The American Founding is increasingly reviled by those with next to no knowledge of its true character. Herewith is a Fourth of July reflection, largely drawn from my book, America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, on its real stature and worth.
American liberty and constitutional order are not the product of any conception of the universe, but of only one – that of the Judeo-Christian and natural law tradition. The Founders not only declared the inherited principles of human equality, popular sovereignty, the requirement of consent, and the moral right to revolution – all of which were articulated in the Middle Ages – but, for the first time in history, instantiated them, put them into practice, producing a constitutional republic that was the product of deliberation and free choice. The eighteenth-century American historian David Ramsay wrote:
In no age before, and in no other country, did man ever possess an election of the kind of government under which he would choose to live. The constituent parts of the ancient free governments were thrown together by accident. The freedom of modern European governments was, for the most part, obtained by the concessions or liberality of monarchs or military leaders. In America alone, reason and liberty concurred in the formation of constitutions.
The Founders accomplished this in the form of an extended federal republic the likes of which the world had never seen. This is why the Great Seal of the United States proclaims, borrowing from Virgil, “Novus Ordo Seclorum”—a new order of the ages, meaning the beginning of the new American era. That is certainly how the Founders saw its significance. They did not mean a “new world order”, much less a utopia or a perfect polity, but a new hope for mankind in how it could order political life in conformity with human nature, if it chose to do so. America would only choose for itself, not for anyone else.
On July 4, 1776, the colonists formally broke with Great Britain and the new United States first addressed itself to the world concerning its “purpose”. We could do no better than consider the terms of the original introduction, and in see whether they comport with the moral truths about man, or if, as some critics charge, they are based on profound anthropological and metaphysical errors.
The first thing to consider is why the representatives of the 13 colonies thought their grievances deserved the attention of the world, which they addressed out of “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind”. Politics is rooted in the particular, as we know from the long list of specific grievances against Great Britain itemized in the Declaration, among which was “imposing Taxes on us without our Consent”. Why not simply secure independence and have done with it? The answer is that the standard of justice to which the Founders appealed was, according to them, universal – true for everyone, everywhere, at all times. If it were not true for everyone, then it was not true for them either, and they had no moral basis for their revolution.
Therefore, the Declaration is not specifically addressed to Christians, but to all men concerning their inalienable rights, which they hold, not by virtue of their Christianity, but on account of their common humanity. Professor Harry V. Jaffa made the point that the Founders’ “assumptions about Equality – which include assumptions about the subhuman and superhuman – are independent of the validity of any particular religious beliefs.” Indeed they are in so far as they can be philosophically ascertained. But by reason alone are we able to arrive at all the necessary presuppositions for democratic, constitutional order? One can point to Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, as among those who approached the necessary truths through unassisted reason, but were unable to grasp them in their fullness. It took the assistance of a certain revelation to do that.
Religious beliefs are not indifferent to the “assumptions about Equality”, nor are these assumptions indifferent to religious beliefs. Man has worshiped many gods and has lived in many different political orders, most of them tyrannical. Not just any god will do as the ultimate source of constitutional order: neither Moloch, nor Baal, nor Thor, nor Quetzalcoatl, nor Kali. It is only within a form of worship that can accommodate or, even better, mandate a concept of ordered liberty in which the individual is inviolable that this can happen and historically has happened.
The primacy of the person defines the very order of the Constitution and ultimately needs theological support for its sustenance. This it finds in the imago Dei. Iranian philosopher Abdulkarim Soroush stated something that has universal applicability:
You need some philosophical underpinning, even theological underpinning in order to have a real democratic system. Your God cannot be a despotic God anymore. A despotic God would not be compatible with a democratic rule, with the idea of rights. So you even have to change your idea of God.
The “Nature’s God” of which the Declaration speaks is the Judeo-Christian God for the simple reason that there is no other revelation (or cult, if you will) at the base of a culture that supports the Declaration’s principles to the extent that they could have originated within it. This is not to say that another culture could not support these principles after their origination. But it seems that only upon reconsideration of the basic insights of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero in light of Judeo-Christian revelation was the base secured for the development of democratic constitutional order. The founding principle “that all men are created equal” arose, and could only have arisen, in a culture thoroughly saturated with the teaching of the imago Dei.
John Adams went so far as to say: “The doctrine of human equality is founded entirely in the Christian doctrine that we are all children of the same Father, all accountable to Him for our conduct to one another, all equally bound to respect each other’s love.” So while one might say that the Declaration and the Constitution are not explicitly Christian, they are nonetheless Christian products. By this I mean, as Adams most likely did, that the thinking about political first principles that produced them took place in a world profoundly formed and affected by that revelation. However, the proof for this thesis is somewhat indirect because there are no Christian principles per se embedded in the Constitution; rather, the Constitution is embedded in Christianity. I think this is what Jacques Maritain meant when he said,
This Constitution can be described as an outstanding lay Christian document. . . . The spirit and inspiration of this great political Christian document is basically repugnant to the idea of making human society stand aloof from God and from any religious faith.
The Declaration contains an idea of God exactly compatible with democratic constitutional rule, but had to state its self-evident truths – most especially the truth of the equality of all men – as closely as possible in nonsectarian terms in order for them to be “independent of the validity of any particular religious beliefs”. This is not legerdemain or deceit. It was simply taking back to the philosophical level insights or truths that had been attained or reinforced at the theological level, so that their universality would be more readily recognized and acknowledged.
As Michael Novak said, “The Declaration brought the God reached by reason alone, ‘Nature’s God,’ to the family of notions associated solely with the God of revelation, Creator, Judge, and Providence.” The colonists, who were overwhelmingly Christian, could make their philosophical appeals knowing full well that they were vindicated by and sustained in Revelation. A small example suffices to illustrate this point. On the occasion of the inauguration of the Massachusetts government under its new constitution (1780), the Rev. Samuel Cooper preached:
We want not indeed, a special revelation from heaven to teach us that men are born equal and free; that no man has a natural claim of dominion over his neighbors. . . . These are the plain dictates of that reason and common sense with which the common parent of man has informed the human bosom. It is, however, a satisfaction to observe such everlasting maxims of equity confirmed, and impressed upon the consciences of men, by the instructions, precepts, and examples given us in the sacred oracles; one internal mark of their divine original, and that they come from him ‘who hath made of one blood all nations to dwell upon the face of the earth [Acts 17:26].
Benedict XVI eloquently expressed this same point: “Strictly speaking, these human rights are not truths of faith, even though they are discoverable – and indeed come to full light – in the message of Christ who ‘reveals man to man himself’ (Gaudium et Spes, 22).” Benedict further said, “The transcendent dignity of the person is an essential value of Judeo-Christian wisdom, yet thanks to the use of reason, it can be recognized by all.” This is the recognition contained in the Declaration.
The Declaration’s proclamation of equality takes it beyond what any previous political document had proposed, as did its call to found a regime on this principle. All people must be treated as beings of intrinsic worth, and not as the means of some despotic design. This is because the Creator endows man with inalienable rights, among which are: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Man does not get to invent these rights; they are given to him. They have meaning only in reference to their Author. As Harry Jaffa pointed out:
When the Signers of the Declaration appealed to the ‘supreme judge of the world’ for the ‘rectitude of [their] intentions’ they acknowledged the divine government of the world as the framework within which their rights might be exercised.
The source of man’s dignity is secure only in the transcendent, which is what makes it irrevocable. All of the principles in the Declaration and its references to God as Creator, Supreme Judge, and divine Providence presume the truth of man made in the imago Dei. Constitutional, democratic government is unthinkable without the presupposition of God as the source of rights, but also because, without Him, there is no basis for the restraint that is the essence of such government. Thomas Jefferson wondered whether “the liberties of a nation [can] be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?”
That “all men are created equal” means that it is unjust to treat a man as an animal, or to behave toward him as if one were God, i.e. tyrannically. Treating a man as if he were a dog is manifestly unjust to anyone who knows the distinction between the two, as it is equally unjust to behave toward a man as if one were God. By virtue of this principle, the Declaration accused George III of committing acts “totally unworthy of the Head of a civilized nation” (my emphasis), meaning exactly that the King had withdrawn his recognition of American colonists as fellow human beings – the very definition of barbarism. Great Britain had behaved in a way that violated their integrity as human beings – in other words, unjustly. It did this precisely by denying the citizens of the colonies their right as rational creatures to consent in their own rule.
I close with a personal reminiscence. My grandparents came from Ireland, a land not nearly as distant in space or custom as the countries from which so many have come. The fact that my own family’s roots do not go back very far does not make me feel less American; it makes me feel more American. I think of my nearest neighbors, who are Vietnamese boat people. Across the street is a Russian physicist. All Americans now. During a summer day at a swimming pool near my neighborhood, I saw several faces whose profiles could have come from ancient Inca figurines. These Latin American kids were playing with a brother and a sister of Asian origin. A young boy with the royal visage of a Benin bronze scampered up a chain link fence to help a child recover its toy. Nearby was a family originally from Portugal. My wife is from Spain.
No one was the slightest bit self-conscious about this extraordinary mélange. I saw in concrete action what I have always deeply believed – “that all men are created equal”. What other than that proposition could account for what I witnessed? What else could make it possible? We are all beneficiaries, not victims, of the American Founding. To fight racism today, the last thing anyone should try to do is tear down the nation premised on that principle. It is to the Founding principles themselves that we can turn to recover from the great evils afflicting us. That should be a measure of the gratitude we owe to our Founding Fathers for their magnificent achievement.
However, both sides of the political spectrum seem to think the Founding’s purported principle of equality was a smokescreen enabling some men to dominate others, as in “the satisfaction of my appetites requires the limitation of yours”, or as put by Abraham Lincoln, “you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it.” The most often repeated charge, especially from the Left, is that the United States was rooted in racism from the beginning due to the existence of slavery. “We acknowledge that systemic racism and white supremacy are ugly poisons that have long plagued the United States”, declared President Joe Biden.
To address these charges, I have written a new chapter on the slavery issue for an upcoming expanded edition America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding. Ignatius Press has already made “Is Slavery the Founding’s Fault?” available on its website as a PDF file.
• Related at CWR: “‘America on Trial’: A Catholic World Report Symposium” (July 3, 2020): Thirteen authors engage, debate, and dialogue with Robert R. Reilly’s book on the founding of the United States.
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