The enduring roots of the Declaration’s proclamation of equality

While one might say that the Declaration and the Constitution are not explicitly Christian, they are nonetheless Christian products.

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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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About Robert R. Reilly 13 Articles
Robert R. Reilly was Senior Advisor for Information Strategy (2002-2006) for the US Secretary of Defense, after which he taught at National Defense University. He was the director of the Voice of America (2001-2002) and served in the White House as a Special Assistant to the President (1983-1985). A graduate of Georgetown University and the Claremont Graduate University, his books include The Closing of the Muslim Mind, Making Gay Okay, and Surprised by Beauty: A Listener's Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music. His most recent book, America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, is published by Ignatius Press.

12 Comments

  1. The American War was for Independence (1776) and not [!] for a socially radical and atheistic “revolution” and Reign of Terror as unfolded in France a few short years after 1789. In America and as late as the Congress of May 1775 the Colonists petitioned in “defense of rights bestowed by the British Constitution, and they were still willing to lay them down (arms), and avow their loyalty, when these rights should be respected” (Lossing, “Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence,” 1848).

    In contrast, in Europe centralized power was seized by Napoleon who in 1797-9 imposed increasing monarchic control. Of such revolutions, in 1835 the prominent French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville observed:

    “But a similar necessity has never been felt by the Americans, who, having passed through no revolution [!], and having governed them-selves from the first, never had to call upon the state to act for a time as their guardian. Thus the progress of the centralization among a democratic people depends not only on the progress of EQUALITY, but on the MANNER in which this equality has been established.” (De Tocqueville, “Democracy in America,” Vol. 2, Ch. IV).

    The amnesiac cancel-culture, manipulated identity politics, urban mob violence beginning long before January 6, and the much-distorted 1619 Project would pretend to establish (and redefine!) “equality” on nothing less than the perfection of centralized power an anti-natural law Administrative State…

    Off with their aborted heads, and off with “marriage,” and off with “family,” and even off with binary human sexuality, and therefore off with the founding “Fathers.”

    It’s the cutting edge of the guillotine and Napoleon, both together, all over again.

  2. It is not a Christian doctrine that we are all children of the same Father. Sons of God are made, not born. Our fellow Christians are our brothers; our fellow-men are not. Basic Christianity 101, under the heading: “Filiation”.

  3. Perhaps the strongest affirmation of the Declaration that all men are created equal is, as implied by Reilly the course of historical interpretation affirmed in the Gettysburg Address. Today Critical Race Theory, by its Marxist iconoclastic nature is no more than slanted historical revision aimed at destroying reasoned order based on natural law.

  4. Added to my comment is the more significant Emancipation Proclamation Jan 1963 almost a year prior to the Battle of Gettysburg and the address Nov 1963.

  5. It’s a quiet afternoon so I’ll write. Was it Manifest Destiny or a stroke of the pen of crazy King George. Beaulieu speaks of it as the requested “defense of rights bestowed by the British Constitution”. That Constitutional schmemata of rights is elaborated by perhaps the finest juridical scholar in recent history Sir William Blackstone. Blackstone “On the Absolute Rights of Individuals. The objects of the laws of England are so very numerous and extensive, that, in order to consider them with any tolerable ease and perspicuity. Now, as municipal law is a rule of civil conduct, commanding what is right, and prohibiting what is wrong; or as Cicero,(a) and after him our Bracton,(b) have expressed it, sanctio justa, jubens honesta et prohibens contraria, it follows that the primary and principal object of the law are rights and wrongs. The rights of persons considered in their natural capacities are also of two sorts, absolute and relative. Absolute, which are such as appertain and belong to particular men, merely as individuals or single persons: relative, which are incident to them as members of society, and standing in various relations to each other. The first, that is, absolute rights, will be the subject of the present chapter. By the absolute rights of individuals, we mean those which are so in their primary and strictest sense; such as would belong to their persons merely in a state of nature, and which every man is entitled to enjoy, whether out of society or in it (Sir William Blackstone 1753). Blackstone is referring to “the laws of England” known as the Common Law of England, a composium of natural law, Church law, reason, legal precedent and so on. Britain was concerned with growing theocracy in New England and the usurpation of individual rights. Not so crazy King George issued the Royal Charter and its mandated Reception Statute making the Common law of England the rule of jurisprudence for the Colonies. Noteworthy for historians of American Independence and juridical understanding of human rights, the Colonies retained the Common Law; most states later adopted it in their constitutions as the rule of jurisprudence.

    • Also this: Writing for the International Catholic Truth Society, Sylvester J. McNamara proposes that the philosophy of Declaration of Independence derives in considerable part from the writings of the Jesuit Robert Cardinal Bellarmine (1542-1621), as much or more than from the British John Locke, etc. (“American Democracy and Catholic Doctrine” [Brooklyn: International Catholic Truth Society, n.d., c. 1920], 106-122, esp. 155).

      McNamara finds that the greatest similarity between Jefferson and the original Bellarmine in the content and wording of Jefferson’s five principles in the preamble. These principles are sovereignty, equality, divine and Natural Law, the right to select magistrates, and the right to change the form of government.

      McNamara draws from Filmer’s “Patriarcha” (a compendium of Bellarmine’s philosophy) to compare in parallel columns the wording in detail. Jefferson owned a copy of the “Patriarcha” which remains in the Library of Congress.

      The same case is made by Matthew Bunson, National Catholic Register (July 4, 2018): https://www.ncregister.com/commentaries/bellarmine-jefferson-and-the-declaration-of-independence

      • Catholic tradition is also fundamental to English Common Law. A few words on its foundation in natural law and legacy. “Pre-eminent English lawyer and law-writer, Sir William Blackstone, states in his ‘Commentaries upon the Laws of England’ that the common law consists of rules properly called leges non scriptœ, because their original institution and authority were not set down in writing as Acts of Parliament are, but they receive their binding power and the force of laws by long immemorial usage, and by their universal reception throughout the kingdom; and, quoting from a famous Roman author, Aulus Gellius, he follows him in defining the common law as did Gellius the Jus non scriptum as that which is ‘tacito illiterato hominum consensu et moribus expressum’ [expressed in the usage of the people, and accepted by the tacit unwritten consent of men]. The English common law with the exceptions which have been noted prevails throughout the English-speaking world. Mexico, Central America, and South America. The common law of England has been the subject of unstinted eulogy and it is, undoubtedly, one of the most splendid embodiments of human genius. It is a source of profound satisfaction to Catholics that it came into being as a definite system and was nurtured, and to a great extent administered, during the first ten centuries of its existence by the clergy of the Catholic Church (Catholic Encyclopedia).

  6. I thank God for historian Robert Reilly, a man who loves the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

    May God give us the grace and zeal and faithfulness we need now to win this new civil war, to save our country from the malicious ideology that intends to kill our “nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

  7. It is good to focus on the seminal error of the Confederacy, as expressed in its Cornerstone speech – that it denied the truth of the Declaration’s “created equal”.

    However, there is an error well prior to the Declaration, springing from within the Church itself – and that is the statement in “Dum Diversas”, granting the Kings of Spain and Portugal the right to (with respect to Africa) “… invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, … and to reduce their persons into perpetual servitude”

    This error could be said to have been the seed of the transatlantic slave trade, which created a new “brand” of slavery based on color, making slave escapees exquisitely easy to identify and capture.

    Why is there not more attention paid to this papal document? My guess is there are many Catholics hoping it will continue to escape notice, but like the Picture of Dorian Gray, it must be confronted.

    As for the errors of the slave clauses in the Constitution itself, they cannot be so blithely swept away with the notion that slavery would be eventually attritted with an import ban. There was explicit recognition in the Constitutional debates of 1787 (which were embargoed from the public by Madison for 50 years) that there were two ways to “import” Negroes, and Virginia was doing a better job breeding the slaves than by shipping them in. IN FACT, that was what happened after the 1807 ban was enacted, with slave populations mushrooming to four million by the time of the Civil War. Note the sexual relationships implied had little support within the ambit of matrimony, and were typically seen as eugenic breeding. To be honest, this eugenicist concept of slavery was what initially clinched by the 1662 Virginia slave code which said that the child of a slave woman would itself be a slave, thus locating the most seminal (literally!) error of New World slavery.

    Lincoln and the GOP managed to sweep away these errors with the (seminal) help of “created equal”. I believe the 1619ers are trying to coverup the importance of “created equal” because of its equal potency to abolish abortion. The current GOP platform is thankfully ready to make abolition happen (note that DJT had tried to impose rape exceptions on this platform but had not been allowed!) We must *MARCH FORWARD* to single mindedly ABOLISH ABORTION before any further smears to the GOP or its “created equal” promise are sustained. No more incrementalism…look where that got us against slavery!

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