Is Rush Limbaugh Right About the Declaration of Independence?

Rush Limbaugh has always had a keen talent for rooting out liberal assumptions. A gadfly to the ruling class, the broadcasting powerhouse has the unique (and almost philosophic) talent of angering the Beltway literati while at the same time edifying his audience.

On his radio show last week, Limbaugh sensed he had happened upon yet another opportunity to show the depths to which liberal premises have taken over the American mind. He commented on the recent discovery of a copy of the Declaration of Independence, which he claimed was appropriated by liberals to subtly teach Americans that the founders wanted a massive centralized government.

align=”left” [T]he historical record shows clearly that the Declaration’s authority rested on “one people” rather than a compact between the states. Further, there is no necessary connection between the idea of a national union and the unlimited government we have today.

The rare parchment copy of the Declaration was found by Danielle Allen and Emily Sneff of Harvard University in a records office in Chichester, a town on the southern coast of England. It was certainly providential that Allen would make this discovery. After all, she is a scholar of the Declaration and the author of a recent book that is a word-by-word exegesis of its text. The copy may have originally been commissioned by James Wilson, a signer of both the Declaration and Constitution and also one of the first members of the Supreme Court. It is believed that Wilson had it sent to the Duke of Richmond, who was one of a handful of supporters of the American Revolution in the House of Lords.

What drew Rush’s ire was Allen’s conclusion that unlike virtually all the other copies of the Declaration, this one “scrambles the names so they are no longer grouped by state.” In fact, “It is the only version of the Declaration that does that, with the exception of an engraving from 1836 that derives from it. This is really a symbolic way of saying we are all one people, or ‘one community,’ to quote James Wilson.”

 Rush quickly pounced:

The Harvard researcher is suggesting the second copy blows to hell the whole premise of federalism and establishes an all-powerful command-and-control one unitary central governing authority. And the states, to hell with ’em, all because in this copy the signers did not group themselves by state nor are the states from which they hail mentioned.

As he is always quick to point out, when liberals aren’t attacking the founders as deplorable for their supposed racism, sexism, and bigotry, they read them as the progenitors of modern liberalism. But in this case, he missed the mark.

Though I can’t speak to Allen’s intentions, the historical record shows clearly that the Declaration’s authority rested on “one people” rather than a compact between the states. Further, there is no necessary connection between the idea of a national union and the unlimited government we have today. In fact, the state compact view of the union was articulated largely by pro-slavery politicians, who wanted to preserve that awful institution for future generations.

The Nature of the Union

The Declaration tells us that its authority rests upon the “one people” whose representatives “mutually pledged” their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor for the cause of self-government. The one people who inhabited America in 1776 were then already defined by certain characteristics and a common purpose. Abraham Lincoln examined the origins of this union in his Special Message to Congress on July 4, 1861:

The Union is older than any of the States; and, in fact, it created them as States. Originally, some dependent colonies made the Union; and, in turn, the Union threw off their old dependence, for them, and made them States, such as they are. Not one of them ever had a State constitution, independent of the Union. Of course, it is not forgotten that all the new States framed their constitutions, before they entered the Union; nevertheless, dependent upon, and preparatory to, coming into the Union.

More specifically, Lincoln argued in his First Inaugural that the union “was formed in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774” and was then “matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence.” The Articles were produced by the First Continental Congress, which formed in response to the Intolerable Acts—a set of harsh trade restrictions the British levied on Americans in the wake of the Boston Massacre. The passage of the Articles marked the first time Americans asserted themselves as a distinct people on the world stage.  

Lincoln then expanded on his claim regarding the Declaration of Independence:

Therein the “United Colonies” were declared to be “Free and Independent States”; but, even then, the object plainly was not to declare their independence of one another, or of the Union; but directly the contrary, as their mutual pledge, and their mutual action, before, at the time, and afterwards, abundantly show. 

Lincoln’s argument is backed with copious evidence. As Harry V. Jaffa has posited, the “resolutions adopted by the Revolutionary colonial assemblies” authorized “union as well as independence.” For example, Connecticut’s resolution for independence on June 14, 1776 called for “a regular and permanent plan of union and confederation of the colonies.” New Jersey’s resolution argued that the state was “entering a confederation for union and common defense.” (Note that union was the necessary foundation for defending the nation from British tyranny.) Even more clearly connecting independence and union, the people of New Hampshire stated their intention “to join with the other colonies in declaring the thirteen colonies a free and independent state.”

Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson drafting the Declaration of Independence.

James Madison and Thomas Jefferson confirmed this reading decades later. After naming the Declaration among “the best guides” on “the distinctive principles” of the United States, Madison noted that “the Declaration of Independence” should be understood “as the fundamental act of union of these states.”

Americans must recognize, then, that though the federal and state governments are sovereign within their respective spheres, the source of their authority resides with the people themselves. As James Madison once wrote, “The people, not the government, possess the absolute sovereignty.” Since the people are ultimately sovereign, they have the final authority over the meaning of the Constitution, which was created in order to secure their interests alone.

The Problem with State Compact Theory

The claim that the union was formed by a compact between the states qua states actually served as the foundation of the pro-slavery argument. In this bit of historical revisionism, the state legislatures are said to be the ultimate sovereigns and retain the right to order their internal affairs however they choose—no matter whether their purposes are consistent with the principles of republican government. Ironically, this misbegotten idea of the union has a much greater potential to unleash unlimited government than the partly federal, partly national union America’s Founders actually created.

According to this argument, if the “rights” of a state are contravened, that state has the right to lawfully secede from the union and to form a new political entity. But the Declaration clearly speaks of the rights of individuals—not those of the states. Properly speaking,“states’ rights” do not exist. States have powers; only individuals have rights, which were granted to them by their Creator. The job of every legitimate government is to protect those rights and safeguard the sovereignty of the people.

It is clear that this alternate view of the union is inconsistent with the union as the Founders and Lincoln understood it. The states do not possess a greater authority than that of the people whose interests they were created to help secure. The states, which are currently little more than administrative sub-units of the federal government, are not the political equivalent of the Holy of Holies as some conservatives seem to suggest. Only the people themselves, in Thomas Paine’s words, “have it in [their] power to begin the world over again.”

The Framers as Defenders of Big Government?

Rush also falls into another trap in describing founder James Wilson as “a huge advocate for nationalist government.” Alexander Hamilton is typically the founder targeted for his supposed love of big government, which is what I take Rush to mean by using the term “nationalist.”

But in labeling Wilson in this way, Limbaugh takes for granted that Progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Croly were correct in their appropriation of the Founders for their own political purposes. In campaign speeches and books, early Progressives routinely linked their politics to Founders with a more energetic view of government as a way to claim that their project was simply a continuation—and not a rejection—of the Founders’ regime.

Founders such as Wilson and Hamilton who favored a more extensive use of government powers nonetheless still saw the need for limits on that power. The Constitution in their minds only granted the federal government certain enumerated powers and the implied powers that were essential to carry them out. In fact, Wilson was so concerned about the government contravening its limited purposes that he was against the addition of a bill of rights to the Constitution because he feared it would be taken to mean that “everything that is not enumerated is presumed to be given.”

Wilson had perhaps the deepest understanding of the Constitution next only to James Madison, the Father of the Constitution himself. And he always took the written text of the Constitution and the natural law and natural rights principles of the Declaration as his lodestar and compass. There is no doubt that Wilson would be aghast at the unlimited government we have today, which regularly violates the Constitution for the self-serving purpose of aggrandizing the various clients of the administrative state.

Getting right with the Founders is imperative. Understanding the nature of the regime they put in place is necessary to re-establish a politics based on the consent of the governed. Though the Founders certainly cannot provide direct answers to solving today’s challenges, knowing that sovereignty resides ultimately with the people is a crucial first step to recovering republican self-government.


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8 responses to “Is Rush Limbaugh Right About the Declaration of Independence?”

  1. Mike I usually like your work. But not this time. However, you’re correct when you say the ultimate sovereignty lies with the people and that state sovereignty is a function of the state’s sundry obligations. But, the states indeed established the general gov’t (Union)and the means utilized was the Constitution, a document whose primary purpose was to strictly define and limit the rights and obligations of that government. I share this perception with the majority of founders including both Madison and Jefferson, and I find support in their defense of ‘state’s rights’ prominently elucidated in their Kentucky Resolutions and the resulting concept of state nullification. You might want to consult the history of contretemps surrounding “The Hartford Convention,” and a close reading of the anti-Federalists would be of assistance.

    • I would also recommend looking into how Rhode Island was treated by the new federal government before that state ratified the Constitution. Lincoln, while a great man, was not a founder and his interpretation of the Declaration was not necessarily the interpretation shared by the majority of the founders, no matter what Harry Jaffa and Tom West claim.

  2. The article is correct. Although the individual states sent delegates to the both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, the principles in the Declaration define the legitimacy of all governments, not merely the Federal one. Moreover, ratification was by citizens of each state, not by the state governments as such. The compact theory of government is incorrect, even if some of the Founding generation understood it differently. Indeed, it is wrong to the point of absurdity to imagine that men who signed the Declaration of Independence were comfortable with the idea of unrestrained state governments. They simply assumed that the States, being closer to the people, would be less likely to infringe rights. That proved as false as the limits on the Federal power.

    • The first ten amemdments, the “Bill of Rights” did not apply to the states until the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were ratified after the Civil War. Even after that the first ten have been applied selectively by the Supreme Court using “substantive due process” supposedly found in the 14th Amendment.

  3. I would defer to the experts here, but so far there is no agreement. I will just note that there is an inevitable tension in any federal structure, and that it is likely that the Founders themselves were not of one mind. Note that in the Constitution the United States are referred to in the plural, and that in the Tenth Amendment the States or the People are stipulated to have powers not expressly delegated to the (federal) United States.

    The critical issue, of course, is the right (or not) of secession, which President Lincoln decided by bloody force of arms, and which doubtless affected his interpretation of the history. Now how will President Trump deal with the secession of California?

    /L. E. Joiner

    • Now how will President Trump deal with the secession of California?

      How about, “Good Riddance.”

  4. I think Rush was suspicious that the Harvard professors were attempting an interpretation of the Declaration to support an argument against federalism. I believe he is right to be suspicious of that bunch of America haters and big government lovers.

  5. I am not sure what everyone is talking about with regard to ‘states’ prior to the Declaration. The Declaration clearly places ‘the people’ as the primary justification/motive for the secession of British colonies from British rule. Whatever administrative units that existed prior to the Declaration were, in fact, colonial provinces, not ‘states’. The Declaration is a manifesto, it declares certain things to be the case (without arguing for them) including ‘inalienable rights’, among them the right of ‘the people’ to form their own governments. It also includes the reasons for secession from British rule. It is the *assertion* of these rights by ‘the people’ the provide the justification for the creation of a new sovereignty, or, as Benjamin Franklin put it ‘A republic, if you can keep it’.