There has been a lot of change in recent months – a $787 billion spending bill, a budget exceeding $3 trillion, government ownership of auto manufacturers, government-imposed caps on earnings, legislation imposing limits on economic activity in America under the name of environmental justice. It is increasingly difficult for conservatives to sustain any audacity of hope for moderate policies coming from the current administration.
What unites these policies and their sweeping designs is the progressive aim of “remaking America”—as President Obama said in his Inaugural Address—into a country much more like the highly regulated, secular, and pacifist nations of Europe.
The view of America that dominates the academy, journalism, major foundations, and most segments of the American intellectual community was marked out at the start of the last century by progressive thinkers (learn more about them here) when they launched their grand project for America. They repudiated the Founders’ principles, holding that there are no self-evident truths—in the Declaration of Independence or elsewhere—only change in the constant search for progress without final goals. There are no permanent rights with which man is endowed, but endlessly evolving rights that develop and grow based on new demands. Our fidelity must be to a “living” Constitution that adapts to fit the demands of the times. The way forward is to control social conditions and engineer a better society, redistributing wealth through a distant and patronizing welfare state that regulates more and more of the American economy, politics and society.
Over the course of the twentieth century—as America’s principles were assaulted, undermined, and redefined in our culture, in our universities, and in our politics—we have taken significant steps down this path. The Progressive Movement laid the intellectual groundwork, but the basic infrastructure of the modern welfare state established under the New Deal has expanded in regulatory scope and social purpose under the Great Society and its progeny in both political parties. We are in the beginning of a new and perhaps decisive move in this direction.
Now, more than ever, is the time to relearn the meaning and contemporary significance of the Declaration of Independence and recognize that modern liberalism has explicitly rejected the truths it proclaims.
Woodrow Wilson, one of the most famous early progressives, argued during the 1912 presidential campaign that “all that Progressives ask or desire is permission…to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle,” meaning that it should promote an ever-expanding set of powers for an ever-expanding government. The problem, he declared, was that pesky Declaration of Independence: “some citizens of this country have never got beyond the Declaration of Independence,” he remarked with astonishment; “The Declaration of Independence did not mention the questions of our day.”
The progressive view rejects outright the very idea, at the heart of the Founders’ way of thinking, of being guided by permanent or fixed principles. As the prominent progressive historian Carl Becker put it in 1922, “to ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false, is essentially a meaningless question.” Such relativism renders meaningless the whole American experiment in self-government.
But denying the truth of America’s principles for the sake of “change” can make no claim to progress at all—a point made with unsurpassed clarity by Calvin Coolidge (learn more here) on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1926: “If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.”
We don’t need to remake America, or discover new and untested principles. The change we need is not the rejection of America’s principles but a great renewal of these permanent truths about man, politics, and liberty—the foundational principles and constitutional wisdom that are the true roots of our country’s greatness.
As we celebrate the blessings of liberty that America’s Founders made possible and the sacrifices of succeeding generations have enabled us to enjoy, let us also rededicate ourselves, and strive to rededicate our nation, to the Declaration of Independence.