It’s my habit, whenever I’m in conversation with someone of a strong and unconcealed political bent, from whom the gift of a sound civic education and a talent for an idea’s thoughtful expression haven’t been withheld, to ask him which of America’s two central documents, the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, he regards more highly.
Almost without exception, the vast majority of the people to whom I offer this choice leap out of their chairs to select the latter: “The Declaration!” they unhesitatingly respond, with that giddy rush of excitement and upswelling of patriotic pride to which the mere mention of America’s glorious charter of liberty, The Declaration of Independence, naturally gives rise.
I have repeated this question time and again to countless people, posing it indiscriminately to conservatives and liberals alike. On all but the rarest of occasions, I’m met with the same response: The Declaration, much more than that crusty, old, lifeless Constitution, is the document “for me”! It is, without a doubt, the document I cherish most, without which the American story, as I know it, would be unthinkable, and my love for this country, as I feel it, sorely diminished.
In exalted and poetic terms (by which one can’t help but being swept away), I’m told that the Declaration is America’s everlasting contribution to the political life of man. It’s the source of this country’s unique character and the legacy for which it’ll always be known. It’s the limpid, immortal fount from which its enduring greatness springs. It’s not only the essence of this nation, I’m assured, but an elegant blueprint for the imitation of others. For all enlightened republics the world over, it’s the lofty standard against which they’ll be judged.
Perhaps because it was first to be conceived and published during a time of acute national peril, The Declaration is almost universally held to be first in peoples’ hearts.
It’s not difficult to understand why.
Way back in the summer of 1776 (a full year removed, mind you, from the outbreak of hostilities with Great Britain at the blood-soaked fields of Lexington and Concord), the Second Continental Congress convened in the city of Philadelphia. The Congress, to which so many illustrious names from each of the thirteen colonies were sent, had before it what might be described as a “full plate”. That, of course, is something of an understatement. A more accurate description might be a plate buckling at the center with mounds of food overflowing its collapsing brim (the image of my recent Christmas dinner comes to mind!). Among the exigencies of the hour to which it needed to attend, the Congress had to recruit soldiers, deploy diplomats, organize the militias, finance the army, settle upon a strategy, tie together the states, resist western incursions, keep an eye on Canada and the Caribbean, promote generals, balance interests, cultivate sympathetic allies, solicit foreign aid, and exhibit a modicum of political legitimacy on the world’s stage.
It also had to declare and justify, in no uncertain terms, the motivations behind its shocking decision to separate from the British Crown.The truth of the matter is that the Crown, then as now, was a venerable, comparably humane and civilized institution from which, over the course of nearly two-hundred years, America had enjoyed immense support. The American colonies had been, from the dawning hour of their establishment, the beneficiaries of Great Britain’s military, legal, political, and economic power. To compose a declaration that would effectively sever all former ties to these things, the Congress thought it proper and necessary to form a special committee.
And so it did. The mostly-forgotten Committee of Five to which it gave life was a group of (you guessed it!) five distinguished delegates whose names rank among the greatest in American history. It comprised five men of extraordinary virtue and uncommon intellect of whom a young, lanky, freckled, well-born, surprisingly soft-spoken Virginian by the name of Thomas Jefferson was quickly recognized as the leader.
Inspired by the immortal genius of the great English political philosopher, John Locke, while, at the same time, thoroughly outraged by the depredations and repeated insults committed by the insufferable King George III, Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in about ten days–less time than it requires me to compose a single tweet. It then entered a relatively brief phase of amendment and editing by which Jefferson, like every writer who’s suffered the indignity of having to subject his work to an editor’s eye and the criticism of an assembly, was more than a little irked. Famously, the words “we hold these truths to be self-evident” were substituted for Jefferson’s original, “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable”, an alteration on which Pennsylvania’s beloved elder statesman (and one-fifth of the Committee of Five), Benjamin Franklin, insisted.
No less famous (or, rather, infamous) was the deliberate omission of the passage in which the issue of slavery was addressed. Among the many terrible crimes of which Jefferson accuses King George III, his unwavering support and perpetuation of the slave trade between the African and American continents is emphasized–and emphasized in a quite angry tone of voice. Indeed, it’s the one complaint, among a list of serious complaints, about which Jefferson rails at considerable length. I quote, in full, the indignant passage below:
“He (King George III) has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another”.
This, from a man whose verdant, sprawling estate of Monticello would be populated and maintained by hundreds of slaves–the very same wretched people upon whom, by some far-off monarch across the Atlantic Ocean, such savage, piratical, unchristian cruelties were being waged. How difficult it must be to notice and remove the plank in one’s own eye, when the speck in another’s is so glaringly obvious? Jefferson, sadly, was blind to his own plank, by which his moral vision would forever be distorted.
In order to assuage Southern sensitivities and ensure the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, this inflammatory passage was promptly removed. To the Southern delegates, for whom slavery remained a highly profitable, if somewhat morally uncomfortable institution, this passage was a non-starter. It was, in the harsh words of one slave-owning delegate, “invidious and unacceptable”. It was, by any reasonable interpretation, an unveiled assault on their sacred way of life, whose inclusion would render their support untenable. If the infant nation were to remain unified throughout the course of this difficult war, the slavery screed would have to be erased, and the issue re-visited at another time. And so it was.
No sooner had the other amendments and edits been agreed upon than a final version was submitted to the Congress. To adopt it, a vote was held on the Second of July (a date to which John Adams, another member of the Committee of Five, attached great significance. He predicted, in a famous letter to his darling wife Abigail, that America would forever celebrate the Second, not the Fourth of July: “I am apt to believe that it (July 2nd) will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival”. How different the country would be if Adams’ prediction turned out to be correct, and if Benjamin Franklin’s choice for the national symbol, the turkey, were to be selected above the bald eagle?).
The rest, as they say, is history.
A majority of the colonies (nine of the thirteen) voted in favor of separation. Of the fifty-six delegates present in Philadelphia, all but eight signed on.Toward the end of the summer, the charter was finalized, circulated around the colonies, read in taverns, shops, bunkers, and homes, and shipped off to Mother England, where it was received with no small displeasure. From that day until this, the spirit of the Declaration of Independence carries on with us. Through the course of its life, it has become, not only for Americans, but for all people on Earth, an everlasting monument to progress, justice, natural rights, liberty, equality, and the inborn dignity of humankind.
It was by these noble virtues that Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth and perhaps greatest president of America, was deeply inspired.
Had I the ability to travel back in time and pose my question to President Lincoln, to ask him which of the two documents, The Constitution or The Declaration, he preferred, he too would’ve chosen the latter. To many of you, this might come as a surprise, given his fidelity to the rule of law and the tenacity with which he fought against the forces of disunion. And yet, Lincoln was as exuberant a champion of The Declaration as everyone else. When speaking of the Constitution, he did so in relatively colorless terms. It was for the Declaration that he reserved the wealth of his poetic splendor and the sublime eloquence of his pen.
In a speech delivered on the Constitution and the Union, Lincoln famously called the Declaration of Independence the “apple of gold”, around which the “picture of silver”, or the Constitution, is framed. The image, beautiful though it may be, is unoriginal: as he did with increased frequency as the Civil War dragged on, Lincoln borrowed the line from the Bible, in whose ancient wisdom he found much-needed solace. It comes from Proverbs 25:11: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver”. In Lincoln’s adaptation of the line, the picture (the Constitution) was made “not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple–not the apple for the picture”.
In Lincoln’s view, it couldn’t be clearer: the picture of silver, the Constitution, exists for the adornment of the Declaration, of which it’s but a decorative servant. The Declaration is the true master. The Declaration is, in so many words, supreme. It’s the centerpiece on which we should all be focused; the north star on which our reverence, awe, and sense of sublimity ought to be fixed.
Personally, for most of my life, I joined in the consensus of everyone to whom I spoke and posed this question. I too elevated the Declaration above the Constitution for reasons, I think, that I’ve made quite clear. I found the company of Lincoln to be reassuring, and the genius of Jefferson to be incontestable. However–having read, thoroughly enjoyed, and deeply pondered Yoram Hazony’s latest work, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, I’m beginning to question what was, until very recently, an unshakeable preference. I’m now casting fresh eyes on the judgment of those two men, Lincoln and Jefferson, whom I regarded, as a Catholic does the pope, infallible.
Hazony, unlike most writers, is able at once to be provocative and profound. A graduate of Princeton and Rutgers, he has, throughout the course of his literary career, put forth ideas that are stimulating, contrarian, and delightfully deep. Prior to the release of his latest work, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, he came out with a book that achieved unexpected popularity, The Virtue of Nationalism. Nationalism, as the bien pensant has reliably informed us, is a word of which, in polite quarters, one shouldn’t even make the slightest mention, much less affirmatively proclaim his advocacy and enthusiastic support. But Hazony, with the insight of a political philosopher and the eloquence of a seasoned writer, explains precisely why nationalism isn’t such a bad thing.
Among the various themes covered in his latest work, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, Hazony addresses the Declaration v. Constitution debate. He does so, as I said, in such a way as I’ve never experienced before. In brief, he describes the Declaration as having been the product of Enlightenment Rationalism (of which, as a Traditionalist Jew, he is no fan). This is the philosophy espoused by some of history’s most original and prolific thinkers, including such luminary figures as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, Hugo Grotius, Immanuel Kant and the ne’er-do-well Frenchman, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Rationalists, as you might’ve guessed by their name, elevate reason above experience. They prioritize mind over matter and “thinking” over things. Properly speaking, their epistemology is a priori, rather than a posteriori. They are rather deductive than inductive thinkers, moving from unobserved, self-evident truths to specific, ironclad conclusions.
Rationalism attempts, in Hazony’s words, to “imitate a mathematical system, which begins with axioms taken to be self-evident and proceeds, by supposedly infallible deductions, to arrive at unassailable truths”. To clarify, an axiom is any proposition taken, without the support of evidence, to be true. The proposition that “2+2=4”, for example, is an axiom because it needn’t be proved by anything beyond itself. It simply is, and unconditionally shall forever be.
Among the axioms on which Enlightenment liberals like John Locke and Hugo Grotius hang their hats are the availability and sufficiency of reason; the perfect freedom and equality that the individual enjoys (as he exists alongside his happy brethren in a state of nature); and the fact that obligation arises not from inherited duty, but from an ever-present act of choosing.
The Declaration of Independence, Hazony argues, instantiates these three ideas. Just take its second paragraph’s most widely-cited line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”; that they have certain “unalienable rights”; for whose security, “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”.
How about that? It’s all right there: the sufficiency of unerring reason (“we hold these truths to be self-evident”); the perfectly free and equal individual (“all men are created equal”); the fact that obligation arises from choice (“…deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”). Each point on the Rationalist’s wishlist is duly checked off. Jefferson, in homage to Locke, ensures that not a single one is missing.
Whereas the Declaration is the child of Lockean Enlightenment rationalism (which, in turn, is the parent of Liberalism), the Constitution, of which Hazony is unblushingly much fonder, springs from the conservative tradition. In contrasting the two, Hazony states that the Declaration is “famous for promoting the Lockean doctrine of universal rights as self-evident before the light of reason, whereas the Constitution, drafted at a convention dominated by the conservative party, ended a decade of shocking disorder by restoring the familiar forms of the national English Constitution”.
In so many words, the Declaration is a document inspired by the pie-in-the-sky philosophy of Enlightenment Rationalist Liberals, whose belief in the rational capacity of man is total, and whose confidence in his propensity to do good, complete. According to Hazony, however, the optimistic belief and confidence onto which these Liberals hold so tightly are sorely misplaced. Liberalism, he says, depicts human reason as “powerful, capable of universal knowledge, and accessible to anyone who will but consult it”.
But I ask you, honest friend and reader: is this really the way human reason works?
Have we all not, from time to time, turned inward in order to consult our reason? And, in the course of this consultation, have we not found the object of our inquiry to be discouragingly weak? Have we not discovered our reason to be quite limited in its supposedly infinite breadth? Have we not been greeted by a mind informed of only narrow and local knowledge? Have we not met a storehouse of memory that is generally shallow and unreliable? Does it not, on occasion, misremember, confabulate, deceive, and disappoint? Does it not fail you, time and again, when you need it most?
It most certainly does, and that’s Hazony’s point.
Rationalism, for that reason, ought to be rejected. In its place, empiricism should be brought forth and set upon the epistemic altar. We should dismiss Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Grotius, and Jefferson, and embrace Montesquieu, Selden, Adams, Hamilton, and Burke. As for the two documents…well, the Constitution is by far the more empirical. As such, it’s the more important. That’s not to say, of course, that the Declaration ought to be crumbled up and tossed into the wastebasket; so far as I can tell, Hazony isn’t an advocate of this radical and sacrilegious view. It means, rather, that we should reconsider our flawed ranking of the Constitution and the Declaration: the former should be in the first, and the latter, in the second spot.
To borrow the words of Lincoln (which were themselves borrowed from Holy Scripture) it’s the Constitution that is the “apple of gold” around which the Declaration of Independence, or the “picture of silver”, is framed. The picture was made for the apple–not the apple for the picture.