“The Declaration of Independence is to be taken with a great qualification. It declares those men have an inalienable right to life; yet we hang criminals – to liberty, yet we imprison – to the pursuit of happiness, yet we must not infringe upon the rights of others. If the Declaration of Independence is taken in its fullest extent, it will warrant robbery and murder, for some may think those crimes necessary to their happiness.” – Rep. Joseph Clay of Pennsylvania on the slave trade (1806)
“I should not have noticed this strange and ridiculous vision, that the Declaration of Independence was a decree of universal emancipation, had it not issued from respectable sources, and been seriously enforced upon the credulity of the public. Instead of attempting to answer or refute these visions of a disturbed imagination, let us recur to principles and facts.” – Rep. John Holmes on the Missouri Crisis (1820)
“I cannot, in the first place, believe that Mr. Jefferson ever intended to give the meaning or force which attempted now to be applied to this language when he said, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ I hold it to be a self-evident lie…I speak what is the judgment of all men, if they dare say it, that neither morally, mentally, socially, physically, nor politically, does equality exist in any country on the earth. It cannot exist in the nature of things. God himself has not created them equal. It is not, therefore, a truism, as Jefferson put it forth, but is false in form, and false in fact.” – Sen. John Pettit of Indiana on the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1853)
“The object of that war was to disenthrall the united colonies from foreign rule, which had proved to be oppressive, and to separate them permanently from the mother country. The political result was the foundation of a federal republic of free white men of the colonies, constituted, as they were, in distinct and reciprocally independent State governments. As for the subject races, whether Indian or African, the wise and brave statesmen of that day, being engaged in no extravagant scheme of social change, left them as they were, and thus preserved themselves and their posterity from the anarchy and the ever-recurring civil wars which have prevailed in other revolutionized European colonies of America.” – Pres. Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire in the State of the Union (1855)
John Dickinson, known as the “Penman of the Revolution” for his “Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer” essays, as well as his “Petition to the King,” “Olive Branch Petition,” and “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms,” ultimately refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. His objections had nothing to do with the ways in which the Declaration could be perverted by posterity, but were entirely pragmatic concerns about whether the American Colonies were prepared for war and whether their supposed allies in Europe would actually come to their aid. If he had any idea, however, that the Declaration – at the time, nothing more than an act of secession – would one day be cited to justify transforming his free and independent country into a “Colony of the World,” where immigration policy was conducted in the interest of alien immigrants first, economic policy was conducted in the interest of multi-national businesses first, and foreign policy was conducted in the interest of foreign states first – never “America First” – then Dickinson would not have been the only delegate who refused to sign it; not a single delegate would have signed such a suicide pact.
The so-called “equality clause” of the Declaration of Independence is neither about “equality” (at least not as in the equalitarian “capital-E” sense) and is not even a “clause.” Calling this phrase plucked from the second paragraph a “clause” is meant to invest it with constitutional authority – to make it a mandate, so to speak.
The Development of Neo-Conservatism in America
It is the neo-conservatives, or “neocons,” who want to make this “equality clause” a mandate. The neocons are a clique of ideologues who have become highly influential in both parties – the Evil Party and the Stupid Party (you figure out which is which). They are not normally politicians, but rather advisers and speechwriters influencing elected officials, or appointees to powerful but unseen positions. They are journalists spinning and slanting stories, pundits supplying prepackaged opinions and fueling ready-made outrage, financiers funding campaigns and foundations, wonks ensconced in think tanks inventing policy initiatives, and so on. They infiltrate institutions, subvert their values, and appropriate their identities.
“Neocon” is a term that most Americans first heard during the Bush Administration, when that clique was at the height of its power. Dimwitted “Dubya” was desperate to “do something” after 9/11, and the neocons were ready and waiting with a plan, the same plan that they had been pushing on presidents since the end of the Cold War: now that the Soviet Union was no longer a rival empire, the U.S.A. and Israel could unilaterally intervene in the Middle East. Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, and David Wurmser were a few of Bush’s highest-placed neocons, though many more were crawling in and out of the administration. Most of them were members of Project for the New American Century (a think tank which advocated “a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity” and obsessively urged “the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power”) and some of them were authors of “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm” (the report of an Israeli study group which recommended reestablishing the “principle of preemption” to “contain, destabilize, and roll back” Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine).
The neocons were the architects of “the War on Terror,” which should go down in history as the most notorious example of what the Old-Right thinker and writer Samuel T. Francis called “anarcho-tyranny” – a dystopia unforeseen even by Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury, in which the government does not do what it should do but does do what it should not do. In other words, anarcho-tyranny is when the government, whether through mere incompetence or sheer malice, permits widespread lawlessness (“anarchy”) and commits abuses of power (“tyranny”). While the beneficiaries of anarcho-tyranny are the dysfunctional, dependent underclass and the established, elite managerial class, the victims of anarcho-tyranny are law-abiding, tax-paying, “Middle-American” citizens trapped between the anarchy from below and tyranny from above.
9/11 was committed by radical Sunni fundamentalists, so what did the neocons do? They declare war on the secular powers in the Middle East who had been on the front lines fighting radical Sunni fundamentalists for years. 9/11 was committed by illegal immigrants who overstayed their visas, so what did the neocons do? Instead of establishing an entry/exit visa system to prevent such oversights, they have repeatedly undermined the enforcement of immigration laws and even tried to sneak through amnesty. 9/11 was committed by Muslims from foreign countries, so what did the neocons do? Instead of using statistical probabilities to “profile” potential terrorists, all American citizens were subjected to a regime of snooping and bullying. A real “War on Terror” would have meant forming a grand alliance between Iraq, Syria, and Iran (a triumph of statesmanship of which the jingoistic, chauvinistic neocons would certainly have been incapable) to wage a moral crusade against the two chief destabilizers of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The neocons were also the architects of the Iraq War – not just the waging of the war itself (although in many cases these eggheads and pinheads did indeed overrule the actual military brass), but more importantly, the case for the war. The fraudulent case for the Iraq War – that if Saddam Hussein, an evil dictator and state sponsor of terrorism, were overthrown, then the Middle East would become safer and freer – was the fault not only of the neocons’ arrogance and ignorance, but also of their dishonesty and disloyalty. Just recently, the political party of Moqtada al-Sadr (a radical Muslim cleric who led the insurgency against American occupation), won a plurality of seats in the Iraqi elections. The Iraq War is going to go down in history as the greatest catastrophe in the Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Just recently, the neocons have been leading resistance to Donald Trump from within the Republican Party, not because they have any moral qualms about his character or his competence, but because Trump is an old-fashioned populist and nationalist who, in the course of the primaries and the general election, clearly rejected their designs of “world policing” and “nation building.”
The founding generation of the neocons came from two factions of the American Old Left: Communist exiles (specifically, Trotskyites who were ousted by Stalin in the power struggle after Lenin’s death) and Cold-War liberals (Democrats like Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington).
The proto-neocon Trotskyites were organized around Max Schachtman, a Polish-Jewish immigrant involved with the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party. The far-left Schachtmanites, alarmed by Stalinist imperialism and “anti-Semitism,” supported the U.S.A. countering the USSR militarily and creating the State of Israel as a national home for Jews. The Schachtmanites began as Trotskyites who believed that “the maintenance of the dictatorship in one land was dependent on the extension of the proletarian revolution on a world scale,” but ended up as anti-Communists who believed that “U.S. power could be used to promote democracy in the Third World” (and thus supported the bungled invasion of Cuba and the Vietnam War). Interestingly enough, a superpower imposing its ideology on other countries is a constant throughout every phase of Schachtmanite thought, from hardcore Communism to hardcore anti-Communism.
The proto-neocon Cold-War liberals were organized around Leo Strauss, a German-Jewish immigrant who became a sort of rabbinical figure to “social democrats.” They were for supporting “the New Deal” at home and fighting Communism abroad, which to them meant not only militarily countering Soviet expansion, but also promoting mass-immigration to the U.S.A. in order to signal to the Third World that they were more humanitarian than the USSR. Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, both Straussians, founded the now-neocon Commentary and The Public Interest as center-left, social-democratic publications for liberals who wanted “to return to the original sources of liberal vision and liberal energy so as to correct the warped version of liberalism that is today’s orthodoxy.”
There were two events in the 1960s and 1970s which resulted in these different factions of the Old Left coming together to reinvent themselves as “conservatives.”
The first was when the USSR became officially anti-Zionist, aligning with the Arab states against Western powers and their ally, Israel. In the 1967 war, for instance, the Soviets were on the side of the Arabs, whom they had been arming and advising, and represented them in cease-fire negotiations with the U.S.A. The 1967 war – and the fear of another “Holocaust” – reinvigorated the ethno-religious roots of these proto-neocons, who realized that they cared less about their ideology than they did their identity and that the future of their ethno-state depended on the U.S.A.
The second was when the “New Left” displaced the “Old Left” in the Democratic Party. The New Left cared less about the “hard” economic and social doctrines that animated the Old Left, and more about “soft” cultural issues such as diversity, pluralism, and tolerance. The candidacies of the anti-war George McGovern and the race-baiting Jesse Jackson disgusted these proto-neocons, who longed for the presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. In addition, and probably most importantly, the New Left was pro-Soviet and anti-Zionist, expressing solidarity not just with the Palestinians against Israel, but with any Third-World revolutionaries against capitalist and imperialist powers.
Reacting to Israel’s geopolitical situation and their loss of influence in the Democratic Party, the Old Left defected, so to speak, to the Old Right, where they immediately clashed with existing conservatives (now known as “paleo-conservatives,” i.e. “old conservatives”). These “neo-conservatives” (i.e. “new conservatives”) did not want to assimilate to the Old Right, but rather to deconstruct and redefine it into a host for their preexisting center-left, social-democratic, anti-Communist, pro-Zionist ideologies. The “paleo” and “neo” prefixes should indicate which side won.
While paleocons were traditionalists, neocons were ideologues. Paleocons believed, in Russell Kirk’s phrase, that they had a responsibility “to preserve a particular people, living in a particular place during a particular time.” Neocons, like right-thinking Marxists, believed in carrying certain principles – or “propositions” – to their logical conclusions, no matter the human cost. Paleocons believed, again in Kirk’s phrase, in maintaining “custom, convention, and continuity.” Neocons believed in the moral abstractions devised by “classical liberals” during the Enlightenment, “free minds, free markets, and free people.” Paleocons did not have detailed “policy prescriptions,” as did the neocons. As Kirk put it, conservatism was properly an “adjective,” describing “a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the social order,” and was thus “the negation of ideology.” By contrast, the “think tank,” an industrialized ivory tower which manufactures opinions like a factory manufactures widgets, is a distinctly neocon invention. Neocons were “painfully deficient,” according to Kirk,” in the understanding of the human condition and in the apprehension of the accumulated wisdom of our civilization,” instead preferring “to engage in ideological sloganizing.”
The paleocons never really stood a chance against this Catilinarian conspiracy. The neocons were far shrewder and fiercer than the paleocons, who were, chiefly, scholarly and gentlemanly types unprepared for the neocons’ verbal brawls and power grabs. “Eager for place and preferment and power, skillful at intrigue, ready to exclude from office any persons who might not be counted upon as faithful to the neo-conservative ideology,” Russell Kirk summed up and put down the neocons. “Often, backstairs, they have seemed more eager to frustrate their allies than to confute those presumptive adversaries the liberals and radicals.” Indeed, this network of neocon pundits, politicos, professors, and outright plutocrats has remade the Right into something unrecognizable – a cartoonish band of free marketeers like Jack Kemp and Paul Ryan, armchair militarists like John Bolton and Dick Cheny, religious fundamentalists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, and amoral “consultants” like Karl Rove and Steve Schmidt (with the “traditionalist” paleocons blackened as “extremists.”)
The fate of M.E. Bradford exemplifies the neocon takeover. In 1980, President Ronald Reagan announced that he was nominating Bradford, a professor of English at the University of Dallas, to chair the National Endowment for the Humanities. The neocons, who had long-coveted the cultural influence of the NEH, organized a smear campaign against Bradford, calling him a “neo-Confederate” for identifying with his Southern heritage and criticizing Abraham Lincoln. The neocon columnist George Will was particularly snide and insincere in his attacks on Bradford. “I’m through,” Bradford told his friend and colleague, Thomas H. Landess. “If they want it that bad to do something like this, then let them have it.” Ultimately, Bill Bennett, a Democrat who was friends with Bradford’s detractors, was appointed instead.
Paul Gottfried, who also lost an academic position at due to neocon lobbying, described the neocons as “ideologically motivated pursuers of power” who “have never made a secret of their fear and loathing of that part of the Right which they cannot reshape or convert to their views.”
The Lincolnian Revolution and the Renegade Neo-Conservatives
Before the neocons politicized American history, the Declaration of Independence was simply a significant, symbolic historical document with a clear textual and contextual meaning, to be studied by students and scholars as the culminating point of the American Revolution and honored by the public on the Fourth of July. Now it is endlessly “interpreted” and “reinterpreted” to divine mystical new “meanings,” as if it were the Talmud. The Straussian Harry V. Jaffa, repackaging the anti-slavery rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln for post-WWII Americans, invented what has become the kosher meaning of the Declaration, and by extension, the meaning of America herself – because countries cannot simply be “givens” anymore, but must be “propositions.”
The neocon interpretation of the Declaration is, in fact, derivative of Lincoln’s own reinterpretation, and thus descended from what the biographer Edgar Lee Masters called “Hebraic-Puritanism” – the Manichaean, Millenarian, and “Old Testament” worldview of the Puritans. By the time of the Civil War, this Hebraic-Puritan mission had been secularized, but had (and has) lost none of its crusading zeal. Accordingly, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” quite literally sanctifies the U.S.A. and demonizes its enemies: the abolitionist author sees “the glory of the coming of the Lord” in the Union military (“burnished rows of steel” are a “fiery gospel”), which is marching forward to “trample out the grapes of wrath,” “crush the serpent,” “sift out the hearts of men,” and “die to make men free.”
According to Lincoln, the meaning of the Declaration is contained in the sacred words – “the Proposition” – that “all men are created equal.” From this sentence fragment, which he reinterpreted at once obtusely and abstrusely, the modern-day Lincolnites (i.e. neocons) have deduced, no less obtusely and abstrusely, what they call “the American Creed,” which proceeds as follows:
James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay never mentioned any of the above in the Federalist. It is as if they never took any courses at Hillsdale College or PragerU!
All that matters to the doctrinaire neocons is that one sentence fragment from the second paragraph – no need to read the rest of the document, and really no need to learn about the historical context of the Colonial Crisis, the Continental Congresses, the Revolutionary War, or really to learn about any American history for that matter. Once “the Proposition” is understood, all other truths are, mystically, revealed. The neocons are always lecturing about the “lessons” and “laws” of history, like right-thinking Marxists, yet it seems that the only history they know is this sole sentence fragment from the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, the “New Colossus” poem on the Statute of Liberty, and, of course, Munich and Auschwitz.
The neocon reinterpretation of the Declaration of Independence is a sort of historical fundamentalism – a simplistic and sentimental civic religion (or, to use a term more familiar to these Marxists, “false consciousness”) with little to no relation to human experience or even human reason. “They repeat, as the fundamental maxim of our civil policy, that all men are born free and equal, and quote from our Declaration of Independence,” Chancellor Harper explained as early as 1838. “It is not the first time I have had occasion to observe that men may repeat with the utmost confidence, some maxim or sentimental phrase, as self-evident or admitted truth, which is palpably false, or to which, upon examination, it will be found that they attached no definite idea.”
It is indeed simplistic and sentimental: all men are most certainly not created equal. As individuals, human beings each have different capacities and characteristics determined by their genetic inheritance. For instance, cognitive ability, or “IQ,” has been demonstrated to be strongly predictive of life outcomes, and while not entirely heritable, still strongly heritable. Even the idea of “equality of opportunity” (as opposed to “equality of outcome”) is an illusion: just as a footrace in which some runners started ahead and some behind would not be considered “fair,” true “equal opportunity” requires an equal starting point for everyone, or “equality of outcome.” Yet in spite of the empirical untruth of the proposition “that all men are created equal,” Americans are seriously expected to live and die by it simply because Thomas Jefferson, writing under the heady influence of the Enlightenment, pronounced it so. Yet Jefferson was a member of a committee tasked with writing the first draft for a public statement of a resolution that the Continental Congress had already passed, not a Promethean lawgiver.
According to John C. Calhoun, “that all men are born free and equal” was “a proposition which originated in a hypothetical truism, but which, as now expressed and now understood, is the most false and dangerous of all political errors.” Calhoun continued that he was “not afraid to attack error, however deeply it may be entrenched, or however widely extended, whenever it becomes my duty to do so,” and proceeded to refute this heresy in every particular:
Taking the proposition literally (it is in that sense it is understood), there is not a word of truth in it. It begins with “all men are born,” which is utterly untrue. Men are not born. Infants are born. They grow to be men. And concludes with asserting that they are born “free and equal,” which is not less false. They are not born free. While infants they are incapable of freedom, being destitute alike of the capacity of thinking and acting, without which there can be no freedom. Besides, they are necessarily born subject to their parents, and remain so among all people, savage and civilized, until the development of the intellect and physical capacity enables them to take care of themselves. They grow to all the freedom of which the condition in which they were born permits, by growing to be men. Nor is it less false that they are born “equal.” They are not so in any sense in which it can be regarded; and thus, as I have asserted, there is not a word of truth in the whole proposition, as expressed and generally understood.
All of the above is indeed contrary to the American civic religion of absolute individualism and egalitarianism, as preached by the Clintons and the Bushes, or the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, or Samantha Bee and John Oliver, or Jon Meacham and Eric Foner, or “The West Wing” and “The Newsroom,” but an “appeal to authority” is a logical fallacy (especially an appeal to such pathetic authorities). In what way was Calhoun wrong? “The act was, in fact, but a formal and solemn annunciation to the world that the colonies had ceased to be dependent communities, and had become free and independent States,” Calhoun wrote in his 1850 masterpiece. Even John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, a proto-Lincolnite, quintessential Hebraic-Puritan, and one of Calhoun’s nemeses, did not disagree with the South Carolinian on this question. “The Declaration of Independence, in its primary import, was merely an occasional state paper,” Adams said on July 4th, 1821. “It was a solemn exposition to the world, of the causes which had compelled the people of a small portion of the British Empire, to cast off their allegiance and renounce the protection of the British king, and to dissolve their social connection with the British people.”
This politicization of the Declaration of Independence can be traced back to the Missouri Crisis. When Southerners pointed out that the Congress had no constitutional authority to prohibit slavery in a new State, Northerners like Sen. Jonathan Roberts of Pennsylvania and Sen. David L. Morril of New Hampshire pointed out that slavery itself seemed to violate the so-called “equality clause” in the Declaration.
Sen. Rufus King of New York, in particular, incensed Southerners with a forceful speech arguing that slavery was a violation of “the law of nature” and “the law of God,” which were, as he put it, one and the same. According to King, this law was “established by the Creator, which has existed from the beginning, extends over the whole globe, is everywhere, and at all times binding upon mankind: a law which applies to nations, because their members are still men; a law which is the foundation of all constitutional, conventional, and civil laws, none of which are valid if contrary to the law of nature; that according to this law all men are born free.” In his Second Inaugural Address (written by the neocon Michael Gerson, in consultation with other neocons and even the Israeli official Nathan Sharansky), Dubya took this same ideology and extended it globally – a perfect example of what Burke, in reference to the Jacobins, called an “armed doctrine.”
Rep. John Tyler of Virginia (who would be President in 1841) argued that the phrase “all men are created equal” was a fallacy:
Gentlemen have exultingly read to us the Declaration of Independence. From it they have gathered that which, as an abstract truth, I am not disposed to deny: “That all men are, by nature, equally free, sovereign, and independent.” Can this proposition admit of application to a state of society? Does not this fallacy meet you in every walk of life? Distinctions will exist. Virtue and vice, wealth and poverty, industry and idleness, constitute so many barriers, which human power cannot break down, and which will ever prevent us from carrying into operation, in extenso, this great principle. Take this principle and preach it up to the monarchs of the world; will they descend from their lofty eminences, or raise mankind to a level with themselves? No, sir, the principle, although lovely and beautiful, cannot obliterate those distinctions in society which society itself engenders and gives birth to. Liberty and equality are often captivating sounds; but they often captivate to destroy. England had her Jack Cades and Levelers. Look, I pray you, to revolutionary France. These were the principles of that day. Mark the consequences! Murder and rapine stalked over the land, and the guillotine, the work, too, of a philanthropist of that day, was the sad monument of this fallacy. Liberty and equality was proclaimed by Robespierre and his associates, at the very moment that they were enriching the fields of France with the blood of her citizens. Nor was the doctrine confined to political institutions, but, advancing with a daring step, fought even with the Creator, and mocked at the immutable truth of religion. Turn your eyes also to South America. The throne of the Incas was washed from under them by the tide which flowed in from Spain. The native of the forest was deprived of his freedom, and made to toil for his new master. Then, too, sprung up a philanthropist, who claimed for the Indian an equal rank in creation with the inhabitants of Spain. His claim was admitted, and Africa mourned over the mistake, and her deepest curses may still be uttered against the memory of Las Casas.
“Although I do not believe that this principle of equality can be applied to man in extenso, yet I love it, and admire it as an abstract truth, and will carry it into operation whensover I can,” explained Tyler. “If we cannot raise the black man up to the level with the white – and that we have not the constitutional power to do so none here have denied – let us raise, at least, the white man up to this level,” he concluded. “Extend an equality of rights to the people of Missouri.”
Sen. William Pinkney of Maryland argued that it was self-evident that the phrase “all men are created equal” was never meant to be taken so literally:
Of the Declaration of Independence, which has also been quoted in support of the perilous doctrines now urged upon us, I need not now speak at large. The self-evident truths announced in the Declaration of Independence are not truths at all, if taken literally; and the practical conclusions contained in the same passage of that declaration prove that they were never to be so received
According to Pinkney, “the infinite perfectibility of man and his institutions, and the resolution of everything into a state of nature,” as preached by King, were “sentiments the most destructive, which, if not borrowed from, are identical with, the worst visions of the political philosophy of France when all the elements of discord and misrule were let loose upon that devoted nation.”
Sen. William Smith of South Carolina condemned King’s near-religious belief in natural law and natural rights, or “the religion of nature,” as a recipe for a revolution:
This religion of nature, and the application of it, which the gentleman has recommended for your consideration, is the very system which gave rise to that state of things which so lately convulsed Europe to its center. This was the religion preached up in the French Convention in the days of Robespierre. They, like the gentleman from New York, were not bound by written systems. They were too limited for the great projects of revolution. They presented in their gallery the Goddess of Liberty, draped in transparencies… declared the laws of nature to be the laws of God and of religion, by which all men were born free and equal. This theory intoxicated the nation, and the reform in their government, which was their great object, was lost in the designs of aspiring ambition; and the fairest portion of that nation was sacrificed on its altar. Robespierre paved his way with blood, until the nation sickened at the sight. In the midst of those scenes of horror and dismay, Napoleon, for the pious purpose of securing the liberty, and promoting the tranquility of the nation, assumed the reins of government, and in his career would have prostrated all Europe, if all Europe had not combined to prostrate him.
James Rutledge Roesch lives in Florida. He is a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the Military Order of the Stars and Bars, as well as the author of From Founding Fathers to Fire-Eaters: The Constitutional Doctrine of States' Rights in the Old South.