We have reached the point at which America’s sophisticated opinion-makers are appending a trigger warning onto the Declaration of Independence.
“Every year for the past 32 years,” NPR began its Friday-morning news show, “Morning Edition has broadcast a reading of the Declaration of Independence by NPR’s staff. But after last summer’s protests and our country attempting to confront our history, we want and need to be honest about the words in this document.”
What followed was a critique of that document, which was mostly a “long list of grievances and charges against King George III”—a bizarre rebuke of the Declaration’s central purpose. NPR’s hosts add that this tract declared “all men are created equal,” even though “women, enslaved people, and indigenous Americans were not held as equal at the time.” They note that the original draft of the declaration was amended to exclude references to Scottish mercenaries and the evils of the African slave trade, which offended some delegates to the Continental Congress and represented an obstacle to its adoption. Finally, a “racist slur” against Native Americans (that being “merciless Indian Savages,” who were “excited” to total war against the colonies by the Crown) remained.
NPR concluded that this piece of parchment encoded “flaws and deeply ingrained hypocrisies” into the nation’s political DNA. It was only ever a venue to express “our collective aspirations” and “hopes” for what this country might one day become but in many ways has never been.
This is how sophisticates within the ecosystem of respectable liberal discourse think you’re supposed to talk about the American founding if you’re an intellectually serious person. What this sort of talk reveals, however, is an astonishing parochialism.
The presentism on display in these remarks isn’t just myopic. It contributes to the cumulative condition in which the left is ceding the miracle of American democracy to the right. Unconditional patriotism and veneration for the historical accidents that culminated in the American experiment are increasingly regarded by the left as unrefined and naive. That leaves us to tell the providential story of the American founding—a story that has the dual advantages of being both inspirational and true.
As anyone who has ever drafted a document by committee will tell you, most statements that are produced in such a manner end up as banal expressions of fealty to nothing at all. It’s little short of a wonder that this process resulted in a statement of principle as revolutionarily egalitarian as it did. No government had ever committed itself to the Declaration’s enlightened liberal ideals in such a full-throated manner. And those ideals were very much a threat to the systems that kept men in chains all over the world, and not just in the American South. The fetters that bound people everywhere to monarchs, landed lords, feudal castes, hereditary nobility, and established churches were suddenly rendered breakable. And while the American capacity for compromise allowed the institution of slavery (among other evils) to survive for another 89 years, the predicate for its dissolution would not exist if these principles were not first articulated in this document.
The Declaration of Independence was not, as NPR insists, an expression of our unfulfilled aspirations; it was the codification of a set of values that preexisted the document by a century. Those values were rooted in the proto-democratic institutions established by Congregationalists and Quakers, Baptists and Presbyterians, Anglicans and Catholics, Lutherans and Jews who privileged radical autonomy over the oppressive, hegemonic structures of the Old World. Their collective covenant with one another produced the world’s longest-lived experiment in religious pluralism.
The document’s use of the word “men” was in no way designed to exclude “women” from the social compact, as the historically illiterate now contend. The early American republic restricted the franchise not just on the basis of demography but on property ownership, too—an injustice that chic crusaders for the new Identitarian paradigm omit as it detracts from the slander that the United States was founded by white people, for white people. The use of a “racist slur” was an expression of the colonist’s experience in a variety of scorched-earth Indian Wars, which the left-wing imagination now believes occurred in the absence of decades of diplomacy, inter-tribal conflicts, and great-power politics—all of which are well documented. Last, the insulting notion that this country has only just now committed to “confront our history” is an attack on the generations of thoughtful idealists who sacrificed more to realize this document’s unfulfilled promises than the denizens of the faculty lounge ever will.
All the world over, what at the time was as much a founding document as a suicide pact has inspired liberty-loving people to demand their own emancipation. For centuries, revolutionaries and reformers of every political stripe have looked to the rights preserved—not granted—by governments “instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” to justify their own struggles against tyranny. Even today, 245 years later, this is so. When the Chinese Communist Party sought to crush liberty in Hong Kong, the city’s populace didn’t pour into the streets singing “The Internationale” and flying the banners of the fashionable separatist cliques to which American progressives are increasingly inclined. They sang the American national anthem. They flew the American flag. They demanded the liberties enshrined in America’s Bill of Rights. And they adopted the language crafted by Thomas Jefferson and ratified unanimously by the Second Continental Congress in their own Declaration of Independence. Their sacrifices and the risks they were willing to take in defense of their liberties shames the effete critics of our own.
All this is probably quite provocative for those who’ve steeped themselves in the dogmas popularized by America’s humanities departments. So much the better for the American right. By all means, progressives, concede the vision of a liberated human species conceived in the Enlightenment and pursued first by the United States to conservatives. Let us articulate the virtues of the American civic compact, the permeability of its social strata, and the opportunities it affords all who believe themselves capable of making it on merit and aptitude alone. Surrender to us the love of country that isn’t alloyed by some laborious pedagogy about how awful we have always been. We will be good stewards of that noble tradition. It is an enlivening and inspiring observance—a positive force, which has so much more capacity to arouse and animate than the hopeless pessimism that today masquerades as refinement. We will be its custodians. And we will reap its rewards.