The Fourth of July comes this year when we are seeing a massive movement in the streets, professing to be “protests,” but seething with a rejection of the American Founding and our institutions. The fine points–if there are fine points–get lost, and what comes through is a hatred of America. We find “Juneteenth” offered now, not only as another day to be celebrated in the annals of freedom, but as a rival and critique of the Fourth of July. We are hearing a revival of the argument made by Chief Justice Taney in the Dred Scott case, and picked up by Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois: that black people were never included in that principle of “all men are created equal”; that the phrase simply meant that all British subjects residing in America were equal to British subjects living in Britain. “Why, according to this,” said Lincoln, “not only [black people] but white people outside of Great Britain and America are not spoken of in [the Declaration of Independence]. The English, Irish and Scotch, along with white Americans, were included to be sure, but the French, Germans and other white people of the world are all gone to pot along with the [Douglas’s] inferior races.”
The critics on the streets of our country these days seem to know nothing of that crisis of our “house divided” that brought forth Lincoln: the attack on “all men are created equal” came along with the move to break down the barriers and make slavery national in scope. As Lincoln understood, slavery marked the most radical rejection of the principle of government by “the consent of the governed.” If the black man is a man, said Lincoln,” is it not a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself?” For white people to acquiesce in the enslavement black was to lay the ground that would justify the removal of the franchise, or the power to vote, from certain classes of whites as well. Step by step, the popular character of regime would recede and the authoritarian features of political rule would become far more pronounced. And so, any movement that sought to discredit democratic government and justify slavery would find some way of sneering at that principle of “all men are created equal.” Those telling words would become, as Lincoln said, ” a stumbling block,” a telling bump in the road, “to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism.”
In July 1858 Lincoln spoke in Chicago just a few days after Fourth of July. He remarked that the celebration of the day reminded of “the good done [in the revolution] or how it was done and who did it.” But he noted as well that most of the celebrants by now sprang from families who had come much later. “Perhaps half our people,” he said, “are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French and Scandinavian—men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things.”
If those people looked back to “trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none.” But then these people look at the country and themselves “through that old Declaration of Independence [and] they find that those old men say that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.” [Italics added]
That sense of things, said Lincoln, coming from the Declaration, “is the electric cord … that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.”
They were “blood of the blood, flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote the Declaration.” This is what Harry Jaffa called “democratic transubstantiation.” People bearing the imprint of different nationalities and races could come to this country and they could grasp the central idea of the citizenship they share with everyone else if they simply grasped the principle contained in that phrase “all men are created equal”: that no man is by nature the ruler of other men in the way that men are by nature the ruler of dogs and horses, and God was by nature the ruler of men. The curious thing is that newcomers still do have a grasp of that idea. They may not be able to fill in the political theory, but they have the “sense of the thing.” And of course people who are drawn to this country often seem to have a sharper sense of what is different about this country than people who were born and raised here.
On the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Calvin Coolidge, a son of Amherst College, offered one of the most moving reflections on the teaching in the Declaration. He remarked that, “About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful: If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.”
In the years to come we would see killings carried out on a massive scale by men seized with theories and seeking to bring about in the world a more exacting “social justice” and “relieve the estate of mankind.” Each regime seeking to lift mankind in this way to new planes of equality would find itself needing ever larger powers of command and control, over the economy, and over the daily lives of ordinary people. Each grand movement to liberate mankind ever further would find itself, as Coolidge understood, simply backing into forms of government that had to dispense more and more with the lingering conventions of “the consent of the governed.”
In other words, on the scenes we’re seeing played out now on the streets of the country… we’ve seen this movie before. As Coolidge recognized, these leaders of the mobs fly under false colors as “progressives”; they are, as he said, “reactionary.” They would simply bring us back to older forms of despotism covered over with more stylish equipment.
Far better to get on with this day, feeling again that “electric cord” that ties the generations together. And we remind ourselves again–as we should keep reminding ourselves–of what good luck we inherited because our grandparents and great-grandparents summoned the courage to start a new life and come to this place.