Larry P. Arnn is the president of Hillsdale College. He has been published widely on issues of public policy, history, and political theory, and is the author of Liberty and Learning and The Founders' Key. He lives in Hillsdale, MI.
The Founders' Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk by Losing Itby Larry P. Arnn
Dr. Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College, reveals the integral unity of the Declaration and the Constitution, and warns us of the threat they are under from the modern Progressive movement.See more details below
Dr. Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College, reveals the integral unity of the Declaration and the Constitution, and warns us of the threat they are under from the modern Progressive movement.
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The Founders' KeyThe Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk by Losing It
By Larry P. Arnn
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Larry P. Arnn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEternal, Yet New
The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more. —John Adams writing to his wife on July 3, 1776, the day after the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress
IT IS NOT SO COMMON FOR NATIONS TO HAVE BIRTHDAYS. What is the birthday of England, for example? When did there begin to be a France or a China or an India? Old and wonderful places, their beginnings are lost in the mists of time. What they are today is connected to their past in ways we can hardly guess.
In the United States we have a birthday, the Fourth of July. This birthday is unusual simply for the fact of its existence, but also for another reason. On the one hand, it is a specific day, marked in memory of specific things done by specific people in a specific place. On the other hand, it is a day for the ages and for everywhere. What these people did, they did in the name of something universal and transcendent. In the combination of these two qualities, our birthday is unprecedented.
The story of our great nation has unfolded under the influence of this combination. Our great controversies and struggles have hinged on our allegiance to it. Our survival has sometimes hung by a thread of attachment to it. It does so right now. Our form of government, I will argue, was established in our Constitution to institute and to guard this combination.
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are commanding things for Americans because of this combination of features. On the one hand, they are ours, made by our own fathers. They provided the pattern according to which we have settled a continent and become a great nation, significant to all peoples. Our children, like our fathers and mothers, learn (even if not well) of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as they grow up. The way we talk, the way we stand, the way we dance or sing—all are influenced by the laws of our land and the principles behind them, and our laws and principles spring from these two documents.
On the other hand, the document adopted on our birthday speaks with a voice far beyond our fathers and their particular situation, even though that situation was urgent to the point of life and death. Its language is so elevated that its meaning cannot be confined to the situation of its own time and place, to the situation of our own time and place, or to the situation of any time and place. This at least is what it says. If it is wrong about this, then it is wrong about the most important thing.
This universal feature of our birthday reinforces the strength of its calling. If your father gives you an instruction from your upbringing, and then he repeats that instruction in his will, this is powerful. If he himself has risked all that he has to sustain this instruction, and if he has lived his entire life in support of it, this is more powerful. If in addition this instruction claims that it is the right instruction, not just for his life and for yours, but for all lives and for all time, that is most powerful. And yet you cannot base your allegiance to the principle solely on the testimony of your ancestors. You must base your allegiance on the merits of the claim. You must adopt it because it seems sensible, and if it does not, you must discard it—and with it your birthright.
This is the nature of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution written pursuant to it. They are our birthright. We Americans owe them a debt. They make a series of demanding claims. Although they leave plenty of room for adaptation to transient things, their core meaning is said to be absolute and fixed. To believe them is to take on the obligation to obey them, and then one must live in a certain way.
One can see how we might come to resent this burden. It is heavy. Its obligations come from more than one source, and therefore they command in more than one way. They command by blood, and they command by principle. They command with the authority of family, and they speak with the awesome force of nature and the God who presides over it. Who would blame us to ask why we should be trapped in this way? Our fathers were revolutionaries. Should we not be the same?
Moreover, we have made so very much progress from the time of the Revolution, from the time of the horse and buggy and the powdered wig. We face new challenges, but also we have all the new tools of modern science. Could we not come up with better principles than our fathers, just as we can now build taller and more momentous structures?
* * *
In relation to our beginning, our history has moved in two modes. Sometimes we have endeavored to embrace—and sometimes we have endeavored to escape—the laws of nature and of nature's God. They have been the source of our liberation, and they have seemed the source of our confining. Sometimes we would enjoy their blessings, but other times we would shrug them off as a curse.
Many of us today reject the universal and timeless claims of the Declaration, and therefore also we reject the forms of government established in the Constitution. We follow the notion, born among academics, that no such claim can be true and no such forms can abide. This belief is very strong among Americans now, and it has made vast achievements in changing our government. Because of this, we are near a moment of choice. This book aims to make clear the terms of that choice. The reader will not be surprised to learn that the author favors the keeping of the birthright, for its beauty and consistency, and for the failings of the alternative. Admitting this sharpens the obligation both of reader and of author to think as clearly, as truthfully, and as fairly as can be. We must do our best.
This book will explore the connection between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. It will state the case for them made by those who wrote and adopted them. It will compare this case to the one made by their contemporary enemies. These are the points that we must consider before we make the choice that is fast upon us.
Chapter TwoDivide and Conquer
ON OCTOBER 22, 2009, A REPORTER ASKED SPEAKER OF THE House Nancy Pelosi, "Where specifically does the Constitution grant Congress the authority to enact an individual health insurance mandate?" She replied, "Are you serious? Are you serious?"
Just a few months later, on March 21, 2010, the House of Representatives passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which establishes that individual mandate in law. An hour before the vote, Speaker Pelosi spoke "with great pride and great humility." She said that by passing the act, the House would "honor the vows of our Founders, who, in the Declaration of Independence, said that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
It seems that Speaker Pelosi likes one of the two great pillars of our Founding, but not the other. The Declaration is a thing to be honored with pride and humility, but only by means that have no reference to the Constitution. The two great documents are disconnected in her mind. They are the two sides of a house divided, straining to pull it apart.
Nor is her reverence for the Declaration quite what it seems. No one who wrote that document defined the term right to mean free health care or to justify a law requiring all with money to purchase medical insurance so that those with none may have it for free. Just as the Speaker abandons the Constitution, so she alters the meaning of the Declaration. Nor is she alone. She stands in a long line of statesmen and academics who regard both documents in a very different light from those who wrote them. We Americans have today very mixed views about the meaning and merit of our major Founding documents. We may like the one or the other, but few of us are devoted to them both in the sense in which they are written.
Consider the Declaration. Nearly anyone has to admit that there is something to be said for it. Universal in scope and divine in elevation, it is written in tones of majesty. It celebrates blessings that come directly from God and are known through the reason with which He created us. It proclaims the inclusion of every human being—past, present, and future—in its reach. No nation is left out. No era is excluded. People in the streets of Cairo or Havana, protesting the modern military despots who rule over them, may call upon it for justification. The Hungarians of 1956, crushed by Soviet tanks, uttered its phrases with their last gasps of freedom. The helots under the Spartan lash, the slave-rowers squandering their substance in the Roman galleys, are wrapped in its embracing principles.
On the other hand, there seems to be something implausible and restricting about the Declaration. Its chief author, Thomas Jefferson, might have sided in principle with the helot slaves, but in practice he was a slaveholder like their Spartan masters. And why should he not be a slaveholder, some think, as he was founding a regime that vaunts self-interest and worships in the church of taking care of oneself? That is the trouble with America, according to this view: its people thrive too much at the expense of their neighbors. Is their Founding even good? And who are these Founders, anyway, to lecture us about right and wrong? Who are they to say that there is one truth for every age and time, one set of principles to command us today? We live in an age so modern as to make their quill pens and their bowing absurd. These absolute phrases seemed liberating then but seem constraining today. We have done so much more than those men in their powdered wigs. Why should they tell us the rules under which we must live?
These sentiments go back as far as the time before the Civil War and continue to the present day. The proslavery statesman John Calhoun, offended by its proclamation of equality, called the Declaration "the most false and dangerous of all political errors." Modern thinkers believe it—for all its pretensions of eternal scope—not to transcend but to reflect the time in which it was written. Woodrow Wilson said that it was obsolete, written for an age that believed in the theories of Isaac Newton and regarded government as a mechanism. That age, Wilson believed, was now superseded by Darwin and the theory of evolution, which allows us to see that government is a living organism, one that must change over time. Colonel House, a close advisor to Wilson, wrote a novel in which the hero says, "Our Constitution and our laws served us well for the first hundred years of our existence, but under the condition of today they are not only obsolete, but even grotesque." For John Dewey, the Constitution's view of liberty was "relative to the forces that at a given time and place are increasingly felt to be oppressive." For Frank Goodnow, founder of the American Political Science Association, its claims were the "result of the then existing social conditions."
This means that the perspective of the Founders is worse, in an important respect, than the typical relic of the past. The Spartan masters could justify their tyranny over the helot slaves by the dictates of their own gods, by the authority of their own valor, or by the love of their own families and interests. Their example is therefore less likely to spread, and it makes fewer claims on other places and times. The Declaration of Independence has larger pretensions, and if it is wrong, it is therefore more wrong, and more likely to constrain and interfere with the evolving standards of right that must come later. The idea of the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" would then be not a universal but a parochial idea, distinguished only because it is aggressive. It spreads like a virus and resists treatment with the same stubbornness.
* * *
Consider the US Constitution. It, too, must be regarded with a measure of respect. It is the longest surviving written constitution in all of history. For more than two centuries, it has provided a stable and free government for a nation that has increased manyfold in territory and population. It has grown across a continent and welcomed new states and new citizens upon an equal footing with the original. Its dominion has extended across the plains and the mountains to a distant ocean never seen by its Framers. It has welcomed and naturalized immigrants on a scale unknown to any other nation.
It has survived a great Civil War, still our nation's costliest war, during which its larger purpose of freedom was vindicated against the three compromises in its original text with human slavery. It has succeeded when our nation was remote from the great powers. It has succeeded through the great world wars and across a long era in which our power has been felt in every corner of the globe.
It has succeeded in an agrarian society. It has succeeded through the Industrial Revolution, through the jet age, and into the information age. It has survived, impaired but intact, through more than a century of organized opposition to its procedures and limits. Still today it commands the hearts of most Americans, and still today it places inconveniences in the way of those who would overcome it. In the making of fundamental law, there has been nothing like it. To ascribe its achievements to accident would be a failure of sense and of inquisitiveness.
Yet there seems to be something very annoying about the Constitution. It reads too much like a law, and this is made worse by the fact that it is a law. It is full of things you have to do and other things you may not do. It relates these things without the poetry of the Declaration. The language of "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" stirs the heart and persists in the memory. The constitutional language requiring that the yeas and nays be recorded in the House of Representatives is not put so nobly, and that is because it is not so noble a thing. If it were only a detail, perhaps we could abide it better. Alas, the details in the Constitution are not only details, but also rules, rules that are especially awkward to change. They feel an awful lot like fetters.
Its being so bossy and its not being so inspiring, the Constitution has often been the object of controversy. The convention that drafted it was fractious for months. The debates through which it was ratified took years to reach agreement. Its fundamental arrangements were contested in the Civil War. All of this was before modern times, when the opposition has become serious.
Our modern elites in the academy, in journalism, and in politics regard the Constitution as a relic. They say every kind of negative against its meaning, its goodness, its relevance, its scope, its legality, its advisability, its comprehensibility, its connection or harmony with the rest of the Founding and especially with the Declaration of Independence. This practice has now persisted so long as to become tradition, nearly half as old as the Constitution itself.
In the end the modern opposition to the Declaration and the Constitution stems from the same source. The Founders understood the documents to be connected, to supply together the principles and the details of government, to be a persuasive and durable unity. The early leaders of the Progressive movement—Wilson, Dewey, Goodnow, and their friends—were opponents of them both. This proved a poor strategy politically. The words of the Declaration have a way of continuing to ring across the ages. The arrangements of the Constitution have a way of organizing our actions so as to produce certain results, and they have done this more reliably than any governing instrument in the history of man. Connect these arrangements to the beauty of the Declaration, and one has something inspiring and commanding. The Declaration acquires a practical form and operation that do not seem to come from it alone. The Constitution soars to the elevation of the natural law, and its arrangements are reinforced with that strength.
Excerpted from The Founders' Key by Larry P. Arnn Copyright © 2012 by Larry P. Arnn. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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