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What Does the Declaration of Independence Really Mean?

We celebrate July 4 each year as the anniversary of America’s declaration of independence from Great Britain. But for many Americans, the day has become little more than another holiday, a day off from work, and a time to barbecue with family and friends.

The Declaration of Independence and the day we set aside to commemorate it should make us reflect on the sacrifices of the men who signed it. Representatives from thirteen colonies came together to take a momentous step that they knew might land them on the scaffold or suspended by the hangman’s noose. They were protesting that their traditional rights as Englishmen had been violated, and that those violations had forced them into a supreme act of rebellion.

For many Americans the Declaration of Independence has become a fundamental text that tells the world who we are as a people. It is a distillation of American belief and purpose. Pundits and commentators, left and right, never cease reminding us that America is an exceptional nation, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Almost as important as a symbol of belief for many contemporary Americans is Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It is not incorrect to see a purported link between these two documents, as Lincoln intentionally placed his short peroration in the context of a particular reading of the Declaration.

Lincoln bases his concept of the creation of the American nation in philosophical principles he sees enunciated in 1776, and in particular on an emphasis on the idea of “equality.” The problem is that this interpretation, which forms the philosophical base of both dominant “movement conservatism” today—neoconservatism—and the neo- or post-Marxist multicultural Left, is essentially false.

Lincoln’s opens his address, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation.…” There is a critical problem with this assertion. It was not the Declaration that “created” the new nation; the Declaration was a statement of thirteen colonies, announcing their respective independence from the mother country, binding themselves together in a close military and political alliance, and stating their bill of grievances. It was the Constitution, drafted eleven years later (1787), after the successful conclusion of the War for Independence, that established a new nation: a confederation of states, each ceding certain enumerated powers to a federal executive, while retaining the largest share for themselves. And, as any number of historians and scholars have pointed out, the American Framers never intended to cobble together a nation based on the proposition that “all men are created equal.”

A brief survey of the writings of such distinguished recent historians and researchers as Barry Alan Shain, Forrest McDonald, M. E. Bradford, George W. Carey, and, earlier authorities such as William Rawle (1759-1836), whose A View of the Constitution of the United States (1825) was considered a standard text on constitutional interpretation prior to the War Between the States and was used for many years at West Point, plus a detailed reading of the commentaries and writings of those men who established the nation, give the lie to that claim (See for example, Elliott’s Debates, a compilation of the debates over the new Constitution).

The Framers of the Constitution were horrified by “egalitarianism” and “democracy,” and they made it clear that what they were establishing was a republic in which the respective states continued to possess inherent rights not ceded to a central national authority. Each state maintained its own particular arrangements, including serious restrictions and limitations on voting and participation in government, considered as fundamental. Indeed, several states also had religious tests, and others had established churches, none of which were directly touched by the First Amendment, which was added to ensure that a national ecclesiastical establishment would not be effected. A quick review of The Federalist Papers confirms this thinking; and a survey of the correspondence and the debates over the Constitution add support to this anti-egalitarianism. Professor Bradford’s excellent study, Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the American Constitution (1993) explores this fundamental understanding in detail.

Obviously, then, Lincoln could not found his “new nation” in the U. S. Constitution; it was too aristocratic and decentralized, with non-enumerated powers maintained by the states, including the implicit right to secede. Indeed, slavery was explicitly sanctioned, even if most of the Framers believed that as an institution it would die a natural death, if left on its own. Lincoln thus went back to the Declaration of Independence and invested in it a meaning that supported his statist and wartime intentions. But even then, he verbally abused the language of the Declaration, interpreting the words in a form that its Signers never intended.

Although those authors employed the phrase “all men are created equal,” and certainly that is why Lincoln made direct reference to it, a careful analysis of the Declaration does not confirm the sense that Lincoln invests in those few words. It is true that Enlightenment ideas regarding “natural rights” circulated in the Colonies. But, contextually, the authors at Philadelphia were mainly asserting their historic — and equal — rights as Englishmen before the Crown, which had, they believed, been violated and usurped by the British government, and it was to the king-in-parliament that the Declaration was primarily directed.

The Founders rejected egalitarianism. They understood that no one is, literally, “created equal” to anyone else. Certainly, each and every person is created with no less or no more dignity, measured by his or her own unique potential before God. But this is not what most contemporary writers mean today when they talk of “equality.”

Rather, from a traditionally-Christian viewpoint, each of us is born into this world with different levels of intelligence, in different areas of expertise; physically, some are stronger or heavier, others are slight and smaller; some learn foreign languages and write beautiful prose; others become fantastic athletes or scientists. Social customs and traditions, property holding, and individual initiative — each of these factors further discriminate as we continue in life.

None of this means that we are any less or more valued in the judgment of God, Who judges us based on our own, very unique capabilities. God measures us by ourselves, by our own maximum possibilities and potential, not by those of anyone else — that is, whether we use our own, individual talents to the very fullest (recall the Parable of the Talents in the Gospel of St. Matthew).

The Founders understood this, as their writings and speeches clearly indicate. Lincoln’s “new nation” would have certainly struck them as radical and revolutionary, a veritable “heresy” (see Bradford’s important essay, “The Heresy of Equality,” Modern Age, Fall 1976, pp. 62-77). Even more disturbing for them would be the specter of modern-day neoconservatives — that is, those who dominate the conservative movement and claim to rigorously defend what little remains of our constitutional republic against the abuses of the neo-Marxist multiculturalist left — enshrining Lincoln’s address as a basic symbol and foundation of American political and social order.

They would have understood the radicalism implicit in such a pronouncement; they would have seen Lincoln’s interpretation as a contradiction of the “First Founding” of 1787 and a revolutionary denial of its intentions; and they would have understood in Lincoln’s language the content of a quasi-religious and millenialist heresy, heralding a transformed nation where the Federal government would become the father and mother and absolute master of us all.

Thus, as we commemorate the declaring of American independence 246 years ago, we should lament the mythology about it created in 1863, and recall an older generation of 1787, a generation of noble men who comprehended fully well that a country based on egalitarianism is a nation where true liberties are imperiled and soon extinguished.

Reprinted with the author’s permission.