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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