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Wisdom from Silent Cal for the 4th of July

Friday, July 1st, 2011


What Silent Cal said about the Fourth of July
By Leon R. Kass
Wall Street Journal
Friday, July 1, 2011

Parades. Back-yard barbeques. Fireworks. This is how many of us will celebrate the Fourth of July. In earlier times, the day was also marked with specially prepared orations celebrating our founding principles, a practice that has disappeared almost without notice.

It is a tribute to a polity dedicated to securing our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that we can enjoy our freedoms while taking them for granted, giving little thought to what makes them possible. But this inattention comes at heavy price, paid in increased civic ignorance and decreased national attachment—both dangerous for a self-governing people.

For an antidote to such thoughtlessness, one cannot do better than President Calvin Coolidge’s remarkable address, delivered to mark the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1926. Although he celebrates the salutary results of our national founding, Coolidge urges us instead to contemplate its sources. And while giving due credit to the signers of the Declaration, he argues that it “represented the movement of a people . . . a great mass of independent, liberty-loving, God-fearing people who knew their rights, and possessed the courage to dare to maintain them.”

History is replete with the births (and deaths) of nations. But the birth of the United States was unique because it was—and remains—a nation founded not on ties of blood, soil, or ethnicity, but on ideas, held by the Declaration to be self-evident truths—truths like the axioms of geometry that neither require nor admit of proof: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights; and that, therefore, the just powers of government, whose purpose is to safeguard those rights, must be derived from the consent of the governed.

Coolidge observes that notions of individual rights or sovereignty through consent had precedents in the evolving charters of some European nations, Dutch as well as British. But “we should search these charters in vain for an assertion of the doctrine of equality”—the singularly novel American political principle, in the Declaration’s novel combination of principles that define the American creed. Lincoln at Gettysburg had already underlined the point: the new nation, brought forth on this continent by the Declaration of Independence (“four score and seven years ago” meant 1776), was conceived in (an already existing) liberty, but it was “dedicated to the proposition” (now apparently needing proof, through the deeds of war) “that all men are created equal.”

What is the source of these ideas, and their singular combination in the Declaration? Many have credited European thinkers, both British (Locke and Hume) and French (Montesquieu and Rousseau). Credit is also given to Jefferson and his fellow delegates in Philadelphia. But Jefferson himself insisted that the Declaration “was intended to be an expression of the American mind,” properly expressed for the occasion.” Coolidge, citing seventeenth and eighteenth century texts, sermons, and writings of colonial clergy (e.g., Thomas Hooker and John Wise), provides ample evidence that the principles of the Declaration of Independence—and especially equality—are of American cultural and religious provenance: “They preached equality because they believed in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. They justified freedom by the text that we are all created in the divine image, all partakers of the divine spirit.” From this teaching of human equality flowed the emerging American rejection of monarchic rule and our bold embrace of democratic self-government.

America’s political principles grew naturally out of American cultural soil. For this reason, we were culturally prepared to nourish those principles and the institutions erected to give them life—in contrast with the cultural circumstances faced by many nations today who are seeking to establish new liberal democratic political forms.

Coolidge proceeds to draw certain conclusions from his search into the sources. First, the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. “Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man . . . are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. . . . Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish.”

Second, “governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments.” The source of ideals lies in the people, and government should not be allowed to relieve the people of their responsibilities, because the real heart of the American polity is the heart of the American people. “It is not the enactment, but the observance of laws, that creates the character of a nation.”

Third, the principles of the Declaration are final, not to be discarded in the name of progress. To deny the truth of human equality, or inalienable rights, or government by consent, is not to go forward but backward—away from self-government, away from individual rights, away from the belief in the equal dignity of every human being.

Coolidge’s concluding remarks especially deserve our attention: “We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren sceptre in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things which are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshipped.”

Coolidge was no religious fanatic, eager to impose his own religious beliefs on the nation. He appreciated our constitutional strictures against religious establishment and religious tests for office, limitations crucial to religious freedom and toleration, also principles unique to the American founding. But he understood that free institutions and economic prosperity rest on cultural grounds, which in turn rest on religious foundations. Like Tocqueville, who attributed America’s strength to its unique fusion of the spirit of liberty and the spirit of religion, Coolidge is rightly concerned about what will happen to the sturdy tree of liberty should its cultural roots decay. It is a question worth some attention as we eat our barbeque and watch the fireworks.