The backdrop for President ReaganÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s inaugural on January 20, 1981 was unforgettable. The United States had endured a decade of decline in our economy at home and our prestige abroad. Some Americans feared our best days were behind us as they had struggled through years of staggeringly high inflation, persistent unemployment, and shrinking incomes. The gears of American industry were slowed by an ever-expanding barrage of high-handed bureaucracies and policies established by administrations dating back to the New Deal. Read more
It’s all there! That was my reaction when I reread Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” – commonly known as “The Speech” – toward the end of the President’s second term. Presidential assistant Martin Anderson had compiled Reagan’s various campaign speeches and policy papers, so the President’s positions on the issues were readily available. But nothing summarized the Reagan message quite so succinctly and boldly as The Speech.
Reagan’s view of the world evolved during the two decades following World War II, first as president of the Hollywood Screen Actors Guild, where he came to see international communism as the greatest evil in the world, and later, in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a roving ambassador for the General Electric Company in connection with his hosting of the GE Theater on TV. In his ambassadorial role, Reagan made hundreds of appearances before GE’s employees, customers, and public-spirited organizations at GE locations throughout the country. Reagan used this period to research public policy, to formulate a coherent philosophy, and to hone his presentations.
The Speech reflects Reagan’s development of extraordinary communications skills, but also his transformation from liberal to conservative. It was given on behalf of Senator Barry Goldwater’s campaign for president late in the contest – October 27, 1964. It electrified the nationwide TV audience and brought Goldwater a needed boost in public appeal and donations. Although Goldwater lost to President Johnson, The Speech launched Reagan to local and national prominence, as two years later he won the governorship of California in a landside, and eventually the presidency by a similar margin.
Just what do we see in The Speech? First, it is compact and beautifully written. This is not surprising, as Reagan had given versions of the text many times before. Second, it addresses controversy head-on (“I am going to talk of controversial things. I make no apology for this.”). Reagan was not one to sugar-coat things. Third, The Speech calls upon us to recognize American exceptionalism – that we have a very special place in history and are the bulwark to freedom in the world.
Reagan asks us to look past ideological differences and to avoid name-calling. He says the choice is not between “left” and “right,” but only between “up” and “down.” “Up” he characterizes as maximum individual freedom consistent with law and order, whereas “down” means the “ant heap of totalitarianism.” Accordingly, Reagan weighs in against the notion that government can solve all problems and still preserve individual liberties. “[Y]ou can’t control the economy without controlling people,” he warns. The choice, he says, is that we “accept the responsibility for our own destiny, or we….confess that [government] can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” Years later, Reagan would put this more bluntly: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
There’s a note of urgency in The Speech, which applies today as well. “Already the hour is late. Government has laid its hand on health, housing, farming, industry, commerce, education, and, to an ever-increasing degree, interferes with the people’s right to know….Because no government every voluntarily reduces itself in size, government programs once launched never go out of existence. A government agency is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”
The Speech soars at the end in quintessential Reagan style: “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We can preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we can sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.”
Jim Miller served President Reagan as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission (1981-1985) and as Director of the Office of Management and Budget and Member of his Cabinet (1985-1988).
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Commencement Address at Howard UniversityÃ¢â‚¬
Lyndon B. Johnson
At the end of the United States Civil War, a century before President Lyndon B. JohnsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 1965 Commencement Address at Howard University, the ex-slave turned American orator and statesman Frederick Douglass concluded that the best thing the federal government could do for Americans of African descent was to leave them alone. Read more
The Great Society Speech
President Lyndon Johnson delivered the Great Society speech at the University of Michigan in May of 1964. Superficially, the Great Society speech is a typical modern speech, an agenda of platitudinous and pragmatic goals. More deeply, the Great Society speech represents a dramatic rhetorical reorientation of the United States.
Ambitious American political speeches invoke the founding. And the Great Society Speech is no exception, alluding to the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence sets forth both the basis Read more
John F. Kennedy, “Commencement Address at Yale University”
Throughout the twentieth century, one of the most fundamental tenets of progressive ideology was what many historians called the “gospel of efficiency” that found salvation in scientific rather than republican government. Progressives believed that democratic, partisan politics based upon representative government was often corrupt but always too messy. The people were too uninformed, the Progressives believed, and political compromise did not always result in the “best solutions.”
The Progressives thought that they had a much better alternative. They believed that if policymaking were removed from the hands of the sovereign people and their representatives and placed in the hands of the academic experts in executive agencies, then scientific government could rationalize all areas of American life to bring order and efficiency out of democratic chaos. The gospel of efficiency became indisputable truth and worshipped as a creed by those who simply knew better than ordinary people.
The result of this for progressive liberals has been to believe arrogantly that they are acting scientifically and rationally while conservatives rest their arguments on platitudes and slogans. This was recently seen in the debate over gun control in the wake of several tragic mass shootings. The supporters of increased gun control described their reforms as “reasonable,” “common sense,” or “moderate,” implying that anyone who opposed them were irrational extremists. Progressives after all were academic experts – they simply knew better than everyone else, who should simply passively accept the policies handed down to them.
President John F. Kennedy clearly expressed his belief in the kind of progressive ideals described above. His 1962 Commencement Address at Yale University reads like a Progressive manifesto on the superiority of progressive over consensual government.
After some amusing digs at Yale from a Harvard Man, Kennedy tells the graduates that the central domestic issues of his administration were not based upon “basic clashes of philosophy or ideology but to ways and means of reaching common goals – to research for sophisticated solutions to complex and obstinate issues.” Kennedy explains some of the hidden meaning behind his statement. The Republicans and conservatives, though without naming them, rest their arguments on “myths,” “clichés,” “repetition of stale phrases,” “illusions,” and “platitudes.” Instead, Kennedy offers a post-partisan, progressive solution. “We need not partisan wrangling, but common concentration on common problems,” he explains to his audience. If the Republicans would simply accepted Kennedy’s ideas about government, then there wouldn’t be a problem.
He uses the occasion to shatter three prevailing illusions that “prevent effective action.” The first myth is that government is too large and that government is bad. He seeks to demolish this myth with the argument that the size of the government bureaucracy and federal debt had grown less rapidly than the size of the economy and any other sector of national life. Moreover, he argues that the large size of government “can bring benefits.” For example, even though he proudly states that three out of every four dollars for medical and scientific research comes from the federal government, “American scientists remain second to none in their independence and in their individualism.”
The second myth is that the growing federal debt is a problem. As proof, Kennedy states that although the debt was growing, it was decreasing as per capita and relative to Gross National Product. Additionally, he maintains that the public debt is increasing at a slower pace than private debt or the debt of state governments. If Kennedy can be forgiven for not guessing that our debt would reach a staggering seventeen trillion dollars, he might have foreseen that his support of a much larger government with almost limitless responsibility might contribute mightily to an unsustainable federal debt.
The third myth that Kennedy debunks is that business lacked confidence in his administration leading to stagnation. The president argues instead that confidence is rooted upon institutions – business, labor, and government – all fulfilling their obvious “obligations to the public.” The “solid ground of mutual confidence is the necessary partnership of government with all of the sectors of our society in the steady quest for economic progress.” The national administrative state run by experts necessarily reaches into every aspect of American life to usher in a perfect society not just for the United States but the world. Indeed, he continues, arguing that, “The safety of all the world – the very future of freedom – depends as never before upon the sensible and clearheaded management of the domestic affairs of the United States.”
What is at stake, Kennedy avers, is not contending rival visions of liberals and conservatives who would debate as politicians in a republican system, but the “practical management of a modern economy” by experts who could solve “sophisticated and technical questions.” Political compromise and representative government may have been adequate in a bygone age but the modern era had more subtle challenges for which only “technical answers, not political answers, must be provided.”
Kennedy’s embrace of progressivism traced its lineage back to Woodrow Wilson and the early twentieth century. Kennedy advocates a government based upon the European model when he promotes a government by experts and an increasingly large government that manages society,. Just as Wilson admired the German model and philosophy, Kennedy thinks America should become more like Europe. “The example of Western Europe,” Kennedy explains, “shows that they are capable of solution – that governments . . . prepared to face technical problems without ideological preconceptions, can coordinate the elements of a national economy and bring about growth and prosperity.”
President John F. Kennedy sought to administer government by progressive experts rather than the people. He sought to bring efficiency and order to democratic politics and free enterprise. He sought to impose a European vision of statism on American institutions, and then promised that this was the way to protect and promote freedom. It would supposedly “demonstrate anew to the world the superior vitality and the strength of a free society.” Perhaps we are living with the illusion that one could live freely and enjoy prosperity in a managed society.
Tony Williams is the Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute in Charlottesville, VA, which teaches teachers American founding principles. Free downloads of its recently published WJMI Guide to the Constitution are available at http://www.thefederalistpapers.org/ebooks/jefferson-and-madisons-guide-to-the-constitution. He is the author of four books including American Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.
FDR and the Second Bill of Rights
As World War 2 was winding down, Franklin Delano Roosevelt set his sights for the nation on transitioning the newly expanded role of government from the war effort to an expanded social and economic role. FDR called for the guarantees outlined in this address, as he argued that Ã¢â‚¬Å“true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” By assuming a role in protecting citizens from the potential problems of their own economic security, government entered an arena in which the citizen operates as a co-producer of the circumstance. Those with the most to gain would seek additional services, while others ignored the pattern of growing government until its scope and size became overwhelming. Read more
It seems today that many Americans wrongly perceive the Constitution as a roadblock on the way to a better America. Not too long ago during a dinner conversation, this unfavorable view of the Constitution was expressed to me. The person had overlooked the enduring qualities of the document–qualities that have allowed freedom to flourish and have kept tyranny in check.
In “What Good’s A Constitution,” former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill reminds readers that the American Constitution has been the “shield of the common man,” and its framework and provisions reveal that a government exists for individuals. Individuals do not exist for the government. Churchill wrote the 1936 article in an era in which Fascist dictatorships had emerged in Italy and Germany and Russia’s Communist experiment Read more
On June 27, 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted the Democratic nomination for the presidency. Despite all of the success in getting Congress to pass New Deal legislation during his first administration and his excellent chances for re-election, FDR felt beleaguered. Republicans in Congress and conservatives such as Herbert Hoover and the Liberty League continued to oppose the legislation he believed would solve the economic crisis and transform America. Populist radicals such as Huey Long and Charles Townshend went even further than FDR in seeking to provide a guaranteed income for Americans and won some of his support. Read more
In 1932, the Democratic candidate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was the privileged scion of a wealthy family who ran a campaign that was committed to the Progressive vision of American society and government from the turn of the century. In his “Commonwealth Club Address,” FDR embraced the Progressive idea that pitted the “interests” against the people. He also promised the continued growth of the administrative state managed by enlightened bureaucratic elites in the name of the people. Even more importantly, FDR maintained that the purpose of government under the social compact was to preserve rights, but he was bold enough to assert that a redefinition of rights was necessary in an industrial age. Achieving this vision would usher in a secular utopia of progress and equality. Read more
President Coolidge delivered this speech on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. In this essay, I place President Coolidge’s speech into a relevant perspective first, by outlining two divergent visions about the nature of man and secondly by explaining how these divergent visions culminated in the progressive attack on the essence of the Declaration of Independence. Read more
Herbert Croly was perhaps the most important intellectual of Progressivism, which seems odd, given the tortuous language and convoluted emotive passages that characterize his work. Progressive Democracy was not Croly’s most significant book. That was his earlier work, The Promise of American Life, a book that supposedly so influenced Theodore Roosevelt it is said to have provided the catalyst for Roosevelt’s return to politics as a third-party “Bull Moose” presidential candidate in the 1912 election.
Progressive Democracy is of the same style and substance as Croly’s other writings. It rests on the usual Progressive premises, such as the omnipotent, all-caring, and morally perfect Hegelian God-state that is the inevitable evolutionary end of Progressive politics. It reflects the notion—so common in Progressive and other leftist theory—of stages of human social and political development that have been left behind and whose outdated institutions are an impediment to ultimate progress into the promised land. Hence, Croly’s insistence that the Constitution’s structure of representative government and separation and division of powers needed to be, and would be, changed. Read more
Theodore Roosevelt left the office of the President in 1908, only to be drawn back into politics in 1912, disappointed with his predecessor’s defense of the Progressive cause. He launched the “Bull Moose” Party with the zeal befitting a man who was photographed actually riding a bull moose. Roosevelt pursued an agenda in 1912 that called for increasing popular participation in government and eroding the barriers between the people and government. This is also an intentional blurring of the line between a republican form of government and a direct democracy of the kind that existed in antiquity. Read more
Woodrow Wilson: A Failed President
One of the most common ways of judging a president is to simply ask if there was peace and economic prosperity during his time in office? This is a useful analysis, but not entirely complete. The president isn’t the only reason there might be peace or prosperity. Thus, other criteria should be taken into account. What policies did the president pursue? What impact did they have? And how did the president use the power entrusted to him by the American public? By these criteria, Woodrow Wilson was a failed president.
Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most colorful presidents to serve the Republic. He was a rancher in the North Dakota Badlands, led the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill and received a Medal of Honor for his gallantry, the only President with such a distinction. While climbing a Mountain in the Adirondacks of New York in 1901, word reached Vice President Theodore Roosevelt that the condition of President McKinley had rapidly deteriorated after an assassination attempt a week earlier. The next day, McKinley was dead, and Roosevelt was sworn into office as president. Roosevelt brought an ideology to the Office of the President that was a refutation of the American Founding, Progressivism. This ideology included a dramatic expansion of power vested in one person, the president. Read more
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was dour, humorless, and convinced of the fallen nature of all but the elect few and of the need for strong leaders with proper principles who would provide the discipline and vision for the moral guidance of the weak at home and abroad. Calvinist in appearance, outlook, and family background, he perfectly matched the caricature of a Puritan. Those traits also made him a perfect Progressive.
Wilson was strongly influenced by 19th century German intellectual thought, especially Hegel’s views of the State as the evolutionary path of an Idea through history, and by contemporary adaptations of Darwinian theories to social science. He enthusiastically embraced the nascent ideology of the State. Read more
Progressivism was a movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Whatever its different iterations, progressivism was rooted in the belief that the natural rights principles of the American founding were fine for an earlier age but no longer relevant in a mass, industrial society. The modern age, as the Progressives saw it, was characterized by great inequality and concentrations of wealth. The “interests” controlled the masses for their own self-interest rather than the public good. Read more
The elevation of Woodrow Wilson to the presidency of the United States is a defining moment in American history. It signaled the triumph of an ideology destined to transform the United States Constitution from an instrument of limited government to one of consolidation, much as had been feared by0 the Antifederalist Brutus more than a century before. That ideology is known as “progressivism,” the essentials of which are laid out clearly and unapologetically in Wilson’s “What Is Progress?” Included in these essentials are: belief in the perfectibility of human beings and human societies, demonization of the past and devaluation of time-honored traditions, and the worship of science and technology. Read more
Liberty and the Administrative State: Goodnow’s Gambit
Hillsdale’s Reader on the U. S. Constitution begins with Thomas Jefferson and ends with Ronald Reagan. Of the many `contributors’ to the anthology, none is less-remembered today than Frank Goodnow, who never won an election for public office, having spent his career almost entirely in academia. Unlike John Dewey, another professor, Goodnow wrote no books that have been widely read beyond his own generation. Yet he stands as an important figure in the Progressive movement, particularly with respect to his championing of Progressivism’s most distinctive institutional feature, the administrative state. Read more
We’re No Longer Lockeans Now: John Dewey & the Rise of Modern Liberalism, by Tony Williams
In his 1861 “Cornerstone” speech, Vice-President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens argued that Thomas Jefferson and the Founders really meant all humans, including blacks, were created equal in the Declaration of Independence. He just believed that they were wrong. John Dewey, in his “Liberalism and Social Action,” does much the same thing. He largely summarizes the ideas of John Locke correctly and notes his influence on the Founding. Again, much like Stephens did, he rejects those ideas, this time because of his belief in the new liberalism of the modern Progressive administrative state. Read more
From the vantage point on March 4, 1865, President Lincoln saw the approaching end of the war, a most terrible war that exacted a toll on America never before seen and not seen since. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address, delivered shortly before the war’s end and his assassination, is a brief summation of the events and looks forward to rebuilding the nation and healing her wounds. It is a speech, which is perhaps unique to its era, but not solely in the events it addresses or its length. Rather, can you imagine a modern President speaking in such a way today- making recurring references to the bible and God? Read more
What Is the “New Birth of Freedom”?
Lincoln came to the Gettysburg field of the dead and spoke of “a new birth of freedom.” What did he mean by it?
A lot of men killed a lot of other men at Gettysburg during those three days in July of 1863. But that happened more than once in the Civil War: at Antietam, in the Wilderness, at Cold Harbor, and many other places. People remember those places and those battles, too, but not the way they remember Gettysburg.
Maybe because this was the battle? The one in which the Confederate States of America lost not just a battle but began to lose the war? But why did they lose this battle and that war? Read more
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln’s right hand was trembling. He had spent the morning shaking hundreds of hands as part of the traditional New Year’s Day greetings at the White House. He remarked to Secretary of State, William Seward, that, “if my signature wavers they will say I was afraid to sign it.” He then took up his pen and wrote his name firmly on the Emancipation Proclamation. As Seward co-signed the document, Lincoln mused, “Seward, if I am to be remembered in history at all, it will probably be in connection with this piece of paper”.  Read more
There has been much discussion about the reach and scope of executive power. While certainly Presidents Washington and Jefferson provide good lessons about what would be accepted practice from an executive, perhaps no other President besides Lincoln gives as extensive a model of executive authority.
To start, President Lincoln responded to the April attack on Ft Sumter and the growing secessionist movement by putting executive power front and center. The Civil War started during the Congressional recess and President Lincoln would prosecute the North’s response for nearly 3 months before calling Congress Read more
Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in the election of 1860, defeating three other candidates, including two Democrats, with nearly forty percent of the popular vote and an absolute majority in the Electoral College. Democrats had split into two factions. Northern Democrats, headed by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas (who had defeated Lincoln in the Senate election two years earlier) held that the question of admitting slavery into the western territories should be answered by referendum in each territory. Southern Democrats, headed by Senator John J. Breckinridge of Kentucky, upheld the claim most famously enunciated decades earlier by Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina–namely, that property in slaves is an unalienable right, that slavery was “a positive good” for both white masters and black slaves, and that slave owners therefore could keep their slaves wherever in the territories they pleased. Popular sovereignty might not protect, and surely did not posit a natural or absolute legal right to slave property, and could never satisfy the slave owners. Although Douglas won the nomination of the regular Democratic organization, he won only a single state in the national election: Missouri. The southern Democrats (who had `seceded’ from the party’s convention before the final vote was taken) won ten states, all of them by overwhelming margins. Read more
In 1830, at a dinner on the anniversary of Jefferson’s birthday, an exchange of toasts occurred between President Andrew Jackson and Vice-President John Calhoun. Jackson’s challenge, “Our Federal Union—it must be preserved!” was returned with another from Calhoun, “The Union—next to our liberty, the most dear.” The rhetorical volleys crystallized the fundamentally different views of the combatants during the later secession crisis, not only on the nature of the Union, but on the very values each thought paramount. Read more
On March 4th 1861, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as president. One week later, The Constitution of the Confederate States of America was adopted by the Constitutional Convention in Montgomery, Alabama.2 Midway into the ratification process, on March 21st, provisionally elected Vice President of the Confederate States, Alexander Stephens, mounted the stage of the Athenaeum Theatre in Savannah and delivered what has come to be known as the Cornerstone Speech. Read more
On December 20, 1860 South Carolina became the first state to declare that it had seceded from the Federal union. Many modern historical revisionists will try to explain away slavery’s role in the secessionist movement and the civil war, that followed. For these individuals it is critical that the conflicts that led to the Civil War involve issues such as tariffs and other domestic policies over which reasonable men might disagree.
Curiously the South Carolina Declaration fails to mention these issues. Read more
American politics in the 1850s were dominated by the polarization over slavery, which was reflected in the increasingly menacing tone of the national political “conversation” and the retreat into starker sectionalism of political allegiances. Attempts at political compromise over this national sickness initially appeared promising, but ultimately provided only bandages, not cures. When politics failed, the doctors of the law on the Supreme Court stepped in with a massive dose of controversial and untried constitutional medicine in the Dred Scott decision. When that, too, failed, the only means left to stop the spread of the poison was through the extreme surgery of military conflict that cost the blood of over 600,000 Americans. The South wanted amputation of what it saw as the source of the poison—the North’s crusade of political domination. The North rejected amputation and wanted to save the whole patient through radical surgery to cut out the evil—Southern slavery. Read more
Senator Jefferson Davis’ response to William Seward’s State of the Country Speech was effectively a political speech- it was not meant to fully articulate the Southern cause of State’s Rights, nor was it a long-winded justification of that “peculiar institution,” slavery. Rather, Davis’ goal was to respond to Seward’s earlier speech, which condemned slavery. Within Davis’ speech, though, we find an idea more dangerous and pernicious than slavery as a positive good or that a State has rights; Davis rejected the central principle of the American Founding and Declaration of Independence, 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.” Read more
“No former effort in the line of speech-making had cost Lincoln so much time and thought as this one.” Considering the nuances and rhetoric of Lincoln’s speeches in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, it is perhaps shocking that law partner William Herndon was referring to the Cooper Union Address. Lincoln meticulously poured over dusty parchment for several months in preparation for this speech. His painstaking research included the examination of six volumes of Debates on the Federal Constitution by Elliott, the official records of the proceedings of Congress, the Congressional Globe, American history books, and other sources. He traced the actual legislative votes of thirty-nine of the Constitution’s signers to determine how they later acted on the question of slavery to prove that the Founders did indeed intend for slavery to become extinct. Read more
1859 was an ominous year for America as civil war between the sections threatened despite the attempts to avert it. Back in 1854, Stephen Douglas had tried to quell sectionalism with the Kansas-Nebraska Act that would grant the seeming American principle of popular sovereignty regarding slavery in the territories, but Kansas became “bleeding Kansas” as a shooting war between pro and anti-slavery forces erupted after they flooded the state to institute their vision of popular sovereignty. In 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney injected the Court into the political question and tried to help prevent civil war with the Dred Scott opinion, Read more
The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: And Reason, which is the Law, teaches all Mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions”
John Locke, Second Treatise of Government. 1690
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, Read more
In his “House Divided” speech, Abraham Lincoln contested the “popular sovereignty” doctrine of Stephen Douglas by stating “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” His opponent for the Illinois senate seat, Douglas, nicknamed the “Little Giant,” answered Lincoln’s charges a few weeks later in a speech in Chicago. Douglas adamantly defended the principle of popular sovereignty and revealed his understanding of the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln won the Republican nomination for the vacant U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. His opponent in the election would be Stephen Douglas. Upon his nomination, Lincoln delivered the “House Divided” speech in the war of words of what would culminate in the Lincoln-Douglas debates later that year. Read more
Abraham Lincoln’s speech on the Dred Scott Case reveals the complex nature of his views on slavery and racial equality, complexity that reflected the divided national psyche. Many Americans in the broad middle rejected the Southern defense of slavery and believed that the “peculiar institution” violated basic human rights and the fundamental equality of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness promised to all in the Declaration of Independence. Read more
On March 6, 1857, the United States Supreme Court handed down a ruling that would forever tarnish its reputation and that would help ignite the fires that led to the Civil War. That decision, Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), held that African-Americans were not United States citizens and that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in territories acquired after the creation of the United States.
The facts leading to the decision are a bit convoluted, but necessary to understand the case. Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia. Read more
The Republican Party Platform of 1856 is the most important political platform in American history. It coalesced diverse factions into a new political movement that would dominate American politics for the next 76 years, winning 14 of the next 19 Presidential elections. It also signaled the end of 36 years of political obfuscation on the issue of slavery in America, ultimately leading to the Civil War. The Republican Party Platform of 1856, more than any other platform in American history, was designed to codify a new political philosophy and to solidify a coalition of highly fractious political forces into a cogent and compelling movement. Read more
In 1820, the U.S. Congress passed the Missouri Compromise in an effort to settle disagreements between pro and anti-slavery factions regarding the admission of new states to the union. The Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery in new states north of the 36°30Ëˆ north parallel, with the exception of Missouri. In 1854, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois proposed, and succeeded in passing, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which unraveled the Missouri Compromise. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, signed into law by President Franklin Pierce on May 30, 1854, allowed citizens within the Kansas and Nebraska territories to decide by what they called “Popular Sovereignty” (a popular vote) as to whether they would allow slavery. Read more
Chattel slavery in the United States, because of its manifest injustice, was always morally tenuous. As opposition to slavery grew in the United States in the early Nineteenth Century, the states in which slavery was allowed adopted more and more draconian policies to prop up the institution. An example is the Alabama Slave Code of 1852.
Such codes help us understand the meaning and intent of the Fourteenth Amendment enacted after the Civil War to guarantee full citizenship to freed slaves and to end the practice of extending (or, more properly, denying) constitutional protection by race.
The 1852 slave code is virtually an anti-Bill of Rights. Read more
In this speech, U.S. Senator Daniel Webster strives to unify a deeply divided nation. Speaking “not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American,” he pleads “for the preservation of the Union.”
He begins with a conciliatory tone in which he tries to view the issue of slavery from both perspectives. Careful not to scold the South for the practice, he argues that the fight stems from a “difference of opinion” among equally religious men. His concern is that neither side is convincing the other and the people are merely diverging in their views. Because this is a religious debate, he believes, people are apt to “think that nothing is good but what is perfect, and that there are no compromises or modifications to be made in consideration of difference of opinion.” Read more
Sometimes the smallest, most seemingly inconsequential events can have tremendous historical significance–a minor Central European Arch Duke’s assassination igniting World War I, for instance. So it is with The Wilmot Proviso, a 71-word, one paragraph bill in the US House of Representatives.
Introduced by Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot in 1846 as part of the debate on appropriations for the cessation of the Mexican-American War (and treaty negotiations), the Proviso would have banned slavery in any territories acquired from Mexico as a result of America’s victory in that war. Read more
The Missouri Compromise
William C. Duncan, Director of the Marriage Law Foundation
In our day, it is common, indeed expected, for the United States Supreme Court to strike down laws passed by Congress as unconstitutional. In the first decades of the United States, however, this was an exceedingly rare practice. In fact, in 70 years, the Court struck down only two federal laws as unconstitutional. The second of these was the Missouri Compromise.
The Compromise was legislation that arose out of a controversy about extending slavery into the northern parts of the territory acquired during the Louisiana Purchase. The legislation “admitted Missouri as slave state but otherwise prohibited slavery Read more
In this 1830 response to Edward Everett of Massachusetts James Madison maintains that a state does not possess the authority to strike down as unconstitutional an act of the federal government. If you find the essay long-winded, you are correct in this assessment. It is long-winded because James Madison was a hypocrite on the issue of nullification, supporting the notion when it suited him, and rejecting it when it did not. You may learn from this episode an important lesson about human nature. The greatest of founding fathers does not always make a great secretary of state, a great president, or a great elder-statesman. James Madison (and Thomas Jefferson) were no exceptions to this insight. Read more
Thomas Jefferson’s April, 1820 Letter to John Holmes came as the nation expanded westward into the Louisiana Purchase, and with the homesteaders and settlers came the question of slavery. In an attempt to address slavery and its role in the new territories, it was agreed by Congress that slavery would be allowed in Missouri but no other state North of the 36°30â€² line; additionally, Maine would enter the Union as a Free State. Read more
Politics, a process of using rhetoric to maneuver and influence in order to either induce policy change or maintain the status quo, has been compared to many things–war, football, chess. And like these comparatives, one side or another can outmaneuver the other (or, in turn, be outmaneuvered). Read more
In his historical play, Henry V, Shakespeare talks about casting our glance back through history, and compressing the events of many years “into an hourglass.” In the 21st Century, it is easy to think of the debates on the abolition of slavery as having taken place with the relative-rapidity of the passage of Obamacare, but in reality this debate happened over the course of nearly an entire century of the nation’s founding years. Read more
A complicated man of contradictions, Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves throughout his life but opposed the institution. His letter reflects this paradox: Read more
John Jay is often lost in the long shadow cast by the legacies and genius of his Federalist co-authors, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Indeed, Jay authored only five of the eighty-five articles. This was not because his co-authors doubted his abilities or influence, but because Jay was stricken with illness and unable to contribute further. John Jay was a politician, patriot, Chief Justice, and a man of deep and seasoned principles. Being so driven by principle, one of the great causes Jay undertook was to limit the institution of slavery however possible in America. This endeavor is the subject of his “Letter to the English Anti-Slavery Society.” Read more
Before ever penning his share of The Federalist Papers, before championing the Constitution for a new nation, before laying the foundations of American fiscal policy, Alexander Hamilton was a vocal and “passionate critic” of the practice of slavery.
In March 1779, in the throes of the American War for Independence, Hamilton wrote to his friend and fellow New Yorker, John Jay, to endorse an effort proposed by Colonel John Laurens of South Carolina to recruit and employ black slaves in the Continental Army. Jay was sympathetic to Hamilton’s abolitionism,
Summary of Jefferson’s 18th Query on “Manners” (but it’s really about Slavery!)
Thomas Jefferson was a famously polite gentleman. “Manners,” however, has nothing to do with etiquette. You could be forgiven for giving the chapter a miss, fearing a tedious discussion of odd 18th century habits and norms (“don’t pick fleas in publick,” “put your best foote forward when bowing to a lady,” and so on…) But don’t be fooled, “Manners” contains none of that and skipping it would be a mistake. Read more
George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison on Slavery
Historian William Freehling has famously said, “[i[f men were evaluated in terms of dreams rather than deeds everyone would concede the antislavery credentials of the Founding Fathers.”[i] While the Founding generation unquestionably aspired to create a nation founded on universal freedom, the challenges of creating a nation, maintaining a profitable economy — both personally and nationally, and overcoming personal prejudices made that dream a distant reality. Read more
The Northwest Ordinance–adopted in 1787 by the Congress of the Confederation and passed again by Congress in 1789 after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution to govern the Northwest Territories which included modern day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin–is undeniably an ordinance that inherits and extends the common law tradition. This means property rights take center stage and due process of law is established as a means of protecting property rights and the rights constituent to property such as life and liberty. Read more
Each year millions of Americans walk through the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives building in Washington D.C. The Archives house our nation’s founding documents — the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. The combination of architectural beauty, august ambiance, and history is incredibly powerful. There is something, however, that is not housed in the Charters of Freedom, something most Americans know nothing about: a deleted portion of the Declaration of Independence. This part constituted the lengthiest section of Thomas Jefferson’s draft, was the most controversial, and was arguably the most vicious charge against the King of Great Britain. The passage was about slavery. Jefferson wrote: “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, Read more
He was crying from all six of his eyes. Tears gushed together with a bloody froth. Within each mouth, with gnashing teeth, he tore to bits a sinner so that he brought much pain to three at once. The first was Judas Iscariot; the second is Brutus; and the other is Cassius.
In the Ninth Circle of Dante’s Hell are punished traitors against their lords. Judas, the principal offender against religious/ecclesiastic law, is being chewed by Lucifer for having betrayed Christ. Cassius and Brutus are ground down by Lucifer for having murdered their temporal lord, Julius Caesar (who, by the way, merits only a passing mention in Inferno 4 wherein he reposes with other virtuous pagans).
It ought to strike us as strange that the leader of the Roman Empire will remain forever in Limbo while several other pagans were placed by Dante in purgatory or paradise. Cassius and Brutus are not excused by Dante for having killed the tyrant who subjugated all of Rome, Read more
Today, much of the national political debate centers on the size and scope of the federal government. Whether the discussion is focused on federal spending, the debt, or the merits and demerits of a nationalized healthcare system, at its core, the debate is about how much power the federal government should properly wield. Read more
Scholars generally attribute the authorship of the letters of Brutus to Robert Yates (1738-1801), a prominent New York politician and judge who was a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. After voicing his opposition to the plan of the Convention, Yates returned home to New York. During the state ratification debates, he then became an outspoken opponent of the proposed Constitution. In his polemical essays against the Constitution, Yates’ chosen pen name was Brutus, and his objective was to slay Ceasar. Read more
George Washington’s letter transmitting the Constitution to Congress marked a milestone achievement in the founding of the modern United States. George Washington, the President of the Second Continental Congress, sent his letter on September 17, 1787 after four months of having been locked in a crucible of sweltering summer heat, clashing political interests, grueling debate, tenacious deadlock, and demanding compromise. Even though a majority of the convention’s delegat agreed to and drafted a new Constitution, it was well known that the real battle was soon to be realized. The battle to come would be the struggle to ratify the Constitution in at least nine states, which was the minimum number required in order for it to have the force of law. Read more
James Madison spent much of late 1786 and early 1787 at work on what one historian called his “research project.” Having participated in helping bring about the interstate convention that was going to meet in Philadelphia in May 1787, he intended to apply both historical knowledge and practical experience to the task of shaping proposals he would make as a member of Virginia’s delegation to the convention.
To that end, he drafted a memorandum on the history of federal governments. He also gathered his notes on problems in the American federal system under the Articles of Confederation into an eleven-point memorandum. Read more
Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia provides an examination of the difficulties the State of Virginia faced in governing itself over the course of the Revolutionary period. Self-government, as the United States has learned over the last two centuries, is no mean feat. It was made all the more difficult as there were no enduring examples to look to for guidance, and one of the greatest militaries the world had known had waged a war across the Thirteen Colonies. Query XIII: Constitution addresses a wide range of issues, from justice in representation, the separation of powers, to a warning against expediency in deviating from the rule of law. Read more
George Washington’s elegant and courteous letter to James Madison illustrates what America’s most eminent man thought about the existing government, or more properly, the need for reform of the system just prior to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 (as well as providing sage counsel about moderation in dealing with civil unrest and integrity in foreign relations, among other matters).
For Washington, the need for reform centered in the “inadequacy of the powers under which [the Confederation Congress] acts.” Read more
Five years after the surrender at Yorktown, circumstances were all but calm for the young republic. George Washington, retired to Mount Vernon, wrote a letter to the second Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation, John Jay, articulating his concerns over the state of events. Washington began the letter disquieted by the divergent foreign policies the states pursued. The focus of the letter quickly shifted from foreign policy, to alarm Read more
In 1783, George Washington drafts a letter that he asks to be sent to the state legislatures of all the states that made up colonies of the USA. These states were Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island.
Washington wrote as a retiring general and war hero to commend to his fellow citizens the need to examine its government’s existing operational flaws and pursue the kind of improvements that were soon to be found in a newly drafted US Constitution. Read more
If Jay Leno were to conduct a “Man on the Street” segment and ask random Americans to name the first constitution for the United States, the answers would probably range from, “The Declaration of Independence,” to “the Preamble,” to “Who cares?” The answer, of course, is The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. American ignorance of the Articles is problematic for several reasons, not the least of which being a lack of understanding about the fundamental structure of the American general government. The Articles of Confederation is, in fact, the most maligned and misunderstood document in American political history. It is the bedrock of the United States Constitution which replaced it, and the Founders’ conception of Union and the appropriate powers of government can be found in its Thirteen Articles. Read more
The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was an agreement among the thirteen founding states that established the United States of America as a confederation of sovereign states and that served as its first constitution. The Second Continental Congress began to draft the Articles on June 12, 1776, and sent an approved version to the states for ratification in late 1777.
The first state to ratify the Articles was Virginia on December 17, 1777. Read more
“Conscience is the Most Sacred of Property”: James Madison’s Essay on Property
by Tony Williams
On January 24, 1774, James Madison wrote to a college friend praising the Boston Tea Party, which had occurred only weeks before. He praised the Boston patriots for their boldness in “defending liberty and property.” Equating political and civil liberty, he warned that if the Church of England had established itself as the official religion of all the colonies, then “slavery and subjection might and would have been gradually insinuated among us.” Read more
On January 1, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson received a thirteen-foot mammoth cheese weighing some 1,200 pounds. It was delivered by dissenting Baptist minister and long-time advocate of religious liberty, Reverend John Leland, who then preached a sermon to the president and members of Congress at the Capitol two days later. Jefferson took the opportunity to compose a letter to the Danbury Baptists on the relationship between government and religion that would shape the course of twentieth-century jurisprudence. Read more
At the end of his second presidential administration, after forty-five years serving America, President Washington did not want to leave without imparting some final guidance and wisdom. To do so, Washington, working from drafts written by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, wrote a letter to the American people titled “The Address of Gen. Washington to the People of America, on his Declining the Presidency of the United States” and more popularly known as “Washington’s Farewell Address.” Read more
President George Washington’s famous letter “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island” of August 18, 1790, is a response to a letter of the previous day penned by Moses Seixas on behalf of Congregation Yeshuat Israel. Seixas’s letter gives thanks to God for the religious liberty afforded at last by a government “erected by the Majesty of the People” and an “equal and benign administration.” This, after centuries of persecution and oppression of the descendants of Abraham by governments worldwide. Read more
America’s Founding generation well understood the principle that, in order to maintain individual liberty and freedom of conscience, civil government must be limited in its purpose and its power. They also knew the history of widespread and bloody religious conflict behind that principle. At the same time, many Americans believed that government should support religion because religion promoted virtuous lives and nurtured the social order needed for self-government. Balancing these concerns was a matter of great significance. Read more
James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments” is an important document in establishing the necessity of religious liberty in America.
Madison grew up in a Virginia in which the Church of England was the established church. Not only were Virginia’s citizens taxed to support the Church of England, but ministers of other denominations were frequently jailed for preaching what they believed. In January of 1774, Read more
Enacted on July 13, 1787, the Northwest Ordinance was a great achievement, and a document Americans should be proud to own. Yet it emerged from a Congress that, under the Articles of Confederation, had not been able to achieve very much. Circumstances in the territories, moreover, were very difficult, and the motives for passing the ordinance among many Members were less than honorable. That shouldn’t change our positive view of the Ordinance, but might instead lead us to think about how petty motives can nonetheless, sometimes, lead to great things. Read more
The Founders’ proclamations on fasting and prayer are relevant today
by George Landrith
Today, many Americans think that government and even public life must be strictly separated from religious life and faith. Few know what the Constitution actually says about religious freedom or what the Founders believed about the concepts of liberty, God, and religion. But our history paints a very clear picture.
On March 16, 1776, the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia issued a proclamation calling for a day of fasting and prayer. Read more
The Virginia Declaration of Rights is one of the key source documents of the U.S. Constitution. This first American declaration of rights includes multiple provisions later echoed, and even copied, by the authors of the U.S. Constitution. The Declaration’s chief author, George Mason, and one of the two other main contributors, James Madison, played extremely prominent roles in both the writing and ratification of the Constitution and the movement culminating in the Bill of Rights, so the resemblance is no surprise. Read more
In the last public communication of his life, Thomas Jefferson made it crystal clear why documents and actions have lasting consequences. In his letter to Washington, DC Mayor, Roger C. Weightman, Jefferson eloquently asserts the legacy of the Declaration of Independence by declaring it: “the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.”
Jefferson was a student of history. He understood its central role in our present and future. Earlier he wrote: “History, by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future; Read more
As 1776 began, America’s rebellion against British colonial rule was not yet a revolution. Less than half the projected number of volunteers had enlisted in the Continental army with desertions mounting. George Washington was entrenched, but stalemated in Cambridge outside of Boston. The British Commander, General John Burgoyne, mocked the situation by writing and producing the satirical play, “The Blockade”, which portrayed Washington as an incompetent flailing a rusty sword. Then something amazing happened.
“Common Sense” was published on January 9, 1776. It remains one of the most indispensable documents of America’s founding. In forty-eight pages, Thomas Paine accomplished three things fundamental to America. Read more
With the certitude of wisdom and the patronizing tone one might recall from one’s own youth, the precocious young Alexander Hamilton offers to teach the Loyalist Samuel Seabury the true meaning of the rights of man. The pointed words used and Hamilton’s sarcastic references to the “Farmer’s” ignorance of the God-given nature of those rights are put in even greater relief when one is reminded that Seabury was one of a long line of bishops, rectors, and professors in the American Episcopal Church and extremely influential in the development of the American church’s doctrine after the Revolution. “If you will follow my advice, there still may be hopes of your reformation,” takes on more layers of meaning, when addressed to a Protestant Read more
John Adams wrote, “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people … This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”
How did a revolution commence in the minds and hearts of Americans? It germinated in pulpits and taverns, and from pamphleteers and newspapers. By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed, there was a colonial consensus on a few key principles. Today, we call these the Founding Principles or First Principles. Read more
On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress, after months of preparation and weeks of political wrangling, announced that it had adopted an independence declaration. That document was written by Thomas Jefferson and substantially revised (“mangled,” according to Jefferson) by the Congress. Due to his other obligations, Jefferson had little time to spend on this task. Fortunately, he had composed his Summary View of the Rights of British America just two years earlier, from which he could draw much of the substance of the new document.
The Summary View resonates quite differently from the petitions, remonstrances, and declarations of a decade earlier. Read more
Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved-James Otis
The Declaration of Rights of the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 set forth the fundamental principle that no taxes could be imposed on them, “but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.” This principle was reduced to the aphorism “taxation without representation is tyranny” and, eventually, “no taxation without representation.” One cannot assign this idea to any individual or movement, as it reflects a long historical struggle between King and Parliament that culminated in the Glorious Revolution and the English Bill of Rights of 1689. Read more
Modern people argue about the importance of the Constitution asking: Should we strictly adhere to its words, or should we view it as a living document? The Founders penned it more than 200 years ago. Is it still relevant today?
In his short piece, “Fragment on the Constitution and the Union,” Abraham Lincoln asserts that it is not the founding document that bears the greatest importance, but the principle that undergirds it. Namely, the principle upon which America was founded: liberty for all. So long as we are true to this principle, we are honoring the essence of the American idea.
Lincoln explains that the United States of America could have been formed as a new nation without the principle of liberty for all. Given the circumstances — mass immigration to the New World, Read more
“It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” With those understated words, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall ushered in the modern era of judicial review – the notion that it is up to judges, not legislators or presidents, to finally interpret and give meaning to the nation’s Constitution and laws.
During the founding era, Alexander Hamilton had written Federalist 78, to assure those wary of a strong federal judiciary that “[T]he judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution,” because it holds neither the power of the sword, as the Executive (Presidential) Branch does, nor the power of the purse strings, as the Legislative Branch (Congress) does. Read more
When Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were creating the University of Virginia, they decided that the three American documents that would best illuminate the meaning of the Constitution when teaching future statesmen were the Declaration of Independence (along with the ideas of John Locke and Algernon Sidney), George Washington’s Farewell Address, and the Federalist.
Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence expressed the universal principle that all men were endowed by a Creator with natural, unalienable rights. Influenced by the ideas of John Locke’s social compact theory, the purpose of government was to protect those natural rights.
If any government became tyrannical, or destructive of the ends for which it was created, the people had a right to overthrow that government and to institute a government that would protect their rights. Read more
Algernon Sidney, the author of the Discourses, was a man of the 17th century’s Age of Reason. He was skeptical of organized religion though not by that measure doubting of God. He was firmly convinced of the inherent rationality of the human will and the essential equality of all humans as children of God, from which he deduced the ultimate sovereignty of individuals and the basis of the ethical state in the consent of the governed. That made him a foundational figure in the emerging English Whig republicanism, but one about whom history has given a divided verdict.
He was executed in 1683 for plotting to instigate rebellion against Charles II. Many historians believe that the evidence for that particular charge was procured. It is clear, however, that for many years he was supported in his machinations and plotting against the English government by generous support from the French king, Louis XIV. Read more
John Locke’s Second Treatise is the much better known half of his Two Treatises of Government. Although the Treatises were not published until 1689, they were composed during the decade that culminated in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. During that decade Locke was deeply involved in opposition to the authoritarian ambitions of Charles II and James II; and the Two Treatises were written to provide intellectual support for resistance against over-reaching monarchical power.
The Stuart Monarchs (James I and Charles I prior to the Civil Wars of the 1640s Read more
Cicero’s De Republica
by Robert Frank Pence
Cicero’s De Republica
Robert Frank Pence
Gone, gone for ever is that valour that used to be found in this Republic and caused brave men to suppress a citizen traitor with keener punishment than the most bitter foe.
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.) had a decision to make. Catiline and his fellow conspirators were going to assassinate Cicero and other Roman senators within hours. What should he do? Knowing that Rome had its enemies, domestic as well as foreign, Cicero immediately had several of the conspirators arrested, taken to prison, and executed, all without extending to them the right of trial. Cicero announced their deaths to the crowd with the word vixerunt (“they had lived,” meaning, euphemistically, “they are dead”). Read more
Aristotle studied under Plato and tutored Alexander the Great. If only because of his pedigree he should be read and understood by anyone who is interested in politics. But those who want to understand politics in general, and American politics in particular, would do well to study the works of Aristotle for the insight they provide on human nature and the nature of politics.
According to Aristotle, a person can be truly human only within a community. Aristotle wrote in the Politics that any man who exists outside of a community is either a beast or a god (Politics 1253a2, 1253a25; see also NE 1097b10). For man is by nature a political animal which means if he is to act according to his nature he must live among others. Read more
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics & American Republican Government
After George Washington was sworn-in as the first president of the new American republic on April 30, 1789, he delivered his First Inaugural Address to the people’s representatives in Congress. He started the speech with his characteristic humility, stating that although he wished to retire to Mount Vernon and did not have the requisite skill to govern a country, he was nevertheless answering the call of his country. The address struck a distinctly Aristotelian chord in Washington’s wishes for his country.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, describes his understanding of the basic nature of man. Humans are rational creatures, he maintains, and must use that reason to exercise self-restraint over their passions. That same rationality allows humans to be ethical, Read more
Letter to Henry Lee (May 8, 1825)
In his 1825 letter to Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson lays out the “object” of the Declaration, the origins of the “self-evident” principles it outlines, and the nature of its authority.
The “object of the Declaration of Independence,” he explains, was to “appeal to the tribunal of the world” with a justification of the decision “to resort to arms for redress” in response to “the acts of the British government contravening” the rights of Americans. This purpose is clear in the vast bulk of the Declaration that carefully lists these abuses and explains the means, short of war, Americans took to gain redress. Read more
Reading the Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence bears the heading, “in Congress, July 4, 1776, a declaration by the representatives of the United States of America, in general Congress assembled.” At the outset we see the practice of a “congress” — it reads: “in Congress July 4, 1776.” This act taken in a solemn assembly was called for specific purposes “by the representatives of the United States of America.” This is ambiguous, for the American states were previously colonies, not states. Read more
When in 1863 Abraham Lincoln began his address at Gettysburg battlefield with the phrase, “Four score and seven years ago,” he reminded his fellow citizens that their cause in the Civil War was also the cause of 1776. In the year of America’s birth, Lincoln stated, “Our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
America’s principles are liberty and equality, and our Founding understanding of their relationship was revolutionary. Read more