The Declaration’s Timely Teaching on Immigration

The liberalism of the Declaration of Independence—classical liberalism with Anglo-American features that complicate and enrich it—is a rare bird. It is also very much under attack today, from the left and the right. The ascendant left wants a new anti-liberal regime established on the basis of its view of History, race, gender, and “DemocracyTM,” while prominent elements of the fractured right want a new aristocracy, or a new New Deal, or a new novus ordo founded on the notion of right order. The left wants to racialize everything and, as Jeremy Carl has brought to our attention, it takes direct aim at white Americans. The divided right recoils from what America has become and dreams of new Americas that not only overcome the left but replace the Founders’ handiwork. There are exceptions, to be sure, Yuval Levin comes to mind.

In the midst of this bataille royale within and between the political poles, the Fourth of July still annually occurs, a relic of a contested past, but also a sign of its ongoing power. On this Fourth of July, I propose to ask, what guidance can the Declaration of Independence—the centerpiece of the day—offer us concerning an issue much contested today: immigration? 

The Declaration on Immigration

As it happens, the Declaration was vitally interested in the issue of immigration and its relationship to self-rule. Its authors had encountered an executive who was actively negligent when it came to “migrations.” Speaking of King George: “He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.” Here, monarchical sins of commission (“obstructing”; “raising the conditions”) and omission (“refusing to pass”) concerning what Aristotle said are the two “material” bases of political community, territory and population, are indicted. The malfeasant monarch was bent on denying both elements of growth to the colonies. This was a clear indication of evil intent and a cause for separation. 

In reading this indictment today, we are probably inclined to notice the differences between then and now, especially in terms of the deliberate restriction by George III and the deliberate encouragement of migration by today’s Administration. But matters of principle are also at work. A fundamental distinction between “Foreigners” and native citizens is invoked, which obtains (or should obtain) at all times, as well as the correlative thought that for the former to become regular members of the “people,” laws of naturalization are in place, and should be observed. Both are essential elements of independent, self-governing political community. 

Nature, God, History, or Humanity?

What warrants this sort of self-determination? The Declaration’s answer is found at the very beginning of the document: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” Nature and God, for short. Both instances together warrant the choice for political independence and self-rule. This is significant, because many today tend to conceive of political existence, including national sovereignty, in terms of History and Humanity. And both these instances are deemed to undermine a sovereign people’s independence and self-rule. History, it is said, has made national independence and self-government obsolete. Global interdependence requires their subordination to higher, global perspectives and instances, while the claims of Humanity as a whole are morally superior to those of particular countries. 

This is not the Declaration’s view. It “conjugates” or articulates the universal (humanity) and the particular (peoples) differently, and does so in the name of normative nature and divine will. Humanity is legitimately composed of peoples, and peoples rightly govern their own affairs. This “popular” self-government, however, while warranted by Nature and God, is also subject to these instances. All peoples are to abide by them. This is the opposite of the law of the jungle, or might makes right. Law and right govern all levels of the human: “mankind,” “peoples,” and individuals (“all men”). This appeal to Nature and God does not mean that the Declaration is unaware of the competing instances, history and humanity. However, it understands them in a way that they can be combined with its chief instances. 

Proper Subordination

The Declaration begins by referring to “the course of human events,” a course, however, which it judges and is able to judge because of permanent principles of human and political right, including the distinction between barbarism or savagery and civilization. Likewise, at its end, it indicates that this “course” takes place under the gaze of, and is subject to, divine Providence—a Providence that human agents can appeal to with confidence, if their intentions are right. History, in other words, is not the sovereign instance, but is subordinate to transhistorical norms. 

The Declaration recognizes and indeed affirms that all human beings have unalienable rights, but being incorporated into this people is not one of them.

The same is true for humanity. The Declaration is aware of the concept, although it speaks of it in older terms. It appeals to “mankind” as judges of its revolutionary act—while also putting forward criteria according to which mankind should judge its act, and, by implication, by which it judges the rest of mankind. Thus, it speaks of “all men” as “created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights.” The “humanism” of the Declaration is, as some would put it today, “judgmental,” that is, normative. It also expressly links the human (“created”) to the divine (“Creator”). It is not today’s, or radical modernity’s, “atheistic humanism” (Henri de Lubac) or “exclusive humanism” (Rémi Brague). It articulates a humanity that should look up in gratitude and reverence to its Creator, Nature’s Legislator, the Supreme Judge of the world, and the Providence that can be relied on for support when one acts rightly. This is what the people declaring their rightful independence in the Declaration are doing.

The Moral Status of Peoples

As this last point reminds us, in the Declaration’s view, humanity is not simply made up of individuals; rather, it is de facto and de jure composed of “peoples” who are naturally and divinely warranted in their “separate and equal station.” Quite remarkably, it is this legitimate division of mankind into distinct peoples, rather than individuals and their unalienable rights, that is the first subject of the laws of nature invoked by the Declaration. In its complete view, of course, both individuals and peoples are recognized; both are warranted by, and subject to, these laws. But “peoples’” moral status is all too often ignored. 

Once recognized, it comes as no surprise to hear that “the good People of these colonies” have rights, their own distinctive set of rights: to establish government, to be represented in government, and “to alter and abolish” any government that systematically violates rights, or deliberately fails to pursue their Safety and Happiness. In the instant case, the administration of the “perfidious” monarch, George III, had done, and had failed to do, just that. Making this case was the onus of the twenty-seven “abuses,” “usurpations,” and “injuries” detailed in the third part of the document. History had revealed a despotic “design” on the part of King and Parliament, one that was counter to natural and divine norms, and detected and judged by prudence. Central to all of this was the moral status of a people and its right to independence and self-rule.

Further Lessons 

While far from exhaustive, the presentation of “the good People of these colonies” in the document is remarkably rich, with many lessons to impart. Here we return to the opening line of this essay, which ventured that the liberalism of the Declaration is classical liberalism, but with Anglo-American complications that enrich it. 

The American mind expressing itself in the Declaration is indeed committed to core elements of classical liberalism, unalienable rights, the division of powers, and representative government, to take three fundamentals. But it is more than that, and, I would venture, more substantive than that. Its complications include the nascent federalism inherent in the identity of the “one people” of the preamble with the “free and independent States” asserted at the end of the document and the task of combining classical liberalism and English common law institutions like trial by jury. To these “institutional” complications, one must add the classical virtues invoked by the Declaration, headed by prudence, together with the overarching claim that the moral-political order is intended and superintended by the Deity. Finally—and here history played a formative role—one must note the shared colonial experience, to which the Declaration refers at length in its third and fourth parts. 

One could sum up these complications and enrichments by saying that the universal elements of the document (“all men,” “unalienable rights,” “Supreme Judge,” “laws of Nature”) are expressed in elevated British English, with all that the latter brings with it in terms of historical memory and cultural resonance. (For shorthand, think: Magna Carta and Shakespeare.) 

Applied to Immigration

It is precisely this combination of universal and particular—what Hegel called a “concrete universal”—that rules out what we today call “xenophobia” in the mindset of the Declaration, but allows for discernment and discrimination. Recall our earlier discussion of “migrations” in the Declaration. The colonists wanted new members! They wanted a certain number of human beings to transition from “Foreigners” to “naturalized” members of their communities. But they wanted this to happen on their own terms; they wanted to determine the specific conditions and numbers. 

The terms of incorporation going forward would necessarily include the two aspects of universality and particularity combined in the Declaration. The Declaration recognizes and indeed affirms that all human beings have unalienable rights, but being incorporated into this people is not one of them. For that, candidates must demonstrate their ability and willingness to adopt core characteristics of the American people (see below), and the American people can determine when, how, and how many of such candidates it wishes to join in its great civic adventure. Certain economic reasons—the need for labor or skills of certain sorts—may be included as criteria, but, in the final analysis, this sort of reason is far short of the self-understanding of the Declaration. Declaration America is not, as Aristotle put it, a commercial enterprise or league, but a political community. Its members, therefore, old and new, must share the political creed that justified independence and self-rule in the first place. And they must be able to speak and deliberate together. Otherwise, to cite a later reader of the Declaration, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”