“About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day; and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with unalienable rights, that is final. If government derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.” Calvin Coolidge, July 5, 1926, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Calvin Coolidge has had the reputation of being our most laconic President. But his speech about the Declaration was one of the most eloquent in American history. He traced the intellectual lineage of the Declaration, demonstrating that Jefferson’s ideas were not simply current European fashion, but arose from American soil through the sermons and writings of a series of clergymen, the intellectuals of their day. Reverend Thomas Hooker of Connecticut in a 1638 sermon to the General Court asserted that “The foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people.” Reverend John Wise of Massachusetts wrote in 1710, “Every man must be acknowledged equal to every man.” And, “The end of all good government is to cultivate humanity and promote the happiness of all and the good of every man in all his rights to life, liberty, estate, honor, and so forth…” While the Founders consulted the works of Locke and Montesquieu, they were also well aware of the American roots of the principles that gave life to the Declaration, the work of men like Hooker and Wise and those who followed them. Thomas Jefferson acknowledged that his “best ideas of democracy” had been secured at church meetings.
The recognition that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with unalienable rights, and that the source of power in a just government is the consent of the governed is not the most impressive thing about the Declaration, in Coolidge’s view. These were not new ideas, and had constituted political speculation in both Europe and America. The chief distinction of the Declaration lies in the fact that “Our Declaration of Independence containing these immortal truths was the political action of a duly authorized and constituted representative public body in its sovereign capacity, supported by the force of general opinion and by the armies of Washington already in the field, which makes it the most important civil document in the world. It was not only the principles declared, but the fact that therewith a new nation was born which was to be founded upon these principles and which from that time forth in its development has actually maintained those principles.”
President Coolidge was said to be all about business, particularly big business. He reputedly said that the business of America is business. And he did say something similar to that when he remarked that the chief business of America is business, as would be true in any commercial republic, but then he added that the purposes of any great nation are broader than that. In his speech on the Declaration, he clarified the position of the spiritual and the material: “While there were always among them men of deep learning, and later those who had comparatively large possessions, the mind of the people was not so much engrossed in how much they knew, or how much they had, as in how they were going to live….They were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power. No other theory is adequate to explain or comprehend the Declaration of Independence. It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people. We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp….We must not sink to a pagan materialism….We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshipped.”
President Coolidge understood that we have a property in our unalienable rights that allows us to act with great independence in following our own ideas. It is not simply the protection of our lives and goods that enriches us, but the protection of our liberty to speak, write, worship as we will to satisfy our spirits and develop our minds. Our wealth has been a product of our liberty, of the power of the individual, creative mind so feared by the authoritarian, so valued by our Founders.
The ideas of the Founders have great power. They launched the most exceptional nation in the history of the world. Yet, those ideas have been under attack by the powerful ideas of Progressivism, which have largely displaced the Founding. Traveling under the guise of science, of expertise, of rational planning, of progress, Progressivism has continually chipped away at our liberties and created a new American culture of dependency. Americans have been too ready to trade liberty for security, and as the chimera of security never really arrives, have been all too ready to trade more liberty for more unmet promises of security. The opening institutions of the administrative state were in place when Coolidge took office, and though he contributed to American freedom in many ways, he did not dismantle these. He was followed by Republican and Democrat administrations that accepted the Progressive framework. And now we are where we are today.
It is difficult to depart a path once chosen. With the incessant increase in the reach and scope of government, how would anyone be able to stop it, to begin a path back to the Founding? There can be no restoration of the most humane governmental system in world history unless this becomes the sustained wish of the majority of the American people. There must be statesmen who advocate for the Founders’ principles. But even more importantly there must be a public educated to the choices presented by both systems, and the consequences of both systems. This is an intellectual process that will require defenders of the Declaration to cease yielding the academy and the product of the academy, our pitiful schools, to the unified voice of the Progressives. We often say that ideas have consequences, but it may be more correct to say that the effective communication of ideas has consequences.
Truths have a way of asserting themselves. The stagflation of the 1970’s brought the Reagan Administration to America. That Ronald Reagan understood the Founding was apparent from the time of his first inaugural address. First, he identified the source of the crisis: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?….We are a nation that has a government—not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the earth….If we look to the answer as to why, for so many years, we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on earth, it was because here, in this land, we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before….It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government….We are not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing….I will propose removing the roadblocks that have slowed our economy and reduced productivity….Progress may be slow, but we will progress. It is time to reawaken this industrial giant, to get government back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden. And these will be our first priorities, and on these principles, there will be no compromise.”
Reagan understood that it is not the government that makes us great, but the creative powers of individual Americans as they go about their lives. For the first time, an inauguration was held on the Capitol’s West Front. From here Reagan took those attending in person and by television on a tour of the mall. “Directly in front of me, the monument to a monumental man: George Washington, Father of Our Country. A man of humility who came to greatness reluctantly. He led America out of revolutionary victory into infant nationhood. Off to one side, the stately memorial to Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence flames with his eloquence. And then beyond the Reflecting Pool the dignified columns of the Lincoln Memorial. Whoever would understand in his heart the meaning of America will find it in the life of Abraham Lincoln.”
To Reagan, these great men, all of whom reflected the ideas of the Founding, were national heroes. But they were not the only heroes. “Beyond those monuments to heroism is the Potomac River, and on the far shore the sloping hills of Arlington National Cemetery with its row on row of simple white markers bearing crosses or stars of David. They add up to only a tiny fraction of the price that has been paid for our freedom.” And Reagan spoke of everyday heroes of our republic. “Those who say that we are in a time when there are no heroes just don’t know where to look. You can see heroes every day going in and out of the factory gates. Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond. You meet heroes across a counter—and they are on both sides of that counter. There are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity. They are individuals and families whose taxes support the government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education. Their patriotism is quiet but deep. Their values sustain our national life.” Reagan understood the genius of the Founding: A free people use their liberty to build their lives and thereby build their nation. It is not in scientific manipulation of imperfect people that a country finds prosperity. Rather, it is the quest of the individual to better himself spiritually and materially that brings prosperity to people and to a nation. It is not redistribution to necessitous men that creates a healthy society. Rather, it is the struggle of every individual, a struggle of heroic proportions, that strengthens a nation.
President Reagan concluded by identifying one of the heroes buried in Arlington. “Under one such marker lies a young man—Martin Treptow—who left his job in a small town barber shop in 1917 to go to France with the famed Rainbow Division. There, on the western front, he was killed trying to carry a message between battalions under heavy artillery fire. We are told that on his body was found a diary. On the flyleaf under the heading ‘My Pledge,’ he had written these words: ‘America must win this war. Therefore, I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depends on me alone.’”
As if the issue of the whole struggle depends on me alone. That is the individual commitment and the love of liberty that is required to regain the Founding. The Reagan years were as one bright, shining moment. But they serve as encouragement to us. A talented politician, deeply committed to Founding principles, bonded with the people and produced a respite from Progressive domination.
We can wait for another Reagan. Or we can participate in educational activity that explains the nature of the choice to our fellow citizens. Which system is more humane? Which system recognizes the dignity of the individual? Which system builds a strong country? Which system yields prosperity? We must all be students of liberty, and we must all be teachers of freedom.
In 1862 President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, which distributed federal lands, amounting to 10% of all the land of America, to independent farmers. These land grants were available in 160 acre parcels at nominal cost. The law fits on two pages. There is clarity as to its provisions. Anyone can read it and understand it.
In 2010 President Obama signed Dodd Frank, which imposed new regulations on financial companies. The law runs well over 1,000 pages. The first eleven pages are a table of contents, referencing the 16 “titles” of the act. The document is full of complex definitions and cross references to other regulations. It is unreadable by a normal person. Moreover, if you do manage to get through it, you still will not understand the full import of the new regulations since much of the rule making is delegated to administrative bodies. It purports to address “too big to fail,” but does so by institutionalizing it. It promises to deal with the root causes of the financial crisis, but fails to address the government policies that stimulated the granting of irrational home mortgage terms to unqualified buyers—policies found in the Community Reinvestment Act (still in place), the operations of Housing and Urban Development, and the activities of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (still in operation). And this masquerades as government science and expertise!
There can be no better demonstration of the differences between the two systems. Madison said if laws are voluminous and ever-changing, there can be no rule of law since people can’t understand the law. Rule of law requires simplicity in the construction of law—and minimal, common sense rules accessible to all. Progressives stress the need for sophisticated government. Laws are drafted to be read and applied by experts who govern the people. There must be lots of rules. We must be bound by an excess of law so society can control the people through government for the benefit of society.
People can be liberated by law that secures their rights and minimizes interference in their lives. Or people can be bound by law that seeks to control ever-increasing portions of their lives.
You make the choice.
Stephen Zierak, CPCU/ARM, graduated from Boston University with a BA in Political Science in 1969. After a forty year career in property casualty insurance underwriting, Mr. Zierak retired as a Vice President of Swiss Re America in 2010. At that time, he relocated to Hawaii, a move he had always wanted to make, but had delayed due to lack of appropriate professional opportunities here. Mr. Zierak plans to continue his studies in Political Science, never really abandoned even during his professional career, and to write on matters of public policy. Recently, he produced for Grassroot Institute summaries of Hillsdale’s ten part internet course on our Constitution. Stephen Zierak is married to the love his life, Teodora, and they reside in Honolulu.
This lesson is taught by Dr. Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College. Under Dr. Arnn’s leadership, Hillsdale established the Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, DC. At Hillsdale, Dr. Arnn combines administration duties with teaching. The subjects of his courses include Aristotle, Winston Churchill, and the American Constitution. Dr. Arnn is on the Board of Directors of both the Heritage Foundation and the Claremont Institute. He is the author of Liberty and Learning: The Evolution of American Education. Dr. Arnn received his BA from Arkansas State, and his MA and PhD from Claremont Graduate School. This is the final lesson in this most valuable series. If you would like to experience this webinar for yourselves, register at the Hillsdale.constitution.edu website. There is no charge.