Why the Declaration Isn’t the Supreme Law of the Land

Assembly Hall, where the Constitution was signed.

On the 4th of July, 1776, the British subjects of thirteen colonies in North America declared through a makeshift congress that they were gunning for total independence from Britain.  They were already in a state of war against the British, but it was a defensive war against occupation, a war without aims.

Since the fighting had broken out a year earlier, representatives of the American colonies had applied themselves to the problem of how to win the war, a war against one of the world’s great military powers.  The Declaration successfully articulated the colonies’ grievances against the British Crown.  It presented a catalog of grievances against the monarchy, using the language of natural rights to justify throwing off a remote government that Americans feared would reduce them to “slaves.”  The Declaration legitimated   war on the grounds that the British government did not represent the will of Americans.  Britain’s colonial system condemned Americans to live under an authority that was not of their own making, in which they had no voice.

The Declaration was a radical document, a glorious aspirational document that, beyond firing up the colonists, has inspired oppressed people to seek independence, equality, and self-determination down through the years.  With its ringing assertion of each person’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and its rejection of government without “the consent of the governed,” the Declaration gave the colonists a sound philosophical justification for rejecting British rule.  Their rebellion was justified because becoming a self-governing nation was their aim.

Inspiring in its idealism, the Declaration was never intended as a blueprint for national government.  The Continental Congress that approved it never approached the stature of the English system of King and Parliament that the colonists threw off.  The Declaration’s fiery phrases recalling past grievances couldn’t sustain the Revolution as it dragged on.  Having put the super-capably George Washington in charge of the war effort, Congress became diffident.  Enthusiasm waned.  Each state wanted what was best for itself, and no state wanted to give up much of its newly gained independence for the sake of a more powerful collectivity.

General Washington had to beg and cajole Congress for the basics to keep the Revolution going.  Valley Forge was the shameful nadir of the states’ indifference and irresponsibility. Continental troops, encamped there for the winter, perished not from battle but for want of human necessities such as clothing, shelter, and food.  Washington despised the Continental Congress for its weaknesses, blaming it for a war that was unduly costly and long.

Peace and independence came after eight tedious years.  Congress’s deficiencies became even more glaring once the colonists’ common enemy, Britain, had been expelled.  The fragile nationhood achieved through the Revolution began crumbling, as citizens and states grew tired of the extraordinary effort that acting in concert as a nation required.  Returning home, Washington confronted his own near-bankrupt condition. He faced the same uncertain prospects that all Americans faced, after shunning membership in an imperial economy that, for all its faults, had helped power American prosperity.

No wonder that Washington and other leading Revolutionaries put their weight behind the Constitution of the United States, which, in 1789, with the consent of the states then extant, became the supreme law of the land.  In subsequent decades, as the nation grew, western states sought admission to the United States, voluntarily placing their states under subjection to the Constitution.  States like Texas, briefly an independent nation, eagerly sought to become part of the US, its sovereignty pale beside the Constitutional Union’s advantages.

All this matters because aggrieved Americans now justify their anti-federalism by quoting phrases from the Declaration, as if they do not realize that all that they owe to the Constitution, all the benefits and protections that have accrued to them and their states, thanks to this transformative Founding document.  Oddly, people who don’t know the history or limitations of the Declaration misuse the fiery document that Thomas Jefferson wrote as a young revolutionary hungry the very self-government that Americans gained.

The glorious heights this nation and its people have attained since the War for Independence rest entirely on the Constitution.  The individualism and liberty that the Declaration makes so much of would have come to nothing had the United States not subsequently embraced a strong centralized vision–the Constitution, which spells out the federal system of self-government and individual rights we live by now.

It’s disturbing to hear anti-federalists railing against the federal government using phases from the Declaration.  These benighted citizens come across as yahoos.  The Constitution, not the Declaration, supplies the legal basis of government.  It ensures our freedoms, balances our interests, and gives us sufficient power to be self-governing.  The Constitution, not the Declaration, is the font of all present-day rights, court decisions, and laws.

The Declaration of Independence was never intended to pit Americans against one another or to attack the representative self-government that, thanks to the guarantees of the Constitution, is the birthright of all Americans.

The First Fourth of July

The colonies had been warring against the English crown for more than a year. Their taking up arms on the periphery of the great British empire had at first been defensive and spontaneous, when, in April 1775, they exchanged fire with the redcoats in Massachusetts at Lexington and Concord. Behind Americans’ resort to arms was a conviction that, if they did not make a stand, the monarchy would strip them of their political autonomy, the ways of being and governing that the colonies had built up over the years. Some began associating loyalty to King George with political servitude.

So they backed up into a nasty situation: with their dander up and their more moderate tactics exhausted, thirteen weakly affiliated colonies had plunged willy-nilly into a war against a mighty power. No one of them could last against the British: they could only prevail by acting as one, by organizing. So the quest to organize the future states into something like a nation began.

It wasn’t the simplest proposition, because at that time the American colonies, though contiguous along the eastern seaboard, were largely strangers to one another. Each colony had its own character and peculiarities, its own governing traditions. They were as distinct and alien to one another, claimed John Adams in 1775, as Indian tribes.

What is most remarkable about the Revolution, yet often taken for granted, is that private citizens in the various colonies voluntarily took on these outlandishly weighty and amorphous duties. As the pace of political instability quickened, leading merchants, journalists, lawyers, intellectuals, printers, and farmers found a way to communicate, to protest, to proselytize, and to bring an entire (formerly tranquil) society together around ambitious and previously unthinkable propositions.

As the colonies became more radicalized, their leadership became shrewder, more obsessive and voluble, spewing forth oratory and addresses and declarations of such variety and power as to unite an entire population around a set of mortally dangerous yet self-respecting demands.

For more than a year, the Continental Army under George Washington had managed to hold together and to keep the British forces busy. But a rebellion that was merely negative–that merely pushed back against the British status quo–scarcely afforded the miserable and fractious colonials with a compelling reason to stay in the field. The moment they grew tired of rebelling against, the British would win.

The passage of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, marks the moment when the various grievances and injuries the colonies suffered under King George were transmuted into one simple positive, practical, political goal. The colonies (now states) declared they were and would be INDEPENDENT. But they also declared themselves to be “the United States of America.” Their first stride toward becoming a true nation came when their leadership, meeting as a “Grand Council of America,” unanimously approved of and proclaimed this as a fait accompli.

What would have happened to the colonists if they had failed to unite? They would probably have been treated as traitors and hung, their fate not too different from what is happening to political dissidents today in Hong Kong.

Today we look back on the leaders of the Revolution and marvel at their sins. We blame them for the political sins of generations of American leaders who came after them. How could they be so narrow-minded, so selfish and blind? Yet without their flawed vision, without their imperfect realization of a universal dream, without their amazing skills as political strategists and activists, where would you and I be today? What language would we be speaking? What narrow confines would shape our political dreams?

Image: “The Battle at Bunker’s Hill,”
from this source.

American Beauty: The Inauguration as Medium and Message

President Obama taking the oath of office as his family looks on (Photograph of PBS coverage)

The American Revolution was a revolt against “kingly power,” that, upon succeeding, evolved into a gamble that ordinary people could rule themselves without a monarch.  The republican government the Framers devised nonetheless featured a novel office—that of chief executive—who, being the choice of the populace, would function as the nation’s symbolic head for four years’ time.  Without some such “people’s sovereign,” the Federalists believed, the new government would have trouble securing the affections and loyalty of the citizenry.  The ritual of the inauguration has taken shape around preoccupations like these.

The inaugural was held on the west front of the Capitol (Photograph of PBS coverage)

Relative to the pomp surrounding British monarchical rituals, for instance, American inaugurals are low ceremonies indeed.  Since John Adams’s early disastrous experiments in aping the British monarchy, presidents and their families have avoided ostentatious costumes or trappings offensive to democratic sensibilities.  Officials take the oath of office wearing ordinary street clothes, allowing the “majesty of the people” to take center stage.

The president listening to the inaugural proceedings (Photograph of PBS coverage)

The preference has been strong for an open-air ceremony.  George Washington set the tone in 1789 with his swearing-in on the balcony of Federal Hall (then the seat of Congress) in New York City.  Though harsh weather has sometimes forced inaugurals inside, their location has generally been selected to allow them to be witnessed by largest possible number of people.

A vast crowd came to the National Mall to take part in the 2013 inauguration (Photograph from PBS television coverage)

Over time, the inaugural has evolved into a full and appropriately expressive ritual, especially through the device of the inauguration poem (a custom begun and carried on mainly by Democratic presidents) and the performance of American song.  In the right hands, the inaugural’s simple components can be coaxed into a whole of considerable beauty and eloquence, as was certainly the case with the inaugural  last Monday.

The ceremony was beautifully orchestrated, planned with an understanding of how its elements could combine.  From invocation to closing prayer, Obama’s second inaugural presented an aesthetic and patriotic vision of the American essence, receiving its purest expression during James Taylor’s simple rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’ on acoustic guitar.  At the same time, several complex political messages were effectively conveyed.

1. Ours is an inclusive, multiracial republic.

The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic (Photograph of PBS coverage)Visually and verbally, the inaugural moved beyond tokenism to demonstrate the diverse and inclusive character of the US today.  The crowd gathered on the Mall, as well as all those with an official part in the proceedings, showed the fruits of the country’s long struggle to make good on its egalitarian principles and dreams.  The reality of integration and inclusion was embodied in the faces of the military, in the diverse complexion of officialdom, and in all those clergy, singers, poets, musicians, and orators, who were called on to inspire, entertain, instruct, bless, and thrill us that day.

Beyonce leaving the inauguration, where she performed the national anthem (Photograph of PBS coverage)Coinciding with Martin Luther King Day, the inaugural paid homage to the nation’s centuries-long quest for civil equality, encompassing the struggle to end slavery, extend the franchise, welcome the immigrant, and end archaic practices that are discriminatory.  Progress toward these goals, though incomplete and painfully achieved, is evident, and our maturity as a pluralistic country was joyfully ratified on Inauguration Day.

2. Religion is central to American civic life, but not in the way Christian conservatives imagine.

Religious sentiment (of a peculiarly American kind) suffused the inaugural proceedings.  Its historic role in inspiring Americans to preserve and strengthen the Union and to persevere in the face of injustice was humbly acknowledged.  In the ceremony, religion figured as a fountain that Americans must continue to draw on as they seek to discern the right and the true.

Myrlie Evers-Williams somber invocation and Reverend Luis Leon’s benediction extolled the blessings of religion as a unifying and transcendent force, binding together and uplifting the American people.  Driving the point home, the multiracial Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir wowed the crowd with its rendition of the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ a Civil War-era song about militant righteousness and Union, written by northern white abolitionist Julia Ward Howe.

Was the inaugural satisfying in part because it sketched the spiritual and patriotic dimensions of the Obamas’ own deep personal faith, a faith that opponents have often assailed, belittled, and misrepresented for the sake of political gain?  At the same time, the intense but inclusive spirit of the inaugural seemed a rebuke to the more narrow and divisive Christianity that social conservatives espouse.

3. The condition of the people is the President’s main concern.  Maximize their security, happiness, and well-being, and national  prosperity will follow.

President Obama delivering his inaugural address (Photograph from PBS coverage)Jeffersonian thought has been so marginalized in political discourse that commentators hardly recognize its essence today.  President Obama’s repeated use of phrases and ideas from the Declaration of Independence in his speech signaled his interest in governing in a Jeffersonian vein.  It’s an interesting idea, but what does it mean?  For Jefferson, it meant providing a framework for the individual so that the the individual could flourish.  Jefferson was not anti-government—he was the architect of many enduring and expansive national projects—but he believed chiefly in that government necessary to protect and promote a prosperous and self-realizing citizenry.  When it came to big projects, Jefferson was all about innovation and efficiency.

4. The relationships born of our civic life enjoy a priority over those of corporations or the economy.

The Capitol as seen from the Washington Monument on January 21, 2013 (Photograph of PBS coverage)

Throughout his career, President Obama has sought to reinvigorate the potent role of citizens in political life.  David Brooks, though admiring the inaugural address, regretted the president had not devoted more of it to the budget, the markets, the economy, or free enterprise.  We’ve grown accustomed to thinking that government must be mainly about these.  But are these truly the chief interests of a republican government?  Are these the interests that need protecting?  American business will continue to find a way, whether the Obama administration puts its might behind that project, or not.  The president believes that investment in human capital is the chief requisite to making the economy thrive.  As if to underscore the point, inaugural poet Richard Blanco offered a lyrical, Whitmanesque view of American work in his spare yet impressive poem, One Today.

5. We are all citizens, and, as citizens, must fulfill certain transcendent obligations consonant with the great power reposed in us.

 The best part of the president’s speech was its conclusion.  Pointing to oath-taking as a unifying ritual, the President likened his oath to others we have taken, whether as schoolchildren, government officials, new citizens, or members of the military.  The promises we make to our country bind us together in a way that transcends the claims of self-interest and party.  The president closed with an appeal to each of us to continue to make our voices heard.

The president looks back on the Inaugural crowd (Photograph of PBS coverage)