Remembering ‘The Father Of All Moral Principle’
Americans are passionately attached to no two things perhaps more closely than they are to their rights and to equality. Under the banner of furthering those two things have most of the broad social movements and transformative legislative agendas taken place that mark our nation’s history.
From when the colonists’ “decent respect for the opinions of mankind” impelled them in 1776 to declare the necessity of America taking its place among the several “powers of the earth” as a separate and equally sovereign entity, through to the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, and up to Illinois’ surprising ratification this very May of the once-moribund Equal Rights Amendment, we’ve seemed to be nothing but committed to actualizing in every way the self-evident truths that each of us is “created equal” and “endowed … with certain unalienable Rights.”
In continuing this 242-year tradition, we are a testament to Thomas Jefferson’s famous formulation to Henry Lee in 1825, that the Declaration of Independence is indeed “an expression of the American mind.”
The essence of America, and the aspiration of would-be Americans whether so born or so sworn, is the commitment to advocate for and defend each person’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. While this commitment originally resulted in a historical revolution that we commemorate every July Fourth, it more importantly represents a philosophical revolution in the understanding of the nature of political community and the limited ends and resultant form of government that necessarily sees both equality and rights less expansively than many apply it today.
In one fell scratch of a quill pen, the American revolutionaries toppled centuries of political custom that gave to hereditary monarchs the right to rule simply because they were born in the line of succession. This is a human convention, according to the Declaration, and one that the succeeding paragraphs of the Declaration show does not ensure a properly just government (the “long train of abuses”), because not ordered to securing the safety and thus possibility for happiness of the people (their unalienable rights).
The objective fact, however, is that “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” show how every human being is equally free and independent by the mere fact of being born a human being — neither a master nor a slave of other people. The properly just government reflects that it is based on the consent of a people aware of their individual inherent right, as much as of their reciprocal obligation not to deny the similar right of their neighbor. Hence, the American experiment in republican self-government, and the elevation in it of the rule of law.
Despite the fact that few of today’s more than 300 million Americans are direct descendants of the colonists, all can still partake in the republican experiment engendered by their convictions and actions. Abraham Lincoln told his Chicago audience in 1858 that they were proper descendants of that founding generation so long as they believed the proposition that “all men are created equal” is “the father of all moral principle.”
The Declaration is thicker than mere blood. Of course, blood has also been shed because of the Declaration’s principles.
The popular narrative about American history for the last few decades conveniently glosses over the historic reality that it took a counter-revolution against the Declaration’s principles well after the Constitutional Convention to continue and grow the institution of slavery. At the time of the ratification of the Constitution, 10 out of the 13 states had suffrage for blacks — but by the late 1830s, it was people such as Senator John Calhoun, George Fitzhugh and Alexander Stephens who were bluntly proclaiming that slavery was a “positive good,” because “nothing can be more unfounded and false (than) the prevalent opinion that all men are born free and equal.”
It was Lincoln’s appeal back to the Declaration’s principles of equality that chartered his course to preserve the Union and the experiment of self-government.
Lincoln was adamant that the heart of the Declaration was the truth of the equality principle as the basis of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” But as the event of the Civil War showed, and as we see in our own day, that experiment is not self-perpetuating. It requires a continued political will, informed by a proper understanding and attachment to our fundamental political principle: that justice is the measurement of how well our laws and institutions maintain the equal right of all to life and to liberty.
Rebecca Burgess is the program manager at the American Enterprise Institute’s Program on American Citizenship. Readers may send her email at email@example.com.