The Wall Street Journal published today a timely, and much needed, reflection by Leon Kass on Calvin Coolidge’s address delivered at the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1926. Kass asks: What is the source of America’s founding ideas, and their “singular combination” in the Declaration?
Many have credited European thinkers, both British and French. Coolidge, citing 17th- and 18th-century sermons and writings of colonial clergy, provides ample evidence that the principles of the Declaration, 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 flowed the emerging American rejection of monarchy and our bold embrace of democratic self-government.
Coolidge draws conclusions from his search into the sources. First, the Declaration 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.”
In his speech, Coolidge noted that the idea that a people have a right to choose their own rulers was “not new” in political history. Here’s part of the passage that Kass referenced:
… if these truths to which the Declaration refers have not before been adopted in their combined entirely by national authority, it is a fact that they had been long pondered and often expressed in political speculation. It is generally assumed that French thought had some effect upon our public mind during Revolutionary days. This may have been true. But the principles of our Declaration had been under discussion in the Colonies for nearly two generations before the advent of the French political philosophy that characterized the middle of the eighteenth century. In fact, they come from an earlier date. A very positive echo of what the Dutch had done in 1581, and what the English were preparing to do, appears in the assertion of the Rev. Thomas Hooker, of Connecticut, as early as 1638, when he said in a sermon before the General Court that —
The foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people.
The choice of public magistrates belongs to the people by God’s own allowance.
This doctrine found wide acceptance among the nonconformist clergy who later made up the Congregational Church. The great apostle of this movement was the Rev. John Wise, of Massachusetts. He was one of the leaders of the revolt against the royal governor Andross in 1687, for which he suffered imprisonment. He was a liberal in ecclesiastical controversies. He appears to have been familiar with the writings of the political scientist, Samuel Pufendorf, who was born in Saxony in 1632. Wise published a treatise entitled “The Church’s Quarrel Espoused” in 1710, which was amplified in another publication in 1717. In it he dealt with the principles of civil government. His works were reprinted in 1772 and have been declared to have been nothing less than a textbook of liberty for our Revolutionary fathers.
While the written word was the foundation, it is apparent that the spoken word was the vehicle for convincing the people. This came with great force and wide range from the successors of Hooker and Wise. It was carried on with a missionary spirit which did not fail to reach the Scotch-Irish of North Carolina, showing its influence by significantly making that Colony the first to give instructions to its delegates looking to independence. This preaching reached the neighborhood of Thomas Jefferson, who acknowledged that his “best ideas of democracy” had been secured at church meetings.
Read “What Silent Cal Said About the Fourth of July” by Leon Kass in the Wall Street Journal.
Read Coolidge’s Address at the Celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia, Pa. (July 5, 1926).