Their Boring Declaration—and Our Glorious One

It requires a special and unenviable talent to take our wonderful Independence Day holiday—marked by patriotic orations, parades, and reenactments of “the bombs bursting in air”—and turn it into something wan and lifeless. But leave it to Ben Kleinerman, the editor of The Constitutionalist blog, to achieve just that feat

The moderate, safe, and emphatically conventional scholars associated with The Constitutionalist seem to regard it as their duty to prop up our decaying establishment, even as it wheezes toward oblivion. This agenda means expelling whatever might be regarded as unduly radical or disruptive from the history and theory of the United States. Hence Kleinerman’s weird and disappointing Independence Day exegesis of the Declaration of Independence—an analysis adapted from an annual ritual that, by his own admission, failed to impress his own family but which he hopes might sway readers of his predictable blog. 

Kleinerman’s purgatorial lecture (inflicted every July 4 on his children before allowing them to go to “the bike parade and chicken barbecue . . . the afternoon hot dogs and the evening fireworks”) opens this way:

The Declaration begins with a strikingly moderate argument. Jefferson does not announce that colonial freedom follows naturally from a sacred right of self-government. . . . That is, the equality of self-government isn’t enough to justify the dissolution of ‘the political bands which have connected them with another.’ They need reasons other than broad and sweeping principles for dissolving their bonds with Great Britain. Moreover, this first paragraph claims not that they are ‘revolting’ against the British, but that they are ‘dissolving’ their political bands with the nation across the sea. Seemingly, a ‘revolt’ might be premised on more abstract principles, whereas a ‘dissolution’ follows from certain concrete abuses that can no longer be tolerated. The American ‘Revolution’ might more properly be called the American ‘Dissolution.’   

Let me say that I do give Kleinerman credit for taking the Declaration seriously and recognizing that July 4 is more than a consumer event for George Washington impersonators hawking dishwashers. But his explication of the founding, while sensible in some places, is often wrong because he tries so hard to make it boring. The true and far more exciting story, one suspects, makes him uneasy because it encourages (i.e., gives courage to) spirited citizens to take the principles of the revolution seriously and to think about what it means to assert and defend their natural rights today.

And his final paragraph, which I will address below, is simply a travesty.

As an example of what the founders really thought—in contrast to Kleinerman’s attempt to disparage the “broad and sweeping principles” in the Declaration—consider John Adams’ letter to his wife on July 3, 1776. Adams observed that the Continental Congress was discussing the greatest question that “ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men.” He goes on to remark that a Declaration was being drafted “setting forth the Causes, which have impell’d Us to this mighty Revolution.” In fact, the language of revolution was commonplace during and after the founding era, as when George Washington wrote in 1789 that “the events of the American Revolution [elicit] the warmest gratitude towards the great Author of the Universe whose divine interposition was so frequently manifested in our behalf.” 

Thomas Jefferson, writing in 1826 in response to an invitation to attend the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of independence in Washington, D.C., expressed his hope that the symbol of July 4 would “be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) 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 & security of self-government that form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.” Not very moderate. Of course Jefferson, like all the founders, knew that the Declaration could only be an example to the world. They aimed to secure the rights only of Americans, and neither tried nor wanted to impose democracy around the world.

James Madison observed in his 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments that the people’s “prudent jealousy” of their rights is “one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution.” That percipient remark by Madison points to another problem with Kleinerman’s essay. He correctly describes the founders as prudent; but his desiccated treatment of this crucial virtue shows why prudence is held in such low esteem today as mere risk-averse circumspection. 

The Declaration does indeed extol prudence. But as the signers’ pledge of their “sacred honor” indicates, they agreed with Aristotle that prudence finds its highest expression in the magnanimous excellence of the statesman. As the comprehensive moral virtue, prudence contemplates the full range of human choices and actions, including great daring or boldness, as well as that ambitious love of honor proper to men who deserve honor. George Washington’s iron control over his terrible temper was a mark of his magnanimity, evident to all whenever he walked into a room.

But Kleinerman reduces this virtue of the great-souled man to something . . . else, which is a bit hard to figure out. He writes:

Just as prudence dictates an assessment of whether the causes are transient, so too it requires the colonists to judge whether the abuses and usurpations are more fundamentally dangerous. Finally, it’s worth noticing again the nature of their right of dissolution. ‘Necessity . . . constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.’ The dissolution of their political bands is not a matter of choice. Instead, Great Britain’s treatment of the Colonies has compelled them to leave. . . . If Great Britain were not threatening them with Tyranny, they would not feel compelled to leave. Compulsion rather than choice has led them to dissolution. 

For the founders, “compulsion” meant the moral duty that moves honorable men to act in the face of danger or injustice; it remains undeniably a choice. For Kleinerman, however, compulsion is something resembling a physical necessity or historical determinism, both of which deny moral freedom. 

Such confusion about prudence, necessity, and moral deliberation may explain the truly awful final paragraph of Kleinerman’s essay:

Just as the founders counseled prudence in the dissolution of their bonds with Great Britain, perhaps they were also prudent—in fact, all-too prudent—in their solution to the problem of slavery. Precisely because they weren’t revolutionaries, they weren’t willing to take the radical step of abolishing slavery. According to the principles of the Declaration itself, the institution of slavery was fundamentally unjust and the founders knew it. They chose to do very little to combat it because, as I have tried to show here, they weren’t revolutionaries, even if some of their principles were revolutionary in nature. It would take true revolutionaries like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass to reveal fully the injustice of slavery. So celebrate the founders for their revolutionary principles, for their sober prudence, and for the limits of that prudence in effecting truly radical change.   

This is offensively wrong as a matter of historical fact, and if Kleinerman is this ignorant about the founding he should stop teaching American politics. In fact, this paragraph shows that his thinking is simply incoherent. Garrison and Douglass had to “reveal fully the injustice of slavery.” So the founders were blind or indifferent to that injustice? Yet he had just said that “the institution of slavery was fundamentally unjust and the founders knew it.” So the founders were hypocrites? Kleinerman claims it is because they were not revolutionaries that they “chose” to ignore that injustice. So they should have been revolutionaries? Why then does he expect us to “celebrate” their anti-revolutionary “prudence,” which prevented them from “effecting truly radical change”? What a sanctimonious muddle. 

The simple if unhappy truth is that Union, with slavery, was necessary if the colonists wanted to secure their independence from Britain. They could never have won the war as 13 separate entities. Union would have been impossible if they attempted to solve the problem of slavery first: no colony in the South would give up its slaves as a condition of joining the fight. So the injustice of slavery had to be accepted in the short term, to be resolved by a future statesman after Union and Independence were secured.

Yet it was precisely because the founders were revolutionaries that they provided that future statesman, Abraham Lincoln, with the indispensable arguments and principles to meet the challenge: “All honor to Jefferson,” Lincoln wrote in 1859, “to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.” 

Lincoln understood what Kleinerman evidently does not.

As for you, dear readers of American Greatness, I hope that unlike the typical reader of The Constitutionalist, you spent Monday behaving as spirited, liberty-loving citizens: grilling some meat, watching (or even setting off!) fireworks, and honoring the memory of our glorious, immortal Revolution.

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About Glenn Ellmers

Glenn Ellmers' new book, The Narrow Passage: Plato, Foucault, and the Possibility of Political Philosophy, will be published by Encounter this summer. He is the author of The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America and the Salvatori Research Fellow of the American Founding at the Claremont Institute. He is also a fellow of the Center for American Greatnsss.

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