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No doubt because of the uproar that would have resulted from losing a
day of vacation, this year’s Fourth of July celebration was moved to
July 5. One result was that many people had to think a bit more than
usual about the significance and nature of the holiday — after all,
there must be more to it than the Fourth if we can celebrate it on the
Fifth. Birthdays are celebrations of births and not merely of the date
of birth, of course, and what we actually celebrate in early July of
each year is the birth of America.

The heart of our Independence Day celebration must always be a
national recollection and reaffirmation of the great Declaration of
principle that is the reason we understand the Fourth of July to be our
national birthday.

I think that American patriots should think about the Declaration
every day of their lives — and as a nation, we should think about it
every day of our national life. The Declaration of Independence is so
important that we should strive to make it inform and determine every
important position we take in American public life and policy. The ideas
contained in the Declaration are fundamental to who we are, and if we
want to survive as a free people we must learn to take them seriously
again.

This is not just Alan’s annual pious warning. Recourse to the
Declaration is a critical practical need in the day to day political
life of the nation. It is impossible to be a good citizen or leader
without regular recourse to principles, because political life is a
swirl of confusing, distracting and seemingly complex issues. We simply
will not be able to exercise good judgment in political questions
without cultivating the habit of seeking answers first from the
political principles found in the Declaration.

Perhaps this isn’t as striking a claim as it should be. After all,
doesn’t everyone claim to be “principled”? Certainly no one willingly
admits to being politically unprincipled. But what exactly does it mean
to have a clear sense of principle? Some people have the mistaken view
that a clear sense of principle requires a set of rigid rules, and
restricts political judgment to the mere mechanical application of those
rules. But human life doesn’t work that way, and political life in
particular is no place for the inflexible judgments of the ideologue.
Events and circumstances are so various and potentially changeable that
no simple, hard and fast rule can be applied in an absolute manner to
substitute effectively for prudent deliberation and judgment. The
statesman and the citizen both must always be striving to think things
through in view of the real and living circumstances they face. So what
is the importance of principle for political judgment, if it is not to
provide a rigid and safe answer for every question?

The critical value of political principle is to ensure that in the
complexity and passion of particular events we always have a firm
starting place for our deliberations. Starting with a clear view of the
truths that guide us, we will be able to orient ourselves in the midst
of changing circumstances and events. With our principles in mind as
North Stars of deliberation, we can be sure that our thinking stays
rightly directed, and that we are not drawn away from our objectives to
chase illusory or base goals.

The word “principle” literally means something first. Principles are
the first things, the starting points. Of course, a country can have
various kinds of starting points, including the kind that later are best
forgotten. Illegitimate conquest, for example, can be the starting point
of a country. The wonderful, almost amazing thing that we celebrate on
Independence Day is that the starting point for America was a public
national agreement about the things that matter most. So literally our
starting point in time was a set of first principles. I don’t think this
has been true of any other country, and the very idea of a nation having
a statement of first principles as its historical
starting point is so unusual that we are apt to overlook how unique a
blessing it is.

The principles that our Founders stated also have a soundness about
them, in terms of human political affairs, because they begin from the
most important and fundamental truth – not just of human politics, but
of human life. The first principle of the Declaration is that God exists
and is in charge. The political starting point of America is that God
determined the very moral fabric of the universe, and that we must
therefore deduce our understanding of justice from that fundamental
truth.

The principle of God’s ultimate authority in our political life is a
great obstacle to collectivist schemes and ideas. Remembering the
Declaration is vital to remembering this principle, and thus to our
ability to resist the leftist agenda. Let’s examine one way that the
principle of God’s authority can help us to be wise in political matters
- if we keep it before our eyes as we deliberate about the issues of the
day.

Following from the principle of God’s authority is the corollary that
ultimate political authority cannot reside in mere mortals. And the
Declaration accordingly reflects an understanding of human government
that is by and large deeply suspicious of the claims to unbounded
authority and responsibility that governments tend to make — and which
liberals tend to make for it. The Founders didn’t look at government as
an all-provident caregiver who will gently take care of us when we are
in trouble and minister to our every need. The Founders did not take the
warm, fuzzy view of government. They thought of government as incipient
tyranny, like a plant that must be constantly and jealously trimmed lest
it take over the garden.

The Founders saw government as a dangerous thing because of the
inherent passions and ambitions of human beings — because men are not
God, nor even angels. They saw that government tended to arm the
passions and ambitions of human beings with power to coerce and destroy
the property,
lives and privacy of other human beings. They judged that this view was
well confirmed by history. Therefore, because they cared about human
liberty and human dignity, they resolved to be very careful how they put
government together, to prevent the unleashing of unrestrained human
power. They were deeply suspicious of claims that the accumulation of
power in the hands of government was justified by the benevolence of the
purposes to which that power would supposedly be directed.

This suspicious view of government, and resulting resolve to hedge it
about with all kinds of checks and constraints because it is potentially
so dangerous and oppressive — is precisely NOT how today’s liberals
look at government. Liberals see in government chiefly a wonderful tool
to be used freely to produce utopia, to take care of the poor, to
accomplish justice for all the different oppressed groups around the
world. Government is a blessing, a solution — not a threat and a
problem.

It is as if something has happened since the era of the American
Founding that would disprove the jaundiced view that the Founders took
of government and government power. Perhaps the liberals of today have
made a prudential correction to that view, and have wisely chosen
principles other than those enshrined in the Declaration. Let’s try the
simple test of considering the following question: Between 1776 and
1999, has the history of human kind been such as to disprove the notion
that government is a potentially abusive power that needs to be treated
with extraordinary care and circumspection? Has history generally
disproved the understanding of the Founders?

The answer is clear enough just from looking at the 20th century,
leaving aside the slavery, depredations of colonialism, and other abuses
of power that had so many people and nations of the world under the boot
of arbitrary government in the 19th century. Let us consider whether
in the 20th century most of the population of the world has had
experiences that bear out the Founders’ jaundiced view of government, or
experiences that disprove that view.

What kind of experiences with government has the bulk of humanity had
in the 20th century? Has it been the experience of governments careful
of human dignity and human rights, and human property and human life? Or
has it been the experience of holocausts in Europe directed against
particular populations by coercive governments that herded them together
into camps and destroyed their lives and despoiled them of their
property? Has it been the experience of the Stalinist purges in Russia,
and of the Maoist pursuit of perpetual revolution with people killed by
the scores of millions in city and country?

If we are willing to surrender to the overwhelming weight of the
evidence, we will acknowledge that pretty much everything about the 20th
century confirms the notion that government power is dangerous and that
without extraordinarily careful precautions it will generally be used to
oppress and destroy humanity.

Indeed, many of the worst abuses have been associated with the kind
of left-wing, totalitarian utopianism represented by liberals who reject
the Declaration, and reject with it the principles that could have
alerted them to the danger of trusting unqualifiedly in human political
authority. It is not a coincidence that the very people who urge us to
abandon the understanding of government represented in the Declaration,
and to replace it with a more benign view of government, have been by
and large responsible for most of the awful mass evil of this century.
The Nazis are usually offered as an exception to this claim, because as
everyone knows they were “right wing extremists.” But not in this
respect; they fit the leftist totalitarian pattern. The National
Socialist Party — the Nazis — was socialist in respect of its
understanding of what government was about and what it would do. It
rejected the “archaic” understanding that was represented by the
American Declaration — that all earthly authority must be subjected to
the laws of nature and nature’s God.

A deep but prudent suspicion of the claims of government looks more
like wisdom today than ever. In this as in so many other matters, the
experience of the past two centuries has confirmed the importance of
fidelity to the principles of the Declaration. On Independence Day and
on every day, we should strive to re-orient ourselves and our politics
by the light of the principles of our Founding. Why would anybody in his
right mind join the leftist liberals in rejecting it?

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