The Declaration of Independence, as read by a revisionist

Thomas Jefferson: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of Sally Hemings”

This document is the first of its kind, the original statement of intent coming from a near-triumphant modernity.

Almost every word there can yield a rich crop, especially in the first two paragraphs where the moral justification for independence is established.

The colonists insist on their right to “…the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…” They “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.”

Every word there pits modernity, supposedly inaugurated in the name of reason, against actual reason.

Thus, regardless of what Locke and Paine had to say on the subject, ‘separate and equal station’ can’t be derived from ‘Laws of Nature’.

No law of nature says a colony is entitled to independence from the metropolis. There exists, however, a tendency among revolutionaries to pass their aspirations as rights.

A ‘separate and equal station’, desirable though it may be to some, can only be achieved either by agreement or by force. No group has equality built into its reclaimable biological make-up. Portraying independence as a right that somehow supersedes the law was modern demagoguery, in its embryonic stage.

‘Nature’s God’ is clearly there to mollify believers of a more primitive type, those who react to the word ‘God’ by reflex and for whose benefit wise people (who were, of course, above such nonsense themselves) had to put the word in.

The deist author of the Declaration himself illustrates the pitfalls of such a utilitarian treatment of God. For Thomas Jefferson had a selective approach to Christian doctrine: some of it was acceptable to him, some wasn’t.

So, like Tolstoy did later, he clipped the acceptable passages out of the Bible and pasted them into a notebook, thus creating his own Scripture. One can argue that possibly all Protestants and certainly all deists go through the same exercise in their minds, if not literally.

Collective atheism is the inevitable result, even if it’s masked, as in America, by individual protestations of piety and a statement of faith on banknotes.

God is the only truth that can be regarded as ‘self-evident’ in that, by definition, it’s either taken on faith or not at all. Any other truth, before it can be accepted as such, needs to be proved.

Words like ‘self-evident’ are thus either a sign of intellectual laziness or, worse, an attempt to dupe the gullible with falsehoods.

That ‘all men are created equal’ is, self-evidently, rather the opposite of truth. It’s an attempt to pass wishful thinking for a fact.

All men are created unequal physically, intellectually, morally, socially. What the phrase actually means is this: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if all men were created equal? We’d then be able to stamp out Western tradition in the name of equality.’

Apart from displaying intimate familiarity with the works of Thomas Paine, the use of this phrase echoes the theories of the noble sauvage beautiful in his state of primitive grace, a tabula rasa on which modernity can scribble its message to the world unless the state has been soiled by Christendom.

It’s questionable whether the term ‘rights’ has any value in serious discourse on political matters.

Today we’re served up any number of rights: to marriage, education, health, development of personality, leisure time, warm and loving family or – barring that – warm and loving social services, employment and so forth.

These ‘rights’ are bogus since they fail the test of not presupposing a concomitant obligation on somebody else’s part. When a ‘right’ presupposes such an obligation, it’s not a right but a matter of consensus.

Thus one’s right to employment would mean anything only if there were someone out there who consents or is obligated by law to give one a job.

One’s right to a developed personality (guaranteed by the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, which was signed by such authorities on human rights as Stalin’s Russia) presupposes an obligation on somebody else’s part to assist such development.

One’s right to a fulfilling sex life… this can get too silly for words. Far from being natural, all these rights become tangible only if they’re granted by others; and anything given can be taken away, so there go all those pseudo-rights alienated right out of the window.

The right to outward political ‘liberty’, as opposed to inward spiritual freedom, is also bogus, since it too derives from consensus.

‘Liberty’, along with all its cognates, is a word fraught with semantic danger: one man’s liberty is another man’s licence and yet another’s anarchy. For example, is the absence of anti-homosexuality laws a factor of liberty or licence?

If the answer is the former, then we ought to ponder why the first modern country without such laws was Soviet Russia between 1917 and 1934, a place and period not otherwise known for a laissez-faire attitude to life.

The right to life mentioned in the Declaration is indeed natural. But is it terminologically useful?

The English Common Law, in force in America at the time, provided adequate provisions for the protection of life, which would seem to have rendered any invocation of this right redundant.

And all redundant terms have some potential for casuistic abuse. For example, is the death penalty a violation of the natural right to life? Is abortion? How is it that the proponents of the latter are almost always opponents of the former and vice versa, with this right invoked in each case?

‘Happiness’ was at the time a vogue term denoting a secular substitute for virtue as the purpose of life.

Whatever meaning one chooses to assign to happiness, and there are many possibilities, the word describes the exact opposite to Western tradition. This is about the pursuit of truth, inner freedom and salvation, which is more likely to result in suffering than happiness.

As used in the Declaration, the phrase derives from Locke’s “life, liberty and estate”. The Constitution of Virginia, signed in the same year of 1776, replaced ‘estate’ with ‘property. And, though the Declaration coyly used a more general term ‘happiness’, in reality it meant the same thing: money.

Now the right to the pursuit of money, if it doesn’t involve arbitrary separation of other people from theirs, is legitimate. But it too is redundant.

Laws against theft, fraud and the rest derive from the Decalogue and don’t need a modern term to bail them out. On the contrary, it was the separation of such laws from their true source and their shift into the modern area of ‘rights’ that made their enforcement so difficult.

The right to property, one of the few real rights, is a case in point. Born out of the ethos of ‘rights’, the modern political state has elevated judicial confiscation of people’s property to a level unthinkable, say, in the Hellenic world.

For example, Caracalla who, according to Gibbon, “crushed every part of the empire under the weight of his iron spectre” by increasing the inheritance tax from 5 to 10 per cent (thankfully, “the ancient proportion was restored after his death”) was a babe in the woods compared to a modern democratic parliament that’ll hit one for 40 per cent faster than one can say ‘classless society’.

Of course, for the nascent American state, the pursuit of fiscal happiness was crucial. It was, after all, an important part of what brought most Americans together.

However, the qualities involved in the pursuit of money are often diametrically opposite to those that formed our civilisation. For business activity, central to this pursuit, has to become amoral in a modern, secular state.

Not doing anything wrong disappears as an in-built starting point, to be replaced by not getting caught. However, many clever people spend their time, and waste ours, by thinking up cloying moral encomiums for what they call ‘free enterprise’.

However, freedom is a child of responsibility. When ‘responsible’ walks out, ‘free’ becomes an orphan.

If certain of impunity, a modern businessman would market potassium cyanide instead of potassium chloride, this to the chorus of ‘conservative’ economists singing hosannas to both the merchant and his victims for striking important blows for freedom of choice.

One should never forget, even when extolling modern achievements, that the same company that gave us aspirin also gave us Zyklon B.

These days the inherent amorality of business, when conducted in a secular society, is dressed up by elevating it to a moral high ground it never used to occupy in Christendom. (Free enterprise is indeed moral when compared to manifestly wicked socialism, but that’s a wrong reference point.)

‘Conservative’ (in reality libertarian) economists, such as Milton Friedman, will drive us to distraction, explaining that free enterprise has more to do with charity than with acquisitiveness.

In that sense they resemble their supposed antipode Marx who also had a knack for creating in his head a picture of economic life that had little to do with reality.

One wishes people studied modern economies as they are, rather than the idealised picture of them they see in their mind’s eye.

They’d then realise that the welfare state corporatism that dominates the pursuit of happiness today has as little to do with free enterprise as the Korean People’s Democratic Republic has to do with Korea, democracy or republicanism.

And rather than glorifying the founding documents of modernity, they’d perhaps see that this freedom-stifling corporatism is directly traceable back to the pursuit of happiness laid down in the Declaration of Independence.

6 thoughts on “The Declaration of Independence, as read by a revisionist”

  1. “One can argue that possibly all Protestants and certainly all deists go through the same exercise in their minds, if not literally.”

    That is the very basic idea of the Protestant belief system. You as the individual take out of scripture whatever you read into it. What it means to you is what it is.

  2. “That ‘all men are created equal’ is, self-evidently, rather the opposite of truth. It’s an attempt to pass wishful thinking for a fact.”

    Within the LEGAL SENSE true. And if in some jurisdiction it is not so, it should be so.

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