The Catholic Thing
Obama’s First Moments, First Misteachings Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Monday, 24 November 2008

The e-mail came the day after the election from my friend Jim Stoner, an accomplished professor of political philosophy: Did I notice that Obama, in his victory speech in Chicago, had used the number 221? Obama, on the night of his election, asked the nation to “to join in the work of remaking this nation the only way its been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years - block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.”

Jim Stoner knew that anyone who had absorbed the study of Abraham Lincoln would notice the significance of the number. Lincoln had famously said at Gettysburg that “four score and seven years” earlier “our fathers” had brought forth a new nation, “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” If one counted back 87 years from Gettysburg (1863), one did not arrive at 1787-89, the framing and launching of the Constitution. One arrived at 1776 and the Declaration of Independence.

The American republic did not begin with the Constitution. It began rather with the articulation of that first principle that marked the character of the regime. From that “proposition” everything else radiated. As Lincoln said, it was the “father of all moral principle” for us. For it marked an understanding of rights grounded in nature: that no man was by nature the ruler of other men in the way that God was by nature the ruler of men, and men were by nature the ruler of horses and cows. That case for government by “the consent of the governed” promised to be true then in all places - in all parts of the world - where those differences in nature remained the same.

The task of framing a constitution was to arrange a legal structure that could sustain a pattern of practice consonant with the character of the regime. As Lincoln pointed out, the Union was older than the Constitution. And indeed the Constitution was put forward for the purpose of making the Union, already existing, “more perfect.” The current Constitution, nearly 220 years old, was our second constitution, shaped with an exertion of genius after the first had proved defective.

It was quite striking then that Barack Obama would look back and find the beginning of our nation only with the Constitution. He would conspicuously omit the Declaration, with its affirmation of natural rights, universal in their reach, and the equality of human beings. Surely, we would say, this had to be an inadvertence. And yet why should that have been? Obama was pointing his audience to the beginning of our national life, and so he did have to make a judgment on when that beginning was. Evidently, Obama knows little about the substance of Lincoln’s teaching; but he surely must recall that Martin Luther King appealed to the Declaration as the moral ground of our constitutional rights. Obama’s choice here could not have been a matter wholly of inadvertence. Hence the puzzle, giving way to darker suspicions.

Over the last 30 years it has become the fashion among academics on the left, and some notable black intellectuals, to reject the Declaration of Independence along with the American founding. The late Thurgood Marshall condemned the Founders for bringing forth a Constitution that cast protections around slavery. The Framers were making an accommodation with an evil, while withholding a moral endorsement of slavery. But Marshall evidently thought that the Founders could not make this prudential accommodation if they had really taken seriously those principles in the Declaration of Independence.

He became disposed then to regard “all men are created equal” as a phrase quite ringing, but not truly, earnestly meant. And for the left, the Declaration has the deeper defect of claiming that the rights it proclaims rest on moral truths. “All men are created equal” was put forth as an axiomatic or “self-evident” truth, and the left will not brook such talk about moral truths. For the existence of moral truths establishes the ground for casting moral judgments on others, especially on those sexual freedoms that the left has come to regard now as the “first freedoms” in our inventory of rights. The left in our politics is always raising a moral cry over inequality, whether in the distribution of wealth, or in the disparities that affect women and racial minorities.

And yet the left is quite as emphatic in insisting that there are no truths that confirm the rightness of any of these moral claims. But as Barack Obama leaves those questions, above his pay grade, to others, these oddities remain. The Constitution to which he appeals is the Constitution that came into being without the Bill of Rights, or without votes for women or black people. When those provisions were added in time, they were understood to be a drawing out of the implications that were contained, from the beginning, in that “proposition,” or that first principle, about the nature of the human person. And without that anchoring premise it is impossible, even today, to give a coherent account of the American regime and the rights it was meant to secure.

Barack Obama ascended to the highest office in a bit of a rush, before he had the chance to learn these things about the government he is privileged now to lead.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by LWS, November 25, 2008
A call from the bishops for repentance, penance, and prayer would, I believe, meet with a vigorous response from all people of good will in the Church and beyond. Do we truly trust the power of the Holy Spirit - can the arm of the Lord still save? Prayers after every Mass for the President-elect to be guided by the Holy Spirit and for an end to abortion can bring about the changes we desire.
written by Gunnar Gundersen, November 25, 2008
All the more reason the recent media lovefest over Obama=Lincoln is so absurd.

Obama is no Lincoln.
Organic Tory
written by Stephen MacLean, November 25, 2008
One is reminded of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum: When a society is perishing, the wholesome advice to give to those who would restore it is to call it to the principles from which it sprang; for the purpose and perfection of an association is to aim at and to attain that for which it is formed, and its efforts should be put in motion and inspired by the end and object which originally gave it being. Hence, to fall away from its primal constitution implies disease; to go back to it, recovery (§27).’
Catholic Fan
written by Carol, November 25, 2008
Without the Declaration of Independence, there goes my life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness argument against FOCA. How now to argue fundamental human "rights"? As is, I am accused of forcing "a heartless religious agenda" even without explicitly stating the truth that moral law is written onto hearts by our Creator? Apparently the fathers' self-evident truths have now too tumbled into the black hole of relativism.

Excuse me while I go and regroup... and pray.
written by Hadley Arkes, November 27, 2008
I would like to thank Mr. MacLean for that apt, lovely entry--which will send me back to that fine encyclical. We wife had put a picture of Leo XIII in our kitchen, and we should probably add some excerpts from his writings.
written by Graham Combs, December 01, 2008
Photoshopped history is, of course, a progressive specialty. But beyond that, is the sour and disatisfied culture found everywhere on the left. Below the headline in USA Today after the election was this phrase: "a racial barrier falls." "A" racial barrier, not "the" racial barrier -- after all, Sen. Obama had just been elected President of the United States of America. If there is another "glass ceillng," what is above it? Catholics would appreciate the arrogance, but the left?

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