December 15, 2007


American Exceptionalism: The Declaration of Independence (Dr. Paul Kengor, 12/17/2007,

In this interview, Dr. Paul Kengor speaks with Dr. Charles Kesler, director of the Salvatori Center at Claremont McKenna College, and one of the nation’s most respected and thoughtful observers on the American Founding. [...]

Kengor: In November 2004 there was a case in a public school in the San Francisco Bay area in which a teacher claimed that the school principal prohibited him from using the Declaration (and other Founding documents) because it mentioned God. If accurate, was this merely an isolated case of silly secularists in a public school who lost their minds—and thus of little concern to us—or does it point to a real problem that we should be worried about? Is there a prejudice against the religious component in these documents?

Kesler: There is such a prejudice, and it’s worrying. Alongside that prejudice is another one against moral truth itself. But they don’t see that if reason cannot ascertain any moral truths, then their own claim collapses. How can your rights be violated if you don’t have any rights to begin with?

Kengor: What about the teaching of the Declaration in our schools today, from high schools to colleges? We often hear allegations from conservatives that the Federalist Papers are not being taught, or at least not adequately respected. What’s your sense of how the Declaration is treated and represented? Is it bashed as a narrow, bigoted document written by and for white European males?

Kesler: Yes, it is bashed frequently along those lines—check out Howard Zinn’s book, for example—only to be strangely rehabilitated when the teacher takes up the history of the civil rights movement.

Kengor: Is it true that America needed Abraham Lincoln to realize the full potential of the Declaration for all Americans, especially black Americans?

Kesler: Lincoln helped to save the Declaration from becoming, at the hands of Stephen Douglas and others, an un-revolutionary or even anti-revolutionary document of white power and naked majority rule. Lincoln fought to save the Declaration’s original meaning of human equality and liberty. He did not invent a new, evolving, Progressive meaning for it, as Garry Wills and others have claimed.

Kengor: Lastly, where does the Declaration—and, more so, its ideals—travel from here? Of what consequence is the Declaration of Independence to not merely Americans but to all humanity? Is there a place for Thomas Jefferson in Baghdad, Cairo, or Kabul?

Kesler: The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inherent in every human being, but the capacity to vindicate and live by those rights requires cultivation. Republican government does not come easy to every people, as the experiment in Iraq is proving. Freedom has its habits of heart and mind. The Declaration can help point the way for other peoples, however—a point that Adams and Jefferson and the whole founding generation would heartily affirm.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 15, 2007 7:38 AM
Comments for this post are closed.