Read The Declaration on the Fourth

In my family each year we have a group reading of the Declaration of Independence.  The kids enjoy it and so do Mom and Dad.  Each year I am struck by a timeless quality of the words. 

“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 shewn 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.”

Mr. Jefferson was not just writing to the Americans alive in 1776, but to all Americans for all time to come.  His words are not meant to be locked away in unread books, or to be venerated as sacred text, but rather to be thought about and debated.  We Americans have a wonderful heritage, but it does us no good if we know little about it and give little thought to it.  This Independence Day read the Declaration please, even if you have read it many times before, and think about the meaning of the words.

41 Responses to Read The Declaration on the Fourth

  • For younger kids, try playing a video or recording of Schoolhouse Rock’s “No More Kings,” “Fireworks”, and “The Shot Heard ‘Round The World.” My daughter and I love these and to this day I sometimes catch myself humming these tunes.

    In fact it wasn’t until I listened to “Fireworks” with my daughter that I realized that five people worked on writing the Declaration (“And though some people tried to fight it,/A committee was formed to write it,/Benjamin Franklin, Philip Livingston, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Thomas Jefferson,/they got it done…)

  • A pure statement of Enlightenment era liberalism. Worship at its temple if you will!

  • Tony, that a total statist such as yourself would have little but scorn for the Declaration is of absolutely no surprise.

  • A pure statement of Enlightenment era liberalism. Worship at its temple if you will!

    We’ll be sure to pass that along to anyone tempted to worship the Declaration, rather than think about it and debate it as the posts suggests.

    Thank you for adding your characteristically thoughtful perspective on matters U.S. to this discussion.

  • “We Americans have a wonderful heritage..”

    You have a system of government than is no better or no worse than that of compatable countries. Get off the American exceptionalist hobby horse. And it most assuredly is an Enlightenment-era liberal dcoument — if that’s your cup of tea, fine, but stop pretending it is something else.

  • The idea Tony that men derive their rights from God is as old as civilization, as is the idea that governments that push their people too far leave them no choice but to revolt. To label these as solely the product of the Englightenment is to overrate the Enlightenment and to underrate the rest of recorded history. The American Revolution was a great reminder of first principles regarding government and individual liberty.

    Your lack of appreciation for the role of the American Revolution in ushering in the modern era of individual liberty is as unsurprising as it is ahistoric. When it comes to America you hate the country and the horse it rode in on. What else is new.

  • So what do you think MM believes: That humans are created unequal? That God doesn’t endow us with rights? That governments are better when they rule by dictat rather than by the consent of the governed?

  • “a total statist such as yourself..”

    Sorry, nice try, but my objection comes from the Catholic faith. As I grow older, I’m less drawn to Murray, and more to Schindler, when it comes to making peace with American liberalism. One major distinction is between the indidualism of liberalism and the person of Catholicism.

  • You have a system of government than is no better or no worse than that of compatable countries.

    Assuming that you mean “comparable”, it would probably be most helpful if you would list for everyone what you consider to be 5-10 comparable countries.

  • Man, this is torture – on the one hand we’re treated to yet another cliche trodden display from Tony, on the other hand this is one of the times that the cliche trodden response is half-right. Jefferson is actually an embodiment of the type of Enlightenment secular-left thinking that is problematic. The Declaration itself is less of a true ideological marker than a very good lawyer’s brief making the argument for rebellion. I am perhaps one of those that puts less stock into the document, but that said, it is one of Jefferson’s greatest accomplishments (that’s as much praise as you’ll ever get out of me for the man.)

  • I’ve a funny feeling that somebody who comes in here and denies the real presence would get a more sympathetic hearing than one who criticizes the American founding myth.

    Where do I “hate” the country? And how does one display emotion toward a geographic entity with administrative borders? Doesn’t make much sense.

    Let me repeat what I said – the American system is no better and no worse than countless other systems in the modern world. How is that “hate”? Its political system is in no way superior to (say) that of any European country today. And no, the world does not owe a debt to the US, except to the extent that all owe a debt (in one form or other) to Enlightenment-era liberalism (and as I said before, there are many benefits of this system, but also many problems).

    But you need to put the American exceptionalist mullarky to bed. God does not favor the USA in any special manner. The USA has no prophetic role in the world. Winthrop was wrong, and Reagan was wrong to invoke Withrop. This is Calvinist clap-trap, and shame on Catholics for swallowing it hook, line, and sinker.

    The only aspect that is 100 percent allied with Catholicism is the right to life. Aside from this, there is a wide chasm between the Church’s approach to freedom, and this definition of liberty. And the “pursuit of happiness” is directlty utilitarian — true freedom is marked by choosing good and avoiding evil. Don’t you see this “pursuit of happiness” utilitarianism leads to materialism, hedonism, a sexual free for all, divorce, abortion, gay marriage? This is what happens when you replace “happiness” with the “good”, when “individual” replaces “person”.

  • 5-10 comparable countries? That’s easy. UK, France, Germany, Ireland, Australia, Italy, Poland, Belgium, Austria, Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, New Zealand, Canada etc etc etc.

  • Which of these countries has a founding document based on the personalist philosophy of the Church?

  • And given that most of those are in the EU, how do you square their denial of a Christian heritage with America’s foundational sins?

  • Tony, but for the United States of America, you would now be penning hymns of praise to the latest successor of Hitler or Stalin, or be in a concentration camp or a gulag. As for the hatred you feel for America, anyone who has any knowledge of your body of work on the net would be left in no doubt as to the extreme contempt you feel for this nation in which you make your living.

  • I’ve a funny feeling that somebody who comes in here and denies the real presence would get a more sympathetic hearing than one who criticizes the American founding myth.

    Um….what? I think it’s fine to criticize the Declaration of Independence and American exceptionalism. I’ll do so myself in various contexts. It is your tendency to caricature and misrepresent others I find wearisome (e.g. worshiping the Declaration above). As to the real presence, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Was there a thread I missed?

  • Which of these countries has a founding document based on the personalist philosophy of the Church?

    None, which is really my point. Donald keeps trying to pin me as somebody who “hates” America. That makes no sense. It’s perfectly fine to work with this system of government, and direct it toward the common good. It has some virtues, and some problems. I could say the same with most systems of government. But must still note the flawed anthropology, and we must desist from assuming it is the greatest system in history.

  • It’s perfectly fine to work with this system of government, and direct it toward the common good. It has some virtues, and some problems. I could say the same with most systems of government. But must still note the flawed anthropology, and we must desist from assuming it is the greatest system in history.

    Why can’t a Catholic believe it is the best system in history (or the worst except compared to all the others, if you prefer)? It’s a matter of opinion, not doctrine. I’m fairly ambivalent about the matter, but I don’t see why someone couldn’t take a position. Enlightenment anthropology may be flawed, but it doesn’t follow that the Declaration can’t be interpreted in a Catholic manner or that the U.S. government in practice is worse (or better) than Ireland’s for example.

  • “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 shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

    What here is inconsistent with a Catholic anthropology?

  • I’ve a funny feeling that somebody who comes in here and denies the real presence would get a more sympathetic hearing than one who criticizes the American founding myth.

    This is an odd sort of thing to do: Assume that someone would do something that you don’t like, and then blame them for it. And silence in the face of heresy is an odd thing to accuse the authors of this blog of, when it’s been observed on several occasions that on your own blog there tends to be deafening silence when people show up and dissent from Catholic teaching, so long as they do so from a cultural leftist point of view.

    5-10 comparable countries? That’s easy. UK, France, Germany, Ireland, Australia, Italy, Poland, Belgium, Austria, Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, New Zealand, Canada etc etc etc.

    So you’d say that it’s in no sense better or worse that the UK has a state church (which is, from a Catholic point of view, schismatic and heretical) of which it’s monarch is the head?

    And you would certainly not consider the lack of a guarantee of free exercise of religion in France, where public signs of religion are banned and many church’s remain state owned, is no more or less preferable to the US approach?

    Etc, etc?

    Look, the US is certainly not perfect or chosen by God any such silliness, but that doesn’t mean that its differences from other nations are a matter of complete indifference either.

    Given that these countries all have different constitutions and structures of government, if you really think there is absolutely nothing to choose between them then you must think that the differences have no value. Thus, for instance, despite all your talk, about health care it must be a matter of total indifference whether one has an approach such as that of the US or one like the UK or France.

    Sheesh… A little precision of expression please.

  • MM,

    Let’s take it point by point. Let’s start here:

    “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certian unalienable rights…”

    “The ultimate source of human rights is not found in the mere will of human beings[307], in the reality of the State, in public powers, but in man himself and in God his Creator. These rights are “universal, inviolable, inalienable”[308]. Universal because they are present in all human beings, without exception of time, place or subject. Inviolable insofar as “they are inherent in the human person and in human dignity”[309] and because “it would be vain to proclaim rights, if at the same time everything were not done to ensure the duty of respecting them by all people, everywhere, and for all people”[310]. Inalienable insofar as “no one can legitimately deprive another person, whoever they may be, of these rights, since this would do violence to their nature”[311].” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 153)

  • And then this:

    “…Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers, from the consent of the governed…”

    “395. The subject of political authority is the people considered in its entirety as those who have sovereignty. In various forms, this people transfers the exercise of sovereignty to those whom it freely elects as its representatives, but it preserves the prerogative to assert this sovereignty in evaluating the work of those charged with governing and also in replacing them when they do not fulfil their functions satisfactorily. Although this right is operative in every State and in every kind of political regime, a democratic form of government, due to its procedures for verification, allows and guarantees its fullest application.[803]” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church)

  • And this:

    “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.”

    “401. …Recourse to arms is seen as an extreme remedy for putting an end to a “manifest, long-standing tyranny which would do great damage to fundamental personal rights and dangerous harm to the common good of the country”.[825]” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church)

  • Really it seems the Declaration is in accord with the Church’s Social teaching.

  • Bravo Phillip! This type of thought and debate about the Declaration was precisely what this post was intended to inspire!

  • Phillip, do you see the core difference between the “person” of Catholic social teaching and the “individual” of liberalism?

  • These words are now forgotten, the country is nothing more than a dish served only to rich corporates. I hope one day people do start to act on these words. but now the government is just destroying American people. See: http://eventsoftheworld.wordpress.com/2009/06/12/american-economy-a-highway-robbery/

  • Phillip, do you see the core difference between the “person” of Catholic social teaching and the “individual” of liberalism?

    Why don’t you try explaining it instead of making snippy comments that evade the core of the argument.

  • Actually I would copy from Maritain’s analysis that I read a year ago and don’t recall from memory but I don’t have the book in front of me. Essentially my thoughts are as follows.

    Jacques Maritain sought to reestablish the understanding of the human person as a unity of body (matter) and soul (spirit.) Through this unity, a realist view of epistemology is again possible. For it is through sense experience provided by the body and the action of the rational soul upon this sense data that one knows the world. One realizes a world that has being independent of one’s own thoughts or will. It is not my ideas that form the world but rather real, existing objects that have being that inform my thoughts. We in turn can reflect upon ourselves and be aware of our own being. From this we can also see that we along with others around us come into and in turn pass out of being. From this one comes to realize one’s own being as well as that of others is limited and contingent in nature.
    Given this contingency, there comes the realization that there is necessarily a Being that is not limited or contingent. This Being which transcends the world, calls all contingent beings into existence. This Being as a result is not of the world and in turns orders it to an end that is transcendent – unlimited Being itself. This knowledge is not the result of complicated philosophical development however, but rather the result of the intuition of true reason open to all men. Thus apart from Hobbes, Maritain maintains there is the reality of the spiritual. At the same time as opposed to Kant, this immaterial reality is discernable by human reason that calls us to an order that transcends our reason and ourselves. Thus for Maritain metaphysics is possible and necessary for a true understanding of what it is to be man.
    Man’s reason is not capable of discerning all truth due to the limits of human reason. Natural reason cannot attain to the fullness of supernatural truth. Thus reason must receive Revelation to complete its understanding of Truth. This openness to Revelation does not deny or destroy reason however, but raises it above what it can achieve alone and perfects it. It is through Revelation then, they we come to see that this Being is not merely a transcendent, self-thinking spirit, but rather a living, tri-personal God. As such, this God is a community of perfect persons in perfect communion with the other. As pure persons in perfect act there is no individuality or sense of part for the good of all is the good of each person. This good is the Divine Essence of Divinity co-equal in each person.
    Man as created by the Triune God necessarily reflects this triune nature. As created being, human nature is not the same as God’s and can only analogically be spoken of in reference to the Divine Essence. What then is man? Maritain distinguishes between the human being as an individual and as a person. Human beings are individuals in that they are individuated in matter. But this individuation does not define the person as an individual is incapable of fully developing his self in solitude. Rather, as a reflection of the Divine Persons, the human person is ordered to others in his very nature. For God as triune persons is not pure self-reflective thought but is necessarily giving in His Being and in calling others into being through the creative act. God, who is self-knowledge and self-gift, in turn becomes the image of our nature which is called to knowledge and gift. Also by our relatedness to God as first cause and final end of our being is the source of the dignity of the person. This is an end which is not temporal nor material but eternal and spiritual.
    Thus the person is a subject with the dignity of a transcendent destiny. But while this destiny is supernatural, it does not detach oneself from this world. In both the material and the spiritual order human beings are called to participate in the common good. In virtue of their individuality, humans are part of and have obligations to the social order. But in virtue of the supernatural end to which they are called, persons cannot be reduced to a simple part of that order. At the same time, man’s realization of his personality leads him to fulfill this in gift of self – a gift that works to true justice out of love in the social order. This proceeds from a respect for true reason and thus the legitimate autonomy of the secular sphere. True advances in science, social rights, etc are respected as is the legitimate use of reason to determine the proper means of ordering the social order in accord with the good. Through this truly autonomous secular reason informed by transcendent truth, it is possible to create a society that is “truly human and progressive.” This is fully realized through the ordering of society to promote the supernatural end of the persons comprising it. This is thus Maritain’s vision of a true and integral humanism in which man, cognizant of his dignity and true end, embraces what is truly good in human reason and self-giving for the good of all.

    Thoughts?

  • Also,

    Why don’t you acknowledge that the principles in the Declaration are consistent with Catholic thought. A tremendous accomplishment considering it was written almost a hundred years before the first social encyclical. An exceptional accomplishment one might say. Given the circumstances, with multiple different policital forces at play among the 13 colonies, it is also quite amazing that the group of men involved could have come up with it. One might say it was almost Providential.

  • OK, here’s the one-line version. The “individual” is sovereign — in other words, he has the right to do as he wishes as long as he does not trample on the toes of another. The “person” is only defined in the sense of a relationship to others — this is a Trinitarian anthropology. Here’s the longer version, from one of my co-bloggers: http://vox-nova.com/2008/03/11/person-vs-individual/

    To take a somewhat different context that makes the same point, the Catholic perspective is not so much “I think, therefore I am”, but “I am thought of, therefore I am”.

  • As my discussion of the person notes in its Trinitarian foundation. So how is Enlightenment individualism expressed in the principles as stated in the Declaration? And you haven’t answered the question if the principles of the Declaration are consistent with Catholic Social thought.

  • To take a somewhat different context that makes the same point, the Catholic perspective is not so much “I think, therefore I am”, but “I am thought of, therefore I am”.

    Actually, I don’t think that’s the case at all, at least not in the stark terms that you’ve put it. The fact that persons exist in relationship does not mean that they are defined by being perceived by others.

    “I am thought of, therefore I am,” would suggest that the person does not have objective existence and nature.

  • Phillip, do you see the core difference between the “person” of Catholic social teaching and the “individual” of liberalism?

    The question you should ask of yourself MM is, can a thing be objectively good or just or in supportive of the dignity of the person regardless of whether the people who instituted it had an erroneous worldview? Can someone attempt to come from the right place and end up with a wrong or bad idea?

    I’ll make a hypothetical here. If someone is against abortion and works to end it because he thinks the moon god is offended by the practice, is his desired outcome less preferable to a Catholic who thinks abortion is a matter of women’s liberation, reproductive freedom, or subsidiarity in action?

    Point is, if the Angelic Doctor penned those words from the DoI you’d probably have no problem with them.

  • The “individual” is sovereign — in other words, he has the right to do as he wishes as long as he does not trample on the toes of another. The “person” is only defined in the sense of a relationship to others — this is a Trinitarian anthropology.

    So Robinson Crusoe isn’t a “person”? Or what?

    It’s still perfectly mysterious what political implications you think you can draw from this purported distinction, and why.

  • I would say he is a person if only in his relationship with God. Just as a hermit is. The point is that there are no real, solitary individuals. Such a concept only exists in philosophy. Rather everyone is a individual person that as called to relationship with others. Such Enlightenment philosophies that argued there are radical individuals may have had some impact on the Founding Fathers but the extent is still unclear and far from making definitive pronouncements about the impurity of the Declaration and other founding documents.

    Rather the Declaration and other such documents are in part idealistic and in part practical. The practical reality that all persons are individual persons is encompassed in the thought of the Declaration and is again consistent with Catholic thought.

  • Again from the Compendium. Note that the Church teaches that the person finds purpose at the individual and social level. Any philosophy that does not take this into account is flawed from a Catholic perspective.

    “384. The human person is the foundation and purpose of political life.[775] Endowed with a rational nature, the human person is responsible for his own choices and able to pursue projects that give meaning to life at the individual and social level. Being open both to the Transcendent and to others is his characteristic and distinguishing trait. Only in relation to the Transcendent and to others does the human person reach the total and complete fulfilment of himself. This means that for the human person, a naturally social and political being, “social life is not something added on” [776] but is part of an essential and indelible dimension.”

  • By the way, MM, nice jaw-dropper over on Vox Nova. I mean, how did you not think of the fact that teenage birthrates are inversely related to abortion rates? That is, Obama-voting states have more abortion, which is why their teenage birthrates are lower. For evidence, see http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2009/06/pro-life-states-have-lower-abortion.html

    Congrats on that.

  • MM, I’m surprised that you haven’t at least changed the graphic after the obvious has been pointed out . . . not that I expect you ever to correct an intellectual error, but you do occasionally try to keep up the pretense of being against abortion, a pretense that is utterly belied by ridiculing “red states” for having less abortion.

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