The Conservatism Of The Declaration of Independence
Thomas G. West
July 1, 1996
The problem in America today is not that we have too much equality, too many rights,
or too much democracy, as some critics say. The problem is that we are well along in a process of
abandoning equality properly understood, and liberty and rights properly understood. On
this 220th anniversary of America’s independence, it is worth considering how those principles have
been abandoned, and what can be done to restore them to their rightful and preeminent authority in
our public life.
America’s freedoms have eroded, her families are disintegrating, and her
women and children are subjected to levels of rape, exploitation, neglect, and abuse that America’s
Founders would never have tolerated. We can trace these problems to the abandonment of the
principles of the Declaration of Independence by our elites, and increasingly by the people
The Declaration of Independence states the founding principles in this way:
“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 mem, deriving their just
powers from the consent of the governed.”
In many conservatives today these words
arouse contradictory feelings. On the one hand, they admire the Founding Fathers and therefore
respect the Declaration. On the other hand, they fear that the problem in America is too much
equality, too many rights, and too much democracy. Liberals, after all, are always talking about how
much they care about the rights of women and the poor, how we need more equality, how
we must take power out of the elites and put it into the hands of the oppressed.
are contracting, not expanding. Anyone in the business world knows this is true of property rights.
What is not as well known is that free speech, freedom of religion, and many other freedoms have
also been substantially reduced in the twentieth century, especially in the past 25 years.
example, the Founders regarded enabling the public to make an informed decision about candidates
in elections as the most important purpose of free speech. In 1971, for the first time in American
history, government began to take this right away from a large class of Americans–those who
cooperate or consult with candidates for public office. Such people are permitted to spend no more
that $1,000 explaining to the public why their friends deserve to be elected. This campaign finance
act was passed in order to limit the influence of the wealthy in elections. The idea behind the law
was that since poor people can’t afford to publish their views, rich people should be severely limited
in what they can publish.
What would the Founders have thought of a law punishing people
for publishing their views on an election contest? This is what the Revolution was all about:
government would not be permitted to say who would be permitted to publish and who would be
forbidden. That had been the law in Old England. Such laws violate the right to liberty, and they
are anti-democratic. John Adams wrote, “If the press is to be stopped and the people kept in
ignorance, we had much better have the first magistrate and senators hereditary.”
result of campaign finance laws is to “stop the press”–to cut down on public information
about candidates who are not favored by the established media, the major networks and the leading
daily newspapers. What candidates lose out under our campaign finance laws? Those who
challenge the status quo, who oppose big government–in many cases, conservatives.
surprise, then, that government by the people has to a significant extent been replaced over the past
century, especially in the past 30 years, with government by so-called experts far removed from
responsibility to the electorate. Democracy is not gone, but it is much further eroded than most
people are aware.
This has happened in two ways. First, power has been taken out of the
hands of private citizens and local communities, and shifted to more centralized and more remote
bodies, such as state and national governments. Second, within these governments, power has been
increasingly shifted away from elected officials (the president, governors, legislators) to unelected
officials (bureaucrats, agents, and judges).
Consider the rise of wetlands regulation. As it
happens, government got the authority to regulate wetlands without passing any law. The relevant
portion of the Clean Water Act simply requires permits “for the discharge of dredged or fill
materials into the navigable waters” of the United States. Obviously, a swamp, a pothole, or
a bog is not “navigable.” Yet federal agencies, working in tandem with federal courts,
have claimed, with a straight face, that “navigable waters” include all the
“wetlands” in the U.S. This now includes, according to one set of federal regulations,
land that has standing water on it for as few as 14 days a year.
Wetlands regulation is but
one example of how policy is often formed by officials–courts and agencies–far removed from the
people. This policy process defies not only the Founders’ principle of the private and local control,
but also the Constitution’s requirement that we be governed only by laws to which our elected
representatives give their consent. It also illustrates the government’s contempt for the property
rights of owners, who in some cases have been imprisoned for cleaning up, or building on, land they
So much for our rights, and government by consent.
Finally, our liberties are
contracting because for several decades government has been in the business of undermining the
conditions of freedom–namely, morality, family, and faith.
The Founders believed that
although freedom is every man and woman’s birthright, a self-governing community that secures
freedom is rare. In order for men to be able to govern themselves and not abuse their freedom, they
need to have the habits and convictions that enable them to behave responsibly.
Madison once wrote, with his typical tough-mindedness, that if men do not have sufficient self-restraint, “Nothing less than the chains of despotism can keep them from destroying and
devouring one another.” But where do these moral virtues of moderation and justice come
The Founders’ answer: from knowledge of the rights of mankind, but above all from
religion, which teaches us to restrain our passions and to respect the rights of others. Thomas
Jefferson–the Founder most outspoken in his doubts about traditional Christianity–was sensible
enough to write in his Notes on Virginia that the liberties of a people will no longer be secure
if they cease believing that their liberty is the gift of God.
The government today is anti-religious in a whole host of ways. When the Supreme Court discusses religion, it uses words like
“coercive,” “divisive,” “danger,” and “irrational.”
In the name of the Bill of Rights, the Court has banned religion from public schools. Yet it is worth
noting that the same Congress that passed the Bill of Rights in 1789 also passed a law encouraging
the teaching of religion in public schools in Northwest Territories–the future states of Ohio, Indiana,
Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
This hostility toward religion raises an intriguing
question: If we refuse to acknowledge that foundation of our principles in “the laws of nature
and of nature’s God,” what do our principles rest on? If liberty is not the gift of God, it must
be the gift of government. But what government gives, government may take away. As
Jefferson said, without God, liberty will not last.
The government’s hostility to morality and
religion has had a profound effect on the family. Today, even liberals see that family breakdown is
a problem. It is the direct or indirect cause of the vast majority of violent crime, child abuse,
battering and exploitation of women, and much more.
When the federal government
changed its policy on welfare in the 1960s, it in effect began to subsidize divorce and single
motherhood. Government’s generosity made it possible, for the first time in American history, for
large numbers of irresponsible women to get no-fault food, housing, cash, medical care, job training,
higher education, and more. The new welfare policies made many males among the working poor
a bad bargain for quite a few women who would have married them–and stayed married to them–before the 1960s.
At the same time that government has undermined the family by its
perverse economic incentives, it has promoted the separation of sex from love and marriage. From
sex education to easy abortion, from pregnant unmarried cheerleaders to homosexual rights, from
no-fault divorce to free condoms–government sends young men and women the same message: just
Forgotten is the older view: that sex is part of the plan of God and nature for your life;
that its noblest use is for the generation of children who will grow up under the daily harmonious
guidance of a loving mother and father; that it is a fine thing to send children out into the world, so
that they too can have the opportunity to engage in the pursuit of happiness and to polish and perfect
their souls, just as the best of their forebears have done from time immemorial.
problems afflicting the health of the nation are vast indeed. It is easy to want to throw up one’s hand
in surrender. But Americans must devote themselves to the recovery of the healthy core of the older
American tradition. On this Independence day, let us put our shoulders to the wheel, each of us
doing what he can in the common enterprise of restoring “one nation, under God, with liberty
and justice for all.”
Thomas G. West is a senior fellow and trustee of the
Claremont Institute and a professor of politics at the University of Dallas.