Young men in the old days used to think,
Where there could be truth there might be an America.
The American truth made despots blush in shame.
But truth gave offense to the despotic will
And America dissolved into a value.
We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.
From The American Declaration of Independence
All honor to Jefferson, to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, 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 opression.
The substance of the [American] dream is expressed in these sublime words, words lifted to cosmic proportions: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." . . . . One of the first things we notice in this dream is an amazing universalism. It does not say some men, but it says all men. It does not say all white men, but it says all men, which includes black men. It does not say all Gentiles, but it says all men, which includes Jews. . . . It says that each individual has certain basic rights which are neither conferred by nor derived from the state. To discover where they came from it is necessary to move back behind the dim mist of eternity, for they are God-given.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; . . . its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not the equal of the white man. That slavery—the subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This our new government is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of development, like all other truths in the various departments of science.
Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy
To ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false is essentially a meaningless question.
Where there could be good and evil there might be an America.
But good and evil were consumed by appetite
And everything resolved itself in power.
Moral obligation according to [Hobbes], is derived from the introduction of civil society; and there is no virtue, but what is purely artificial, the mere contrivance of politicians, for the maintenance of social intercourse. [But] Good and wise men, in all ages, have embraced a very dissimilar theory. They have supposed, that the deity . . . has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is, indispensibly, obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever. . . . This is what is called the law of nature . . . . Upon this law depend the natural rights of mankind. . . . The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by any mortal power.
[W]hatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calleth good: and the object of his hate and aversion, evil; and of his contempt, vile and inconsiderable. For these words of good, evil, and contemptible, are ever used with relation to the person that useth them: there being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common rule of good and evil, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves.
Where the mind could be free there might be an America.
But the mind was timid and afraid
And yearned for its ancient fettered ease.
Now the mind is a comfortable slave
To the chaos of the world.
Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, . . .that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself . . .errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permited freely to contradict them. . . .Be it therefore enacted . . .that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities. . . .[T]hat the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall [infringe these rights] such act will be an infringement of natural right.
Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property . . . . Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views, and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence[?].
The theories of government which men entertain are emotional reactions to their property interests.
Where there could be men there might be an America.
But men gave offense—not to angels, the angels had flown away—
To the tribe, to the idea of the tribe.
Where there was nature there might be men.
But nature gave offense to history,
And America dissolved into a culture,
Into the idea of culture.
And these ideas too drifted away with the tides of the times.
But what is government but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controuls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to controul the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to controul itself.
But no man who is as well abreast of modern science as the Fathers were of eighteenth-century science believes any longer in unchanging human nature.
I have seen, in my time, Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; I even know, thanks to Montesquieu, that one may be a Persian: but as for Man, I declare I never met him in my life; if he exists, it is without my knowledge.
Where there could be a candid world there might be an America.
But the world became a stench in the nostrils of the intellectual,
And he traded the world for an idea of the world,
And this idea bored the world to tears
And then to death.
The greatest recent event—that "God is dead," that the belief in the Christian God has ceased to be believable—is even now beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe. . . . and what must collapse now that this belief has been undermined—all that was built upon it, leaned on it, grew into it; for example our whole European morality.
Against that positivism which stops before phenomena saying "there are only facts," I should say: no, it is precisely facts that do not exist, only interpretations . . . .
Hence world picture, when understood essentially, does not mean a picture of the world but the world conceived and grasped as picture. . . . The fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture.
"The American people owe it to themselves, and to the cause of free Government, to prove by their establishments for the advancement and diffusion of Knowledge, that their political institutions . . . are as favorable to the intellectual and moral improvement of Man as they are conformable to his individual & social Rights. What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty & Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual & surest support?"
"[T]he citizens of the United States are responsible for the greatest trust ever confided to a political society. If justice, good faith, honor, gratitude and all the other qualities which enoble the character of a nation and fulfill the ends of government be the fruits of our establishments, the cause of liberty will acquire a dignity and lustre, which it has never yet enjoyed, and an example will be set, which cannot but have the most favourable influence on the rights of Mankind. If in the other side, our governments should be unfortunately blotted with the reverse of these cardinal and essential virtues, the great cause which we have engaged to vindicate, will be dishonored and betrayed; the last and fairest experiment in favor of the rights of human nature will be turned against them; and their patrons and friends exposed to be insulted and silenced by the votaries of tyranny and usurpation."
Chris Flannery is a Professor of Political Science at Azusa Pacific University