July 4, 2007

A Screed, Not a Creed

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.
A safe and glorious Fourth to all.

Now let's consider a couple of points.

There's the ongoing controversy about American identity. Some would have it that it is purely a matter of adherence to propositions--we are Americans simply because we believe in the Declaration and its supposed iterations. Although many give this notion lip service, I don't think it stands up to any kind of examination. We are American by virtue of our participation in a complex tradition, composed of many eddies and ripples, but the main channel has been English, Protestant, republican, and enterpreneurial. You can become juridically American by passing a test and swearing an oath, but to become culturally American is a bit more complex:
Our fundamentally British culture, as Russell Kirk termed it, is at the core of who we Americans are. Should newcomers embrace that culture, or at least what is left of it, they may be welcome, depending, of course, on a host of other considerations and pursuant to respect for the laws of the nation, but if they approach being American in an ideological way (”I like freedom! I like democracy!”) it is doubtful that they will ever become American in this meaningful sense, regardless of what their status as citizens may be.
The Declaration is a historical document of great eloquence and significance, but it is less than a creed, because its rooted in a particular place and time, and the tradition of which it is a part is more than a set of propositions that one can put on like a T-shirt with a slogan on it. Moreover, although the document may have offended such notions as the divine right of kings, it's not a democratic manifesto.

Now let's look at the text a bit. It starts out with a bit of theology, followed by a statement about equality. What this equality consists in is far from obvious; it cannot be a rejection of rank, or even of inherited or ascribed status, because the realities of 18th Century American life would have belied any such claim. Rather it must be some kind of equality of worth of all souls in the eyes of God.

Nor does this equality seem in any way necessary to the argument, which is essentially that governments exist for their citizens' benefit, and although if merely imperfect are best tolerated, but ultimately rest upon common consent; and if things get bad enough, that common consent may be withdrawn and a new government instituted. There is no notion here that voting of any kind is necessary to legitimate government, let alone universal suffrage, or that government should promote social or economic equality.

Instead, the bulk of the document is a list of grievances, setting forth the ways in which the King has deprived his American subjects of their traditional rights as Englishmen. These grievances, runs the argument, harking back to the beginning, are strong enough that we Americans need no longer consent to English rule and may instead overthrow it.

Although we justly frame the Declaration, it's less a creed than a screed against King George. It's rooted in the specifics of a particular period of history, and emerges from a particular tradition. It's far more particular than universal.

We are carnal beings, joined flesh and spirit. Our identity includes ideas, but the ideas do not sufficiently define us. We have a patriot's dream but we need the purple mountains and the amber grain. We are created equal, but we are created in a time, a place, and have a tradition, or better, a stream of traditions. The ideas can't just be exported by radio broadcasts or bayonet thrusts to any mountains, fields, and people. Without an organic connection to life and history, ideas, even those of the Declaration, are empty abstractions.

No comments: