Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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An Abstract Truth

Res Publica

July 2001

by Kevin Portteus

Modern jurists have spent most of the last century decrying the Declaration of Independence. Eighty-three years ago, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that "the jurists who believe in natural law seem to me to be in that naïve state of mind that accepts what has been familiar and accepted by all men everywhere." All beliefs, values, and principles have one thing in common: "their foundation is arbitrary." There are no right principles; whatever the society accepts as right is right. The law is simply the will of those who can impose their will, in our case the majority.

The modern court has been equally complicit. Chief Justice William Rehnquist joined Holmes in denying the intrinsic value of any belief. Nothing is intrinsically right; ideas "take on a form of moral goodness because they have been enacted into positive law." Justice Antonin Scalia has gone so far as to declare that no case had ever been decided on the basis of the Declaration of Independence. Justices who are typically considered liberal have adopted a different means to the same end. Justice William Brennan asserted that we cannot possibly know what the Founders intended, and so we cannot look to them for guidance. We must simply interpret what "the words of the text mean in our time."

Abraham Lincoln faced many similar challenges throughout the 1850s. The principles of the Declaration, he noted, have been described alternately in his time as "glittering generalities," "self-evident lies," and "that they only apply to ’superior races.’" Stephen Douglas asserted that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.

Lincoln saw what was happening, and expressed it in an 1859 letter to H. L. Pierce. He draws to us an analogy from Euclid: Euclid began his work with a set of 23 definitions and 5 axioms. These were intended as ideas so simple that anyone could understand them, yet so fundamental that they had to be agreed upon if any progress were to ensue. For example, one could not prove the first proposition of The Elements if he refused to accept the first axiom. Constructing an equilateral requires one to draw lines connecting points, and if one does not accept that this is possible, the proposition collapses. More fundamentally, what if one denied Euclidean definitions of points and lines? Anything that followed would not only be impossible but unintelligible. Even a child could master Euclid if only he accepted the definitions and axioms, yet without them the system collapses.

The same is true of the American government. Lincoln asserted that "the principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of a free society." Without them it is impossible to maintain a free government. The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, subsequent Amendments and all statutory law are the propositions of this free society, yet they all come crashing down if one ignores or denies the principles of Jefferson. (These principles, we learn later in the letter, are those espoused in the Declaration of Independence.) The practical, tangible goods of these documents, such as federalism and the separation of powers are as easily rejected as accepted without them. Without the principle, there would be no freedom, for one could construe the laws, even the Constitution, any way he pleased; Taney proved this point in Dred Scott, Douglas with the policy of "don’t care." These principles are as essential to a free society as the definitions and axioms of Euclid are to The Elements. By simply denying Euclid’s Fifth Axiom, one can construct hyperbolic geometry, an alien specimen in the eyes of Euclid. By rejecting the principle of equality, we have slavery, equally alien in a society that claims to be free. Without these principles, a free society is at the mercy of whatever political winds prevail on a given day, and it is thus that much more important that we always defend them.

Lincoln and Jefferson both recognized this fact, and Lincoln pays fitting tribute: "All honor to Jefferson—to the man who…had the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men at all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all the coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression." We could have merely separated from the Crown, but America was meant to be something more. Jefferson wanted to prevent America from simply taking its place among the stars of tyranny in the political sky, but to be a beacon of freedom so bright that no tyranny could ever eclipse its brilliance. He did so by identifying the truths which had always existed, and instituted them as fundamental principles. Jefferson recognized that a time might come when someone would try to deconstruct the axioms while maintaining a free society. He, like the other Founders, knew the grim lesson of history: that such a regime had been tried before, and always it had failed. He was determined that America would not fall in this way.

Lincoln was also so dedicated. His opponents were trying to maintain a free society while simultaneously denying the Declaration, as the justices of this century endeavor to do. This, Lincoln asserted time and again, was impossible, and he wondered "if taking this old Declaration of Independence…and making exceptions to it, where will it stop?" It will not, and he knew it. The principles saved America from the fate Jefferson and Lincoln feared once; they will do so again. Those who oppose the principles of the Declaration must not be allowed to relegate them to the attic of American history, for that attic has a grim slideshow of what would happen if they did.

Kevin Portteus is a senior from Akron, Ohio, majoring in mathematics and political science.

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