The Declaration’s Truths in Difficult Times

In 2022 as never before in Americans’ lifetimes, we mark the Fourth of July with doubt (for various reasons), and even ambivalence (at least in aggregate).  A maelstrom of grievances, fears, discoveries, and drives all mix, match and more often collide in our public discourse.  The idea of national consensus or stability is treated as artifact of the past or propagandistic fiction.  

We also face a fundamental uncertainty, from an unprecedented combination of stresses: pandemic; armed aggression abroad; inflation or perhaps recession; political polarization; shifting ideas of identity and sexuality; environmental stress; opaque new technologies, and more.  Our cornerstone institutions, which once projected confident expertise and stable security, have been politicized or revealed as ordinarily mortal or obsolescent.  The Fed, the CDC, the Supreme Court, and others are in the headlines every day, and now subject to second guessing by anyone with a stake in their decisions.

A bipolar political contest now impedes any common effort to address the doubts.  “Two sides” leave no stone unturned to gain some edge on each other, whether by picking up one percent in the polls or coaxing another slug of funding from their donors.  They use ideas as rhetoric for “us” against “them,” and value people for the vote or the dollar to be extracted and deployed in their stalemate.  Public discourse is trench warfare, following a logic of perpetual war across static lines, sucking in every issue and effort, with no movement and deepening division.   The only space outside the two camps’ perimeters is no-man’s land.  Social comity stands no chance and broken functions cannot get fixed.  

In this ambience of dissonance and dysfunction, how could we not worry for the nation’s future?  Independence Day provides an occasion to reflect on our national origin.  Consideration of its terms and implications in fundamental terms may offer a basis for national resolve, in the face of this moment’s disruptions and disorientation.

The day of course marks our Declaration of Independence.  The one thing that America must have is a shared understanding of that document’s meaning.  The Declaration defines us.  No nation, no unified entity, existed before the Continental Congress’ vote, only disparate, mutually indifferent colonies.  The Declaration first asserted that this was a singular “People,” claiming a “Station … Among the Powers of the Earth.”  America conceived itself in that claim.  Life develops through gestation, birth and maturation, but conception sets the DNA.  

As to that DNA, this new “People” only identified itself as “We” who hold certain “self-evident” tenets.  These comprised twin “Truths:” of equal endowment of all persons with rights they could not give away if they wanted, and that government exists to “secure these rights” for those rights-bearing persons.  The rest of the Declaration’s text only listed the British transgressions and announced the act of secession.  

No other definition of American nationality has been offered.  The only dispute to this one arose out of John Calhoun’s claim that the “union” required consent of all the states for Federal actions to be constitutional.  The vessel for that concept was destroyed in Civil War.  Lincoln debunked the argument by dedicating the war to passing a test – whether a nation conceived as we were could “long endure.”  

The Constitution also does not define us – it takes the voice of the people of the United States of America, the same “we” that the Declaration cited.  In its substance, it forms the current edifice of State on the Declaration’s national foundation. 

It is true, as noted by Jack Rakove this weekend, that the Declaration’s immediate purpose was not to implement universal political equality; equality was our justification for seceding from Britain.  But, as Rakove also notes, the self-evident truths “form our national political creed.”  That creed now defines us as America and Americans.  This means that the nation’s existence depends – and always has – on our validating this premise of our self-conception.  

The creed is an abstract expression and we need to understand the implications of abstractness in order to validate it.  Abstract ideas do not take full form in real life, but this one sets the image of reality toward which we strive, the DNA on which we build the person.  America’s realities may never comply fully with creed’s words, but our development must show unshakeable orientation toward realizing that image, in fidelity to that DNA. 

Validation is not simple.  The Declaration’s very adoption reflects contradictions, its principles transgressed by many of the signers themselves in their practice of slaveholding.  Jefferson, himself a slaveholder, denounced slavery in his draft – and the passage was edited out.  But the Congress did not cut or modify “all Men are created equal.”  And slaveholders signed under that clause.  Those words of this conception had to outlast an overly long dormancy.  But they could endure in conscience, eventually to prevail over historical and “normal” practice.  Whatever the political reality of the day, the nation was premised on the creed as transcendent principle.  In contrast, the Constitution incorporated working pro-slavery substance and had to be amended to comport with the founding.  These amendments, and rejection of the arguments that supported slavery, formed part of the nation’s development, toward realization of the defining creed.

Abstract language is also subject to interpretation.  This does not mean the creed is a subjective idea: unalienable rights and government existing to secure them have an objective meaning.  But different temperaments and interests will put different emphases on the words.  Take, for instance, the tenet of equal endowment of rights in all persons.  Our politics often pit those who emphasize equality against those who emphasize natural rights.  Equality without rights easily becomes a competition for goods, essentially the state of nature of Thomas Hobbes or the Realist school, where right is defined by might.  Rights without equality generate the same condition.  The Declaration’s creed could sanction neither defense of rights in disregard of inequality nor enforcement of equality that compromises rights.  Politics may have to work out balances and syntheses, but proper politics start from the creed’s objective if abstract meaning, not subjective bottom lines of laissez faire or identity politics.

A second point is that “abstract” does not mean ivory tower ideal.  Rights need government to secure them; our creed means to protect personal rights in a dog-eat-dog world.  Americans must tend to the nation as the creed’s living vessel, even as we must comport ourselves by the ethos of rights.  Again, balances and choices, between guns and butter and ideas, are political functions.  But our political actors must start, together, with the Declaration’s creed.

Third, the Declaration’s abstract creed unties us from organic markers that have defined most peoples – race, religion, language, territory, traditions.  Abstraction makes our tenets universal – Inuit cannot follow Kurdish mores but anyone can believe in rights.  This also means American nationality lacks an ancient visceral hold that many consider “natural.”  But where the English could conceivably decide that the “rights of Englishmen” are only an outgrowth of some ethnic character, perhaps “civility,” we have no other basis for our nationality.  The Declaration extracted rights from any prior ethnic context, and cements us definitively into our commitment to them.

Finally for this reflection, as our identity has no ties to traditions and received characteristics, we cannot validate our national self by complying with primal legacies.  Rather, we must show how our creed enables us to generate something of value in the present and the future.  Our ties of identity are not back to familiar history but forward to a future that we create.  We acquit our burden of validation not by obeying pre-ordained norms, but by carrying our values into our chosen pursuits.  This means, as we do believe that free people do generate positive value, that we carry hope.  People will find answers, and liberty and rights open the possibilities.  That is the fruit of our creed and the passing of our test, if we tend to it.

By our self definition in 1776, we Americans have our future in our own hands.  This we should always celebrate.  Happy Fourth of July.

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