Posts tagged with: United States Declaration of Independence

jeff20th Century historian Dumas Malone praised Thomas Jefferson as the exemplar of liberty. “To all who cherish freedom and abhor tyranny in any form, [Jefferson] is an abiding hope that springs eternal,” declared Malone. Jefferson crafted our creed as Americans and once wrote, “Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and inalienable rights of man.”

In the April issue of Carolina Journal, I review Long Journey with Mr. Jefferson. You can read the review on page 20 of the issue in PDF form. The book, which is a biography of Dumas Malone, was an enlightening read on a scholar who spent decades studying Thomas Jefferson. His six-volume biography of the author of the Declaration of Independence, titled Jefferson and His Times, spanned from 1948-1981. Malone received the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 and Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.

While I haven’t read all of Malone’s volumes, the biography piqued my interest because of the complexity of studying Jefferson and the lengthy duration Malone spent on one man. One of the points I made at the end of the review was the stark contrast Malone provides to an American society that is becoming increasingly ignorant of not just its history, but the meaning and nature of our rights. Studying Jefferson is essential. It’s a great introduction into the whole ethos of the limiting of state power and especially elevating an important truth, that governments gain their legitimacy by their ability to protect the rights that predate government.

coolidgeEach Independence Day, I make a point of re-reading President Calvin Coolidge’s speech given on the 150th anniversary Declaration of Independence. I’d encourage you to do the same.

Coolidge has a deep understanding of American history, and after contemplating what led the founders to write what they wrote, and what inclined Americans to follow their lead, he ultimately concludes that it was their spiritual inclinations, and the moral and spiritual orientation of the American people, that played the most important role:

Our forefathers came to certain conclusions and decided upon certain courses of action which have been a great blessing to the world. Before we can understand [the founders’] conclusions we must go back and review the course which they followed. We must think the thoughts which they thought. Their intellectual life centered around the meeting-house. They were intent upon religious worship. While there were always among them men of deep learning, and later those who had comparatively large possessions, the mind of the people was not so much engrossed in how much they knew, or how much they had, as in how they were going to live. While scantily provided with other literature, there was a wide acquaintance with the Scriptures. Over a period as great as that which measures the existence of our independence they were subject to this discipline not only in their religious life and educational training, but also in their political thought. They were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power.

Although Christians have exhibited an unfortunate tendency to oversimplify and overamplify the various impacts of particular religious beliefs on the American founding, Coolidge’s point is a bit more basic and overarching. (more…)

Coolidge

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. — Calvin Coolidge.

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).

On the PowerBlog, read Ray Nothstine’s “Keep Cool with Coolidge” (August 2007) and “Amity Shlaes on Thrift and Calvin Coolidge” (March 2011).

Read a profile of Samuel von Pufendorf in Acton’s Religion & Liberty and Lord Acton’s discussion of his work in “The History of Freedom in Christianity.”