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How Not to Read the Declaration

A new book — For Liberty and Equality [1] by John Tsesis — explores the influence of the Declaration of Independence on U.S. history, from the document’s drafting to the present. But from the sound of Jack Rakove’s review [2], the book get the relationship between the Declaration and the Constitution very wrong:

Tsesis gives Jefferson’s concise statements an extraordinarily authoritative sweep. The Declaration’s “message of universal freedoms,” he asserts early on, remains “the national manifesto of representative democracy and fundamental rights.” Or again, “The Declaration created a unified national government”; it “established a national polity composed of states, while the original Constitution granted states the authority to run their own day-to-day operations.” The Constitution, in this view, remains a partial and less-than-perfect instrument for achieving the ends of the Declaration. …

These are powerful moral claims, but as statements of history they are highly problematic. The Declaration was the act of a national government that already existed, in the form of the Continental Congress, but the question of how unified its authority would be was left open, to be settled first by the Articles of Confederation and then significantly amplified and restructured by the Constitution. Nor did the Constitution “grant” the states any authority. That authority already existed. The Constitution only modified it by giving the national government independent legal powers of its own while imposing some restrictions on the legislative power of the states. The Continental Congress did decide that the independent states should be governed as republics—whatever choice was there?—but it did this not through the Declaration of July 4, but in another resolution approved seven weeks earlier.

Rakove himself is torn: the Declaration does not establish the ends of the Constitution, as the likes of “Harry Jaffa, high priest emeritus of the Claremont Straussians” would have it. But Lincoln did expand the Declaration’s rhetoric into a national mission of sorts during the Civil War. Historical honesty requires one narrative, while understanding Lincoln’s mythopoesis, which planted equality at the center of the American tradition, may require another. “Lincoln’s vision of the Declaration … engages us far more deeply than the more prosaic interpretations that historians are duty-bound to produce.”

That’s the problem. Lincoln’s “vision of the Declaration” is so engaging for many Americans — particularly for dreamers and con men in the press, academy, and politics — that it threatens to blot out the Constitution. To say this is not to deny the place that high ideals may have in American politics, including the ideal of equality in one form or another. But those ideals do not have to be rooted in the Declaration, and equality is but one among several that Americans must deliberate over. The Constitution is meant to make that deliberation possible, both through the structure it creates and by the modest ends — “domestic tranquility” and the like — it attempts to secure. Replacing the carefully considered and debated Constitution, in all its modesty, with the passionate idealism of wartime rhetoric is a prescription for crusading in place of governing.

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#1 Comment By Paul Cornish On August 10, 2012 @ 10:01 am

McCarthy is mostly correct, but it’s important to keep in mind the eqaulity that Lincoln advocated…namely an equality of rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness secured by the rule of law. The problem both sides in these historical debates have is that, like Lincoln, the turn Jefferson into the sole author the Declaration and the high priest of the revolution. He wasn’t, he was a very flawed man, to put it kindly.

#2 Comment By tbraton On August 10, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

Daniel McCarthy, nice analysis, but you fail to observe the reason many favor the Declaration of Independence over the Constitution (I see Mitt Romney has come to echo those views in some of his recent comments). That is the reference in the Declaration to “our Creator” and the complete absence of any such reference in the Constitution, which attributes its creation to “we, the people of the United States of America.” Of course, those who favor the Declaration also like the fact that that document credits “our Creator” as having endowed us with certain unalienble rights, among which are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Evangelicals can happily point to that phrase and argue against the morning-after pill. Of course, Southern evangelicals spent the first 75 years of our existence under the Constitution arguing that “all men are created equal” did not extend to black slaves and spent the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th arguing that the “pursuit of happiness” did not allow drinking of alcohol or even later a toke of a joint.

#3 Comment By Alan Vanneman On August 10, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

This is why people have a hard time taking the American Conservative seriously.

#4 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On August 10, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

There has always been a tension between the Declaration and the Constitution, with the former serving as a rather vague expression of ideals and the latter serving as somewhat –but only somewhat–of a less vague expression of reality. The Declaration, grounded as it is in the Enlightenment, is philosophic in nature whereas the Constitution is legalistic in nature. Jefferson does not define the word “equal” (“…all men are created equal”), relying instead on a loose reading of the Natural Rights doctrine (Lord knows what “pursuit of Happiness” means). The Constitution at least is a product of jurisprudence and as such is unmatched in the history of mankind. It’s interesting to note the irony in the fact that while the Declaration endorsed the separation of the colonies from English tyranny, the Consitution (as understood by Lincoln and endorsed in blood)did not recognize the right of a STATE to separate from the federal union even if that state felt itself to be suffering under the tyranny of the central government.

#5 Comment By Joseph R. Stromberg On August 10, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

The Declaration reads like a legal indictment: the King has done this, the King has done that, and look what else the bastard’s done… It also employs some fashionable social-contract hoodoo deriving from Locke, so naturally everyone discusses the window-dressing more than the indictment.

And just as well, since there’s a government active today in North America that does things George III could never have dreamed of. We wouldn’t want people reading the indictment with reference to the Last Best Hope of All Mankind.

#6 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On August 10, 2012 @ 6:00 pm

It’s important to remember that The Declaration was intended for more than one audience. It sought to root the actions of the colonists in a way intelligible and justifiable to other peoples and states. It is also an indictment as Joseph Stromberg says.

It’s unfortunate that Jefferson insert happiness instead of property into the text. Rhetorical flourishes have consequences.

I can’t imagine that the framers meant anything by “Equality,” other than equality before the law. The obvious inequality of mankind was manifest to them as it should be to us.

#7 Comment By cecelia On August 10, 2012 @ 7:35 pm

I think people get too impressed with the Declaration as THE unique contribution of America and neglect the remarkable thing about the Constitution – We the people.

Others had asserted rights of man including equality before the Declaration. But to assert that the legitimacy and authority of government came not from Divinely anointed Kings or the strongest arm but rather – from the people – that was an amazing statement then. Still is now. Maybe our problem is too much focus on the “life liberty etc” thing and not enough focus on “We the people”.

#8 Pingback By Perils of Declarationism | The American Conservative On August 11, 2012 @ 2:02 pm

[…] DeLong channels Harry Jaffa in a post about my Declaration item: “Roger B. Taney would agree with Daniel McCarthy–that was, indeed, the point of his […]

#9 Comment By Arun On August 12, 2012 @ 11:16 am

To repeat myself, the end of slavery, the end of segregation, the institution of universal suffrage – none of these arose from the Constitution. Rather, these issues forced the Constitution to be amended; via what can be termed crusades rather than governance as usual.

#10 Pingback By Freedom, Lincoln, and Declarationism | The American Conservative On August 14, 2012 @ 9:40 am

[…] with Noah Millman, I’ve been intrigued by Dan McCarthy’s posts on “declarationism,” that is, the claim that the Constitution was designed to be the […]

#11 Comment By tbraton On August 14, 2012 @ 10:38 am

“This is why people have a hard time taking the American Conservative seriously.”

Alan Vanneman, I am somewhat puzzled by your comment. Would you please amplify so that I can understand what you find objectionable?

#12 Pingback By ‘Starbursts’ from Harry Jaffa: On Rich Lowry’s Embarrassing Lincoln Screed | The American Conservative On June 13, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

[…] are good reasons for conservatives to be ambivalent or even hostile to this […]

#13 Comment By A.C. On July 4, 2013 @ 2:10 am

One could say the same for your generically left-wing blog, Alan. (Indeed one could say the same for the literally endless conga line of lefties who love to troll conservative web sites comments’ sections while never actually engaging in back and forth of what’s ever being said. Where do you all get the spare time?)

#14 Comment By JonF On July 4, 2013 @ 11:18 am

Re: That is the reference in the Declaration to “our Creator” and the complete absence of any such reference in the Constitution, which attributes its creation to “we, the people of the United States of America.”

Well, yes: God created the world, but the Constitution was authored by men, and is in no sense inspired holy writ.

Re: Of course, Southern evangelicals spent the first 75 years of our existence under the Constitution arguing that “all men are created equal” did not extend to black slaves

That’s a bit unfair to the evangelicals, who were not much of a presence in early 19th century America. The elite of the Old South were mainly Protestant mainliners (plus a very few Catholics in Maryland, Louisiana and Texas, and one notable Jew in the person of Judah P Benjamin). Stonewall Jackson was a Presbyterian, Lee and Davis were Episcopalians. Calhoun was born a Presbyterian, but became a fairly secular Unitarian in later life.

Re: But to assert that the legitimacy and authority of government came not from Divinely anointed Kings or the strongest arm but rather – from the people – that was an amazing statement then.

Not really. Over a century earlier Thomas Hobbes had grounded his defense of royal absolutism on a Social Contract sworn by people to avert the woes of living in a state of nature, where life would be nasty, brutish and short. “Dieu et mon doigt” had mostly disappeared from English political thought before the Middle Ages were through, and even the Tudors at their most tyrannical were careful to invoke The People. Charles I’s attempt at true autocracy was deeply counter to the English tradition and won him mortal enemies as a result. George III, despite his reputation on these hither shores, made no pretense at being any sort of absolute monarch.

#15 Comment By EliteCommInc On July 4, 2013 @ 2:44 pm

“Southern evangelicals spent the first 75 years of our existence under the Constitution arguing that “all men are created equal” did not extend to black slaves . . .”

With the full consent and participation of the rest of the Union. L’est one forget, ‘mollasses, to rum, to slaves.’

The color dynamic of this country was born long before the union and was perpetuated by the same.

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc On July 4, 2013 @ 2:56 pm

” . . .spent the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th arguing that the “pursuit of happiness” did not allow drinking of alcohol or even later a toke of a joint.”

Ahhh yes the joys of rape, liver disease, heart disease, psychological dysfunction, spousal abuse and other family dysfunctions, divorce, homelessness, drunk driving, crime, job loss, suicide, . . . teen and college binge drinking . . . unwanted pregnancies . . .

But no worries we now have national healthcare for all
Ahhh yes that sounds exactly like what the founders intended when they said the pursuit of happiness. It is afterall only a pursuit

never mind — its a wonder anyone listens to liberals period.