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Is the Declaration of Independence Sufficiently Appreciated?

By E. Jeffrey Ludwig

Today’s turmoil in the streets does not reflect either the spirit or the logic on which our country was founded.  The offense at the death of George Floyd has morphed into a turbulent objection to America as the mother of all hatred and indignity for humanity.  The police as upholders of law and order are being perceived by large numbers of people as outdated and deceptive. Demonstrators, rioters, looters, and others being manipulated by a leftist coterie of BLM, Antifa, Socialists, Progressive Workers, communists, and various other epicenters of cultural unhappiness insist that law and order is merely a cover rubric.  Law and order, they say, actually stands for racism, hatred of non-binary sexual identities, women (especially as they seek liberation from male oppression, including unwanted pregnancies), and keeping the poor in permanent poverty and dispossession. The fact that “being poor” in the USA is being better off than most of the world’s population is typically considered irrelevant.

The above views can be contrasted with the views of those who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  The Declaration of Independence was the document that declared independence from Great Britain.  This separation was justified on philosophical, theological, and practical grounds. The document lists 27 oppressions by the King of Great Britain which justified our independence, and that list of oppressions is preceded by an introductory preamble which summarizes the moral and political justification that is the foundation of that independence requirement.

The first imperative criterion for independence is stated to be “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them….”  First and foremost, the validity of the Founders’ claims are based in Nature and God.  Before even getting to grievances, before getting to victimhood, before whining and bitching about bad treatment, the rights of the colonists were perceived to derive from Nature and God, not from a class struggle, not from unfair racialism, not from wealth disparities, not from being have nots being put down by haves, but from foundational laws. This was the period of the Enlightenment.  Science had opened new vistas.  Sir Isaac Newton had discovered the laws of the physical universe and of calculus which was needed to describe those laws (some attribute calculus’ discovery to Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz).

Thus, the desire to be independent flowed out of the deepest layers of rationality known to man, not mere moral indignation, not a mere power grab, not a mere hissy fit, not a petulant outpouring of sophomoric mental incontinence, not hysteria, not foot stomping despair, and not greed and desire to have what the “home country” had. No. The list of oppressions and the claim of independence were based upon a rational, ordered, coherent understanding of life as lived and the universe in which life proceeded on a daily basis.  It was not based on needs per se, but a vision of an ordered universe that must meet a daily test of rationality.

Further, as though the order of nature were not enough to satisfy their need for stability and righteousness, they also affirmed Nature’s God as ratifying their cause.  Thus, transcendent values were introduced.  We can understand this transcendent note better if we remember that Thomas Jefferson, primary author of the Declaration, was influenced greatly by the English philosopher John Locke who was a great promoter of the idea of natural rights.  For Locke, natural rights were not merely an intellectual construct, but derived from biblical teachings.  In his often overlooked book The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke writes, “But by the law of faith, faith [contrasted with the Old Testament law of works] is allowed to supply the defect of full obedience; and so the believers are admitted to life and immortality as if they were righteous.” In other words, without God’s mercy upon us and the limitations inherent to the human condition, this project of independence would not be plausible.

Following these assertions about the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God, we find the words that are so controversial:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.—To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Thomas Jefferson and the Founders are often criticized by the present rioters. The statement “all men are created equal” is considered the ultimate lie and hypocrisy of Jefferson and the Founders.  Since socialist Charles Beard’s  An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) followed by a volume written with his wife, Mary Beard, The Rise of American Civilization (1927), the mantra of the left has been that the U.S. was founded on self-interest and the profit motive and not on rationality and transcendent ideals.

However, “all men are created equal” was not a mere self-serving phrase.  After independence from Great Britain was won, the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 were passed to govern land gained from the British.  Slavery in those new territories was not allowed.  Jefferson and Washington, although they held slaves, were among those first leaders who believed that slavery was a pernicious institution that would and should be phased out.  Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration denounced slavery, but he had to re-write that draft because of the need to have unity with Southern interests in order to fight British hegemony.  Eventually, all men are created equal became a rallying principle for abolitionists, and at the cost of over 300,000 white soldiers, plus Abraham Lincoln’s own life, slavery was abolished from the USA, forever.

Rationality and transcendent commitments to the Creator remain overriding values as we move towards an unknown future. On July 4, we recognize and embrace the Founding Fathers because they had a vision of a free country based on law and order, not on Jacobin cries for blood and uncontrolled animosity.  Although some vandalism and looting is planned by nefarious groups, it also can flow from the immature emotionalism of so-called “peaceful demonstrations.”  Further, the tacit approval of Democrat and Republican politicians who do not call for more peacefulness is a betrayal of the values we honor on July 4.

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