are imperative.

Happily, I see such initiatives pullulating on the contemporary scene. They indicate that our Tocquevillian genius for association continues to be fecund. When it is, it is because of the initiative of some and the support of many. One example of what I have in mind occurred recently in Southlake, Texas and has given heart to many. It involved the all-important battle ground of public education and brought to the fore a new champion of reason and liberty, Hannah Smith. Based on what we see in many school districts today, where women are leading the counter-charge against the scourge of indoctrination in injustice and race hatred, one can hope that a new generation of Abigail Adamses is on the rise.

The connecting of contemporary and founding heroines is not rhetorical on my part. In this, I follow the Declaration’s own lead, albeit changing the sex. In its third part, which is the recitation of “injuries and usurpations” on the part (largely) of the king and (partly) of his abettors in parliament, the Declaration recalls its own predecessors. Speaking of the king, its authors recall that “He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.” The “Representatives” we met earlier are following in their predecessors’ footsteps. A tradition of “manly firmness” is thus recognized and continued. As the examples of Abigail Adams and Hannah Smith suggest, one can take the adjective broadly. And as a fitting conclusion to my admittedly spirited reading of the Declaration on this Fourth of July 2021, we all could be encouraged to continue this quintessential American tradition.