July 4, 2011
To the Members of the 112th Congress:
America will always have the honor of being the first nation on earth to dedicate itself to the self evident truth that all men are created equal, as it did in declaring independence on July 4, 1776. In that dedication truly was created a New Order of the Ages—a Novus Ordo Seclorum as we say on the Great Seal of the United States. Let us take the occasion of this Independence Day to continue our reflections on what this means. What does it tell us about the foundations, forms, and purposes of American politics? What does it require of us—deserve from us?
Lincoln called the idea of equality the central idea of the American political experiment, from which all its other ideas radiate. It is, he wrote, “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times”; it is a philosophical idea about human nature and the just relations of each human being to all others. The revolutionary and founding generation of Americans expressed this idea of human equality in a variety of ways. The familiar language of the Declaration of Independence is “that all men are created equal.” To express the same idea, the Virginia Declaration of Rights (June 12, 1776) stated that “all men are by nature equally free and independent.” The Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (March 2, 1780) stated that “All men are born free and equal.”
To say that all men are by nature equal is to say that human beings are not naturally subordinated one to another: Whatever the many differences may be among human beings, no man is by nature a master; no man is by nature a slave. This is what Jefferson’s vivid metaphor meant, which we quoted in the last letter: “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” Of this revolutionary idea, at the heart of the Declaration and at the heart of the American experiment in self-government, Lincoln wrote on the eve of Civil War, “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.” And so it has proven to be: a powerful rebuke and a stumbling block to every form of tyranny and oppression—whether of race, class, or religion, whether home grown or foreign born—that has raised its head over the past two centuries.
Human beings, then, are naturally free as they are naturally equal. It is from this human equality and freedom that the founders derived the idea that government could only be justly founded on consent. Because human beings are not by nature subordinated to one another—that is, because they are equal and free—their consent must be obtained before any human being may rightfully exercise authority over them. It is the voluntary consent of the people that gives authority to government. Only a being possessing reason—a being who can distinguish right from wrong—is capable of voluntary consent. This is why the deepest root of American politics is in the fact, as Thomas Jefferson put it in the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty, “that Almighty God hath created the mind free.”
Government among free and equal men is formed, the American Founders would say, by social contract or social compact. In the words of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780: “The body-politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: It is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people.” The American body-politic is a voluntary association begun when, in the last words of the Declaration of Independence, “for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge[d] to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” This is the political community that new citizens enter into when they become citizens. To take on the responsibilities of such citizenship, it is necessary—for citizens old and new—to understand the principles on which this citizenship is based. So it is a useful tradition, as the Fourth of July comes around each year, to reflect again—and again—on the American political principles famously declared to the world on the original Independence Day.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote late in life, in drafting the Declaration of Independence he had not meant to proclaim any “new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of,” but merely to express “the American mind.” The Declaration contains a stunning summation of the principles of free government; but it was only because the American people already understood these principles that it was possible to establish a government based upon them. Similarly, only if we are capable of understanding these principles will we be able to preserve and perpetuate, maybe even to strengthen and improve, the free institutions—the Novus Ordo Seclorum—that began to arise from them in 1776. For our own sake and for the sake of the cause to which our country was dedicated on that original Fourth of July, let us take this occasion to renew our dedication to that cause and its noble principles. No one else can do it for us. It will do a world of good. And it is a cause worthy of the last full measure of devotion.