We celebrate July 4th each year as the anniversary of America’s declaration of independence from Great Britain. 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, woefully unversed in our country’s history, the Declaration of Independence is 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 a new nation, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Almost as important as a symbol of American belief is Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It is not incorrect to see a 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 the dominant “movement conservatism” today - neoconservatism - and the neo-Marxist multicultural Left, is basically false.
Lincoln’s opens his address, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth …” 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 military and political alliance. It was the Constitution, drafted eleven years later (1787), after the successful conclusion of the War for Independence, that established a new nation. And, as any number of historians and scholars have pointed out, the American Framers never intended to cobble together a country based on the proposition that “all men are created equal.”
A brief survey of the writings of such distinguished historians and researchers as Barry Alan Shain, Forrest McDonald, M. E. Bradford, George W. Carey, and others, plus a detailed reading of the commentaries and writings of those men who established the nation, give the lie to the 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 confederated, stratified republic, in which most of the “rights” were reserved to the authority of the respective states (with their own particular arrangements), and in which serious restrictions and limitations on voting and participation in government were considered fundamental. Indeed, several states also had religious tests, and others had established churches, none of which were directly touched by the First Amendment, added to insure that a national religious 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.
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. Contextually, the authors at Philadelphia were 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 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).
One hundred years later the great Southern philosopher and theologian Robert Lewis Dabney—much better read and better informed than many of his post-War contemporaries—understood this exactly:
The very axioms of American politics now are, that ‘all men are by nature equal,’ that all are inalienably ‘entitled to liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ and that ‘the only just foundation of government is in the consent of the governed.’… Our recent doctors of political science have retained these formularies of words as convenient masks under which to circulate a set of totally different, and indeed antagonistic notions; and they have succeeded perfectly. The new meanings of which the ‘Whigs’ of 1776 never dreamed are now the current ones.
The modern version is that there are no superiors or inferiors in society; that there is a mechanical equality; that all have specifically all the same rights; and that any other constitution is against natural justice. Next: when our wise fathers said that liberty is an inalienable, natural right, they meant by each one’s liberty the privilege to do such things as he, with his particular relations, ought to have a moral title to do; the particular things having righteous, natural limitations in every case, and much narrower limits in some cases than in others.
Radical America now means by natural liberty each one’s privilege to do what he chooses to do. By the consent of the governed our forefathers meant each Sovereign Commonwealth’s consenting to the constitution under which it should be governed: they meant that it was unjust for Britain to govern America without America’s consent. Which part of the human beings living in a given American State should constitute the State potentially, the populus whose franchise it was to express the will of the commonwealth for all—that was in their eyes wholly another question, to be wisely decided in different States according to the structure which Providence had given them. [Italics mine]
Dabney’s interpretation is the meaning the Founders intended, as their writings and speeches clearly indicate. Lincoln’s “new nation” would have certainly struck them as radical and revolutionary, a veritable “heresy.” Even more disturbing for them would be the specter of modern-day neoconservatives — that is, those who dominant the conservative movement and claim to rigorously defend the Constitutional republic against the abuses of the Marxist multiculturalist left — enshrining Lincoln’s address as a basic symbol 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 Christian and millennialist 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 243 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.
Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations.