July 2, 2004
There are rare times and places, in the long story of man, when outbursts of genius supply civilization with the supreme examples of human greatness. It is the contemplation of these that raises us to levels not unworthy of the divine image in which we are created. Such moments of supreme achievement can be found in Periclean Athens, in the Florence of the Medicis, and in the London of Elizabeth—and Shakespeare.
However, never before—or since—has political genius burst in such profusion on the human scene, as in America during the latter part of the eighteenth century. The period of the American Founding, from the Revolution to the framing, ratification, and inauguration of the Constitution, saw political thought and action in the service of human freedom—a combination of wisdom, justice, and power—unsurpassed even by the glory of Greece or the grandeur of Rome.
Every human good we enjoy today is, directly or indirectly, a legacy from what the Founders wrought, and Lincoln preserved. That legacy was formed by what the American Founders called an experiment in free government, at the heart of which is a simple, yet radical idea: that under the laws of nature and of nature’s God, all men are created equal.
From this idea, and this idea alone, flow all the precepts of free government. If all men are created equal, it is unjust for one man to rule another without his consent. If men possess rights by nature, the purpose of government is to protect our natural liberty. As we know the purpose of government we know also of its limitations, and so we limit the power of government by writing a constitution, and requiring the government as well as citizens to live under the rule of law- laws which must be consented to by the citizens in order to be legitimate.
Commenting upon the goodness, as well as the challenge, of America, Abraham Lincoln believed the Founders “set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all—constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”
Today the principles of the American Founding have been thrust aside and debased. Historicism, relativism, positivism, and nihilism—modern doctrines which mock wisdom and scorn virtue—have at the dawn of the twenty-first century come to dominate American political thought, giving rise to a politics of “self expression” and “multiculturalism,” where immorality is celebrated and dependency is encouraged.
It will take a long and hard struggle to reclaim our noble inheritance from the forces of darkness, but, if we are to reclaim it, we must begin by reclaiming the moral principles of freedom. Those principles are set forth with unrivaled clarity and eloquence in the Declaration of Independence, ratified 225 years ago today. It is not, then, simply a matter of patriotic flag waving, but of liberty loving necessity, that we reflect on the moral meaning of the Declaration by recalling its opening words:
WHEN in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.
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—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shown, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security…