We have just celebrated this nation’s Founding, but debate abounds on the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. How significant is this document?
I ask my students this question at the beginning of every class I teach on American Government. Much debate exists on all sides about this all important event. I have many friends who disagree with my position on the Declaration, so this post is to be taken as my contribution to what is a rather spirited debate. Over at Lew Rockwell, Kevin Gutzman posts several objections to those who believe that the Declaration had a serious meaning to the Union. Among those objections is that,
Since the 18th century, political radicals have argued for understanding the Declaration as a general warrant for government to do anything it likes to forward the idea that “all men are created equal.” Yet, that was not what the Declaration of Independence meant. The Declaration of Independence was the work of a congress of representatives of state governments. Congressmen were not elected by voters at large, but by state legislatures, and their role (as John Adams, one of them, put it) was more akin to that of ambassadors than to legislators. They had not been empowered to dedicate society to any particular political philosophy, but to declare — as the Virginia legislature had told its congressmen to declare — that the colonies were, “and of right ought to be, free and independent states.” In other words, the Declaration was about states’ rights, not individual rights, and the Congress that adopted it had no power to make it anything else. All the rest of the Declaration was mere rhetorical predicate.
Where to begin? First, the Founders never proclaimed that the government could do “anything it likes” to forward the Declaration’s self-evident truth that, “all men are created equal.” Second, he asserts that the document was one that emphasized the rights of the states as autonomous entities. It wasn’t. Indeed, in the quote above, the method by which the document was approved, refutes his argument that it was just a list of meaningless words set out to the King to express mere rhetoric. If it was mere rhetoric, then way go through the process of committee, debate, and adoption? As Thomas Jefferson so aptly wrote near the end of his life, the Declaration was an expression of the American mind. This means it was a commonly held reasonable opinion, which these unelected congressmen adopted as a statement of principle–it was an expression of the American mind’s belief on the foundation of government; it was where the Founders staked their flag upon which no man ought to cross. The Declaration was an affirmation of an idea–in Greek it can be considered as THE ιδεα! Jefferson understood this when he asserted that the Declaration was an expression of the American mind. Last time I checked, the congressmen who adopted Declaration were living in the former colonies, and they were a part of that American mind.
Perhaps the most audacious claim, is the belief that the Declaration was written for white men. And Jefferson’s belief that whites and blacks could not live together justifies this conclusion. However, this argument is a non-sequiter. The disbelief in the ability of the former slaves living with former masters is a separate policy question from the belief in Euclid’s axiom that things equal to another are equal to themselves. Indeed, Jefferson never stated anywhere in any document that he was sure they were unequal in their rights. The slaves may have been unequal in talent, but it was held as a suspicion only, and any inequality was the result of their bondage not the result of any “natural” affliction.
Jefferson was also clear when he wrote in the Notes on the State of Virginia that God would side with the slaves not the masters should he judge the peculiar institution. In other words, the Union held onto an institution that defied the truth applicable for all people at all times. Jefferson was no less aware of this fact when he wrote that we had a wolf by the ears.
I realize that many will associate my interpretation with what the snarky NewRepublicconsidered as being a part of the “Top 10 Gangs of the Millennium,” but the fact is the Lew Rockwell interpretation is closer to Richard Taney’s defense of slavery in Dred Scott than any originalist understanding of the Founding. Indeed, it is one of the most curious developments of American political thought, that the first defenders of slavery as a positive good were also southerners who believed in free markets–like Thomas Roderick Dew.