The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 09, 2015

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Is There a Political Philosophy in the Declaration of Independence?
(IR 40:2, Fall/Winter 2005) - 05/01/08

Is there a political philosophy in the Declaration of Independence? One step toward answering this question—not the only step, but from the philosopher’s point of view the most fundamental—is to ask whether the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration are really true after all. Another way of putting it, which I once saw in a conference title, is to ask whether the “self-evident truths” are fact or fiction.

I have to admit that “fact or fiction” struck me at first as an odd way of questioning the authenticity of truths, but on reflection I decided it was a particularly felicitous turn of phrase. Living in a pragmatic age, we tend to equate fact with truth, and fiction with falsehood. There is something characteristically American about such a way of thinking. Still, it is important at the outset to recognize that this frame of mind is not universal. No less an authority than Aristotle writes that fiction (poetry) is “more philosophic and more serious” than fact (history), because it speaks of universals rather than particulars; there is more truth in understanding the soul of a man like Homer’s Odysseus than in knowing, to quote Aristotle, what “Alcibiades did or had done to him”1—or even, did not do or have done to him, as students of Plato’s Symposium will understand. I will return to the question of fact and its relation to truth, but my point at the outset is that part of the question of whether there is a political philosophy in the Declaration is whether what the Declaration proclaims as self-evident truths really are true.     

But that is not the whole of the question. As others have pointed out, the Declaration does not say, “These truths are self-evident. . . .” It says, instead, that “we hold” them to be so. If we understand “philosophy” as it is often understood, in the sense of a doctrine, and if we understand “political philosophy” as political science departments often do, as a synonym for political theory, then the question of whether there is a political philosophy in the Declaration is the question of whether the Declaration binds us to a particular political creed.

I say “binds” because the Declaration is treated, even today, as authoritative law in one sense: It is printed at the head of the United States Code, where it is considered the first of our organic laws. More to the point, politically today the Declaration of Independence has no open enemies; it is the touchstone of our political arguments rather than an object of advocacy any more. Even those who dismiss the American founders as racist or sexist want to keep the Declaration. They accuse the founders of hypocrisy rather than mistaken principle. It is not only that no one wants to be on the wrong side of the Declaration, but that even the charges made against the Declaration’s authors seem to be anchored in the Declaration’s own principle of equality. Whether or not that principle and the other purported truths that accompany it are true, they would seem in fact to be the first principles of our regime.

And this leads to my third concern. If the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration are either true or fundamentally ours, how should they affect our political life? While loyalty to the original Constitution is often dismissed as hopelessly anachronistic or conservative, loyalty to the Declaration might seem to have the opposite consequence: to mandate support of those movements that seek to extend the reach of equality in America. Abraham Lincoln seems to have thought so. He wrote that the assertion of human equality in the Declaration provides

a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”2
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