July 4, 2014


The Declaration of Independence and the American Creed (David Azerrad, July 2nd, 2013, The Public Discourse)

Natural human equality is the first axiom of the American creed. The founders, of course, recognized that human beings are different and unequal in more ways than anybody could count. But for political purposes, all men and women--regardless of race, religion, sex, or whatever the oppressed category du jour might be--are born equally free and independent and therefore may not be ruled without their consent. In America, we recognize neither natural slavery nor divine-right monarchy. The differences that separate us are never so great as to create a chasm between human beings. As Thomas Jefferson explained: "Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others."

Given the vagaries of life and the great diversity of talents and interests among human beings, we will inevitably end up in different stations in life. And so the greatest work of American political thought defined the "first object of Government" as "the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property," from which result "different degrees and kinds of property."

As for the claim that equality mandates redefining marriage, it is risible. (Ryan Anderson, my Heritage Foundation colleague and the editor of Public Discourse, points out the various flaws in Obama's claim at The Foundry here.)The "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" countenance ordered liberty, and the husband-and-wife, mother-and-father family is a core institution for securing what the Constitution calls "the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." What's more, no one's core rights are violated if marriage is not redefined to suit their tastes.

The second axiom of the American creed is that human beings are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." Other Founding era documents say that we possess them by birth or by nature. Today, we could say that they are seared into our DNA. Whatever the formulation, the point is the same: no one needs to give us our core rights. We possess them simply by virtue of being human. Criminals may violate them, governments may fail to secure them, but we are all morally entitled to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

The Declaration emphasizes rights and not duties because its purpose is to affirm the rights of man against the claims of those in power--not to teach us our duties toward our Maker or our fellow man. Its aim, in Abraham Lincoln's memorable formulation, is to act as "a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression."

The Declaration isn't meant to displace the Bible or Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as the guide to the good life. It doesn't speak of friendship, family, and music, for example, not because it denies their importance, but because they fall outside its properly defined political purpose.

It does, however, acknowledge and point to the highest things--the reasons why it's so important to resist tyranny and oppression. Hence the references to both the pursuit of happiness and happiness, the invocation of our "Creator" and "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," and the appeal to the "Supreme Judge of the World." Politics is about creating the conditions that allow us to pursue the comprehensive human good--it's not about directly securing the comprehensive human good for each person.

The Declaration's two axioms, though self-evidently true, are by no means obvious. In fact, no other country had ever recognized them before, none at the time did, and most today only pay lip service to them. What the founders meant by a self-evident truth is an axiomatic definition: embedded in the word "man" are the inviolable principles of equality and natural rights. Others, the Third Reich or the Ayatollahs in Iran for example, may deny this and use another definition of man, but in America, we hold these truths to be self-evident and strive to live up to their true meaning.

From this simple definition of man, the remainder of the political teaching of the Declaration of Independence logically follows. 

[originally posted : 7/04/13]

Posted by at July 4, 2014 4:37 AM

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