Sunday, July 31, 2011

Aristotle on Democracy and Demagogues

In Search of the Republic--3

After classifying all governments into monarchy, aristocracy, and polity (and of course, their deviations tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy), Aristotle made some interesting observations about democracies. The reader at his point is reminded of Aristotle's definition of democracy:  "a democracy exists whenever those who are free are not well-off, being in the majority, are in sovereign control of government."

This includes all parts of the government. According to Aristotle, there are three elements: "The three are, first, the deliberative, which discusses everything of common importance; second, the officials; and third, the judicial element." A democracy exists when the mass of people control all three elements.

The deliberative element is the assembly of the citizens of the city-state. The tasks of assemblies differ between the city-states. In general, they enact laws, decide the question of war and peace, and elect officials from among themselves to administer the city-state between meetings of the assembly.

These officials, what we might today call the executive, generally assume office through selection by drawing lots. In Aristotle's democracy, where all citizens possess equality, selection to the assembly is not by election but by lot. The citizens take turns ruling and being ruled.

The judicial element, which settles disputes about law, consists of citizens selected by lot. Again, the democratic principle requires that equal citizens take turns in office.

Not all democracies are  alike, however, according to Aristotle. Practices differed among the democracies of his day. He divided them into two general types.

The first rests on the principle of complete equality among all the citizens, “when all alike share most fully in the constitution.” By equality, he meant no property or other qualifications for voting in the assembly of the city-state or serving in its offices. In a second type, a modest property qualification is required. When a person does not meet the property requirement or once having met it subsequently loses it, he can no longer participate in the Assembly, offices, or law courts.

Aristotle added that in some of these constitutions the majority exercises sovereignty over all public questions, “when the multitude is sovereign and not the law."  The democratic assembly gathers and simply votes, much like a jury. Aristotle observed that it is “the demagogues who bring about this state of affairs.” They do this when “they bring every question before the people, and make its decrees sovereign instead of the laws . . . and the multitude follows their lead.” When demagogues bring questions before the people, most often the audience is the poor: “the mass of the poor take they most time off; they have no encumbrances, while the wealthy, who have private affairs to look after, often do not take part in the Assembly and courts of law.” This is especially true of the urban poor. Less affluent farmers sometimes experienced difficulty taking time out from labors in the surrounding countryside to travel into the city for assembly meetings. The urban poor already were there.

When demagogues bring every question before an assembly meeting consisting primarily of the urban poor, this gives rise to factions, pitting the poor and rich against each other. The poor will seek to confiscate the wealth of the rich; the rich will seek to disenfranchise to poor. According to Aristotle, "when those in office ill-treat others and get larger shared for themselves, men form factions both against each other and against the constitution to which they owe their power to act." These factions between poor and rich plagued all city-states in the ancient world.

He noted, however, that in other democracies established laws govern all decisions instead of majority vote. Officials apply the established laws like judges. In fact, Aristotle asserted that where “laws do not rule, there is no constitution.” He argued that “the laws ought to rule over all, in general terms, and the officials ought to make rulings in individual cases.” He suggested that when most of the people are farmers or possess a moderate amount of property, they work in the Assembly to “puts the law in charge” so that the Assembly is not deciding every question and repeatedly requiring them to leave the countryside for assembly meetings. In this way, even a democracy can be a government of laws and not of men.

In describing this last type of democracy, Aristotle began his transition to what he believed to be the best possible government: a mixed regime in which both the wealthy and the poor shared sovereignty. Only this mixed government in which the wealthy and poor shared offices would rule for the common good .

He called it a polity. It later became known as a republic.

That will be the subject of a future post.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Monarchy, Aristocracy, . . . and Republic?

In Search of the Republic--2

In the previous post, I suggested that any inquiry into the idea of a republic must begin with Aristotle. The philosopher's classification of constitutions defined the terms of political debate for the next 2,300 years.

Aristotle defined a constitution as “the organization of the offices, and in particular of the one that is sovereign over all the others.” This differs from the concept of constitution that we have today. Modern Americans think of a written document which specifically creates the arrangement of offices and describes the powers invested in each office. Aristotle defined constitution as the arrangement of the offices themselves, whether or not any written document created them.

In addition, Aristotle distinguished between correct and deviant constitutions. He wrote:

“It is clear then that those constitutions which aim at the common good are right, as being in accord with absolute justice; while those which aim only at the good of the rulers are wrong. They are all deviations from the right constitutions.”

Aristotle identified three general types of correct constitutions with operate for the common good:

--Rule by one, called monarchy, that aims at the common good.

--Rule by the few, called aristocracy, in which the best men, or most virtuous, men rule for what is best for the state.The most virtuous are those who have developed the human virtues or excellencies described in his earlier work Ethics.  Aristotle's virtues included such moral virtues as courage, temperance, generosity, and amiability. They included such intellectual virtues as knowledge, intuition, skill, prudence, and wisdom.  As might be expected, Aristotle believed that an aristocracy was the best government. It is, after all, government by the best, or most virtuous.

--Rule by the many, called polity, in which the mass of the populace exercise power in the common interest. In contrast to the many virtues of the aristocrats, the only virtue possessed by the masses is military virtue. That is why, according to Aristotle, the “defensive element is the most sovereign body, and those who share in the constitution are those who bear arms.”

Aristotle observed that different city-states developed many variations of these three basic types of governments. Much of his text explored the different varieties of democracies and aristocracies.

Aristotle noted, however, that these correct constitutions degenerate into deviant forms in which those with the sovereign power no longer exercise it for the common good, but for the private good of the rulers. He defined three deviant constitutions:

--Rule by the one, called tyranny, or monarchy for the benefit of the monarch.

--Rule by the few, called oligarchy, for the benefit of men of means

--Rule by the many, called democracy, for the benefit of men without means.

Aristotle distinguished these constitutions by the ends that they serve, but Aristotle noted something in common when he elaborated on these constitutions from an economic perspective. Aristocracy is rule by "the best," but this usually means the rich. In this way it resembles an oligarchy. Polity is rule by the many, but  this usually means the poor. In this way, polity resembles a democracy. Correct and deviant constitutions resemble each other when compared economically. They differ dramatically when compared teleologically--what end or purpose do they serve.

What seems to be missing from his account?

A republic.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Politics of Aristotle

In Search of the Republic--1

Any examination of the history of constitutions must begin with Aristotle's The Politics. This examination will not be a systematic, chapter by chapter analysis. Rather, it will focus on those ideas of Aristotle that influenced the Founding Fathers. Aristotle established the framework in which all discussions of governments have taken place. Moreover, Aristotle's insights have influenced the many different streams of both conservative and liberal ideas about society and government.

Readers are reminded that The Politics is actually a continuation of his work, Ethics. In that essay, Aristotle asserted that the primary motivation for human behavior is happiness. He made this conclusion because happiness is the only good that is sought for itself and not sought for the sake of something else.

Aristotle used the term in a different sense than we do today. The modern definition of happiness held by most people is that happiness is the psychological or emotional state that comes from getting what one wants. The Greek word Aristotle used for happiness is better translated, thriving or flourishing. So the question Aristotle tried to answer in Ethics was how do men thrive or how do we create thriving men? It was his way of asking the more modern inquiry, What is the good life?

Aristotle based his answers on man’s nature. He conceived man as “the rational animal.” Consequently, he argued that the pursuit of happiness will be a rational activity. In addition, Aristotle recognized that human beings by nature possess certain species specific excellencies or , as modern translations have it, virtues. Aristotle believed that human beings should cultivate these virtues. Aristotle thus defined happiness as “the rational activity of the soul in accordance with virtue or excellence. In other words, happiness means excelling at being human or becoming an excellent human being.

But Aristotle also recognized man as “a political animal.” By nature human beings live in organized societies. Without society, man cannot fully thrive or achieve happiness. So in The Politics, Aristotle explores the different ways people have organized their societies and which ones are most conducive for human thriving or happiness. He examines some idealistic speculative constitutions created by philosophers. He examines actual constitutions of various Mediterranean communities. And, finally, he offers his own ideal constitution.

Readers are reminded, too, of the context of Aristotle’s The Politics. When Aristotle wrote, the form of social organization most familiar was the Greek city-state or polis (hence the word politics.) Dozens of them dotted the Mediterranean. The Greek city-states emerged in the 800s BC following the disappearance of Mycenaean civilization and its kings. The Dorian Invasions,about which ancient history scholars disagree, swept way Mycenaean civilization and brought about the subsequent Greek “dark ages.” The new city-states that emerged began as self-sufficient societies based upon kinship networks. Perhaps to prevent another catastrophe like the Dorian invasion, they grew into fiercely independent armed camps based upon citizen soldiers (the hoplites.)

The city-states consisted of a small urban center and the surrounding countryside. Athens, the adopted home of Aristotle, grew into one of the largest. It contained around 1,000 square miles, making it slightly smaller than Rhode Island. Most other city-states spread only between 30 and 500 square miles and had only 2,000 to 10,000 people. Athenians numbered about 350,000 people. Only about half of these possessed citizenship--the right to hold office and participate in juries. The rest were dependents-- women, children, and slaves-- or resident aliens.

This small size, both geographically and demographically, of the Greek city-state must be remembered as one reads The Politics. In addition, one must note the impulse to unity and conformity.
The notion of individual natural or political rights was largely alien to the ancient Greeks. The main liberty they embraced was liberty under the law, the idea that they lived under laws of their own making. This is one reason they contrasted themselves with the surrounding barbarians of other nations. Because the foreigners lived under the arbitrary power of  kings and tyrants, they were the equivalent of slaves. This conception of "republican liberty" endured as the most commonly held view of liberty before the advent of modern liberalism.

These two facts--the small size of the polis and the impulse for uniformity--present difficulties for application of Aristotle’s ideas to modern megalopolis or the expansive modern nation state.

But Aristotle's ideas, the good and the bad, possess a longevity enjoyed by those of few other thinkers.

And some of Aristotle’s ideas may provide insight into the challenges facing our own societies. They may also suggest common sense conservative approaches to overcome those challenges.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Republic or Democracy?

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.

 --James Madison

A democracy is really a republic as an oak is a tree, or a temple a building

--John Adams

A couple of weeks back at Right Detour, several posts described the philosophy of government as contained in the Declaration of Independence. In the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson asserted that people establish governments to protect their rights, and that these governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed. Sometimes such a government is described as popular government, a republic, or a democracy.

Sometimes we conservatives engage in disputatious word games about the difference between republics and democracies. We cringe when someone clumsily refers to the United States as a democracy rather than a republic. As the quotes above illustrate, however, disagreements and ambiguities abound about those terms and always have.

Most people understand that a democracy denotes a system of government in which the people in some sense rule. Specifically, a democracy is a government in which the citizens directly make their laws. Republicanism, however, is much less understood. Most often, people distinguish a republic from a democracy in that the people rule indirectly through representatives.

The term republic derives from the Latin phrase, res publica. This means " a thing of the people" or "a public affair." Historically the word has been translated to mean republic, commonwealth, constitution, government, or state. And throughout history, republic has been applied to all kinds of governments.

In the next few posts, Right Detour will examine just what republic came to mean, and how the Founders of our American regime created a republic like no other in the history of the world.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Stuck in the "Mitt-le"

The previous post noted the unusual interest that mainstream media reporters in the teachings of Marcus and Michele Bachmann's former church denomination, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. The Synod teaches what it calls  its historical judgment that the Catholic Pope is the Anti-Christ foretold in the Christian  scriptures. Such teachings may not sit well with any Catholic voters whose support Bachmann hopes to win.

So far, not much detailed interest has been directed from the mainstream media into the Mormon beliefs of Mitt Romney.  Pastors and theologians probably have analyzed Mormon beliefs and their compatibility with the orthodox understanding of the Bible on behalf of their congregations. For the most part, however, the mainstream media has noted Mormonism's awkward place in American religious landscape. Lawrence O'Donnell went off on one of Mormonism's more dispicable doctrines:

Now a news personality on FOX news challenged the idea that Mormonism one of the branches of Christianity. Ainsley Earhardt, who obviously is a Christian, commented on Romney's prospects among religious conservatives. She observed that as a Mormon, he is "obviously no being a Christian."

Poor Romney  now is stuck in the middle, with both liberals and conservative Christians challenging the legitimacy of his faith.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bachmann, the Bible, and Beelzebub

When seeking public office, one's personal religious affiliations can become a source of controversy. President Obama learned that lesson in 2008 with the raging psychopath, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

Michele Bachmann and her husband recently withdrew their membership from Salem Lutheran Church in Stillwater, Minnesota, where they have worshiped for ten years. CNN Belief Blog reports that the request came several weeks before she announced that she would seek the Republican nomination for POTUS. They had not attended the church in over two years but has been worshiping at an undisclosed non-denominational congregation when time permits.

Because she never explained why, (not that any requirement exists to do so), reporters have begun to speculate.

Salem Lutheran Church is a member of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, one of the more traditional Lutheran church organizations. One of its traditional beliefs, following their founder Martin Luther,  is that the Pope is the Anti-Christ of the Bible. The Synod bases this on historical judgments derived from the Bible, not upon any propositions to that effect contained in the Bible.

Obviously, affiliation with a church that holds such beliefs might be a political handicap. Catholic voters, even those who share Bachmann's political views, may find themselves reluctant to support her candidacy. Although she left the church and has not worshiped there in two years, one might reasonably ask why she stayed there for ten?

It is interesting that the mainstream media has suddenly acquired an interest in the minutia of church dogmatics. If their interest proves enduring, they will have a field day with Mitt Romney's Mormonism. Usually, the media assesses the candidate about their consistency on hot button issues such as abortion: how does any candidate's positions line up with those of their church. In recent times, the positions of most presidential candidates on abortion actually conflict with the positions of the church denominations where they worship.

If the media attempts to generate controversy on the Bachmann family's choice of churches, rejecting their church's teaching may be the best solution. Whether the media will give Bachmann the same pass on this issue which they gave to Obama, time will tell.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Does Rich Perry Have a Prayer?

Last week, beginning on Independence Day, Right Detour featured a series on the background and meaning of the Declaration of Independence. The core ideas of the philosophy behind the Declaration included equality, natural rights, and government by consent. In the future Right Detour will explore just what kind of government upon which the Founders finally agreed.

With the preliminary skirmishes of the presidential campaign of 2012 under way, however, let's take a break for some reflections on some the personalities and issues of that campaign.

An event that will be in the news for the next several weeks is the rally called “The Response: A Call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis,” scheduled for August 6, 2011 at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas. The Response describes its purpose and lists the promoters. The person described at the initiator is Texas governor Rich Perry. This moved the Freedom from Religious Foundation to file a lawsuit to prevent his appearance and to force the removal of an announcement about the meeting from the official website of the Texas governor. As might be expected, the FFRF claims his appearance violates the “separation of church and state.” If the FFRF want freedom from religion, they can decline to attend.

Of course, religious proclamations from governors are nothing new. During the BP oil spill disaster, governors Bob Riley of Alabama, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and , yes, Rick Perry, all issued proclamations in June 2010 calling for prayers about the disaster. Because of a severe drought in Georgia, state Governor Sonny Perdue actually led prayers for rain on the steps of the state capital.

That does not seem to have bothered the FFRF. But then again, at that time none of them were considering a run for the White House.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Declaration of Indpendence and American National Identity

Jefferson's Declaration began as simply a political document announcing the separation from Britain and the birth of a new independent nation. It has become much more than that. It is now an American creed, assuming an almost religious significance about what we believe as Americans: liberty, equality, and republican government. And in the absence of traditional components of nationality, those ideas in the Declaration of Independence have become a substitute for those components. It is the ideas of the Declaration of Independence that constitute our national identity.

Traditionally, any people's national identity rests upon geography, language, ethnicity, and religion. People groups generally identify with some geographic location where they have lived. Regardless of how well their land has provided material needs, they romanticize it as their homeland. They lay some claim to it based upon historical or mythological narratives about how they settled there. They are unified by a common language. Speakers of other languages are often seen as less civilized. Perhaps the linguistic group share some physical characteristics that encourage the development of some degree of ethnic consciousness. Finally, a shared religious tradition adds to their social cohesion and provides myths about origins and destiny Often their government provides legal and financial support to their historic faith.

These traditional elements of national identity only had shallow roots in the New World. Over the two centuries of our history as an independent nation, there roots have withered. First, America’s sense of place is not as deep rooted as that in other nations. Many of the first settlers, especially the wealthier leadership behind the colonization efforts never intended to make North America their permanent home. They hoped to strike it rich like Spanish conquistadors and return home to Britain to assume the life of country gentlemen. Most of those who stayed did so because they never became prosperous enough to make it back home to Britain. For others, the North American wilderness offered opportunities for the future, not a basis for a historic homeland rooted in the past.

Second, Americans do not have their own language. We speak a foreign language: English. Even the regions accents of American speakers of English derive from the different regions of England from which they originated.

Third, America’s ethnic diversity is hardly a recent development. Britain’s colonies from the beginning possessed a diverse population. Europeans from Britain, Sweden, Holland, Germany, and France established enclaves of settlement. Africans from that continent’s West Coast lived throughout the colonies, though chiefly in the Southern region. A general sense of Northern European identity that Americans shared gradually disappeared with the later arrival of Eastern and Southern Europeans, Asians, and in more recent times, Hispanics. Because of this immigration and ethnic diversity, Americans possess no distinct physical characteristics of an ethnic group.

Finally, America has no national, government supported religion. This circumstance, too, results from our long standing diversity. Anglicans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Dutch Reformed, Baptists, Lutherans, Unitarians, and Deists populated the early colonies. Some colonies established a particular denomination as the government sanctioned faith. This resulted in some persecution of Quakers by Congregationalists in Massachusetts, and of Baptists in Virginia by Anglicans. Partly because of this religious diversity, the Constitutional Convention created no nationally established religious denomination. The Constitution of 1787 left the legal status of religion to the states. Gradually, however, even the state establishments disappeared. Americans shared a general sense of Protestantism (that accompanied their self-conception as ethnic Northern Europeans) for many decades. The immigration that brought new ethnic groups also brought new religious faiths. Adherents to Catholicism now outnumber any Protestant denomination and a wide range of non-western religious faith now dot the cultural landscape.

So what holds such diverse elements together? The ideas contained in the Declaration of Independence. The devotion to the ideas of liberty, equality, and republican government provides the cohesion that in many other diverse countries can only be achieved through authoritarian governments.

As historian Richard Hofstadter put it, "It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one."

In other words, we are not Americans because of who we are geographically, linguistically, ethnically, or religiously. We are Americans because of what we believe.

Monday, July 11, 2011

"Our Lives, Our Fortunes, and Our Sacred Honor"

Jefferson, after the addition by other editors of the passage professing their appeal to the Supreme Judge of the world, incorporated Richard Henry Lee's resolution declaring independence. Lee's resolution referred to "these united colonies." Because this declaration asserts a change in the existing states of affairs, Jefferson introduces Lee's resolution as a declaration by representatives of "the united States of America."

“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.".

After an editorial addition by others expressing their "reliance on the protection of Divine Providence," Jefferson ends with this pledge:

"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

Although the Continental Congress passed Lee's resolution for independence on 2 July 1776, we celebrate the birthday of the nation on the day that the Congress approved Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. For the Declaration is more than a political document altering the relationship with Britain or a philosophical statement of the American theory of just governments. It has become of statement of what we seek to become as a people and the source of our national identity. For this reason, we celebrate Independence Day and uphold the "sacred honor" of the men who made it possible.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

"Let the Facts be Submitted to a Candid World"

After Jefferson developed the American philosophy behind equality, liberty, and government by consent, he finally began the primary purpose for the writing of the Declaration: to explain to the world why America chose to separate from Great Britain.

He conceded that such action should not be taken without careful consideration:

“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

Jefferson characterized British policies regarding the colonies, however, neither "light" nor "transient.” Americans had enjoyed a great deal of autonomy in the relations with Britain. Because of what Parliamentarian Edmund Burke described as a “wise and salutary neglect” by the mother country, Britain's North American colonies had grown prosperous. In addition, they had enjoyed a great deal of autonomy and local self government through their colonial legislatures. After the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, however, Britain embarked on a systematic effort to tighten their control over the colonies through new regulatory and tax initiatives.

The colonists interpreted these initiatives as omens of something much more sinister. From their widespread reading of polemical writing from radical Whigs in Britain, Americans became predisposed to see in British actions a conspiracy of power against liberty. Edmund Burke, a friend of the colonies, warned his fellow representatives in Parliament of the “fierce spirit of liberty” among Americans and that they “auger misgovernment at a distance and sniff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”

Jefferson confirmed Burke's insight into the perspective of the colonists in the next section of the Declaration. He drew a conclusion, however, that Burke could not share: although they did not live under a tyranny,  they believed they saw one in the making.

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

Then follows the great body of the Declaration: the charges against the the king. Many of these charges only repeated what Jefferson already had leveled at the king in his A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774). He had written this to express the views of the colony of Virginia regarding the imperial crisis. Some additional charges came from other petitions and protests originating from other local assemblies in the colonies over the previous decade.

So why blame the king for the actions taken by Parliament?

He probably blamed the king because by this time the colonists had rejected Parliament's claims of sovereignty over them. Americans had come to conceive of the British Empire as much like the British Commonwealth of Nations today: each province with its own lawmaking body but united by ties with the British monarchy. They blamed him because he cooperated in Parliament's attempt to subject the colonists to its authority. Americans showed prudence and patience in their appeals, protests, and boycotts. In response, the Parliament continued to subject the colonies to their tax and regulatory powers.

“In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

Even the British public appeared deaf to their appeals. Under such circumstances, the only course of action possible by the colonists was independence. Jefferson described it as he did in the opening paragraph of the Declaration: one of necessity.

"Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends."

Jefferson's rhetorical reached a crescendo at last with the incorporation into the Declaration of Richard Henry Lee's resolution for independence passed by Congress on 2 July 1776.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

"To Secure These Rights"

After Jefferson asserted the equality of human beings in their possession of natural rights, he turned to other self evident truths why men form governments and why men dissolve them

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

In a state of nature without government, men possess their natural rights precariously. Men are vulnerable to threats from others to their lives and property. So men form governments to protect those rights. When governments become destructive of the purposes for which they are formed, the protection of natural rights, the people can dissolve that government and replace it with another that will protect those rights.

Again, Jefferson drew upon Locke for his “harmonizing sentiments.” Locke argued that men form communities for the protection of their rights. "And 'tis not withouth reason," Locke wrote, "that he seeks out and it willing to join in society with others who are already, or have a mind to unitefor the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties, and estates, which I call by the general name property."

When men unite for such mutual protection, they give consent to the society certain powers to wield on their behalf. Again in his Second Treatise, Locke argued that “Whosoever therefore out of a state of nature united into a community, must be understood to give up all the power, necessary for the ends for which they united into society, to the majority of the community.” In other words, they cede their rights as individuals to defend with deadly force their natural rights from the encroachments of others, to the community.

Finally, in his Second Treatise, Locke explored several ways in which governments are dissolved. When they are dissolved, “the people are at liberty to provide for themselves, by erecting a new legislature, differing from the other, by a change of person, of form, or both, as they shall find it most for their safety and good.”

After laying out the political philosophy behind dissolving unjust governments, Jefferson presented the charge that the administration of George III was exactly that kind of government.

Friday, July 8, 2011

"All Men are Created Equal"

So what are the truths that Jefferson asserted?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Jefferson asserts three self-evident truths: that men are created equal, that they possess rights given to them by God that cannot be taken way, and that these rights include the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These truths do not stand alone. Through his structure and punctuation, Jefferson connected them with each other and separated them from a second set of self-evident truths. To understand his meaning, the reader must interpret them within that context.

So what did he mean when he claimed all men are created equal?  In the context of the chain of propositions in the argument as it unfolds, Jefferson seems to have meant that all men are created equal in their common humanity and human nature. The most distinctive aspect of human nature is free will. Unlike animals that derive behavior from inborn instinct, human beings deliberate and make choices from alternative courses of action. Human nature thus can be seen as a potentiality that is fulfilled through rational choices. In a sense, human beings make themselves thought their rational choices. This is why the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle called man "the rational animal." Man lives by his reasoning abilities. This suggests a second way in which men are equal. Because all men share the same human nature, all men exercise their free will equally without the permission of others. No one is created to rule over others or to be ruled over. This is what his original draft suggests, where he wrote that “all men are created equal and independent." Men exercise their free will independently of others.

These two concepts of  equality entail the next self-evident truth: that men possess God given rights that cannot be taken away. Because men possess a common nature distinctive for free will and potentiality that must be fulfilled through rational choices, this entails rights claims against other men. In order to fulfill human nature's potentially, men claim the rights to execute those rational choices free from the interference of others. Others cannot take them away. The most general or fundamental rights include the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Every man has the right to defend and protect his life. Every man has the right to exercise natural or personal liberty in fulfilling his potentiality through rational choices. And every man has the right the pursuit happiness through those rational choices.

Two caveats, however, must be added. First, the idea of happiness is an ancient term with a long history of meaning that differs from modernity. Today we think of happiness as the pleasurable psychological state that results from acquiring whatever it is we want. The traditional meaning, again going back to Aristotle, was "thriving" or "flourishing." It meant fulfilling one's specific human nature. In other words, pursuit of happiness implied seeking those things that help one thrive and succeed at being human. Second, natural rights claims are reciprocal. Because of common human nature, every man's rights claims must be respected by every other man.

Sometimes men do not respect the rights claims of others. That leads to the next self evident truths of Jefferson regarding the purposes of government.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

"We Hold These Truths"

Jefferson begins explaining the reasons for the break with Great Britain with these well-known words:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . .”

Just what does the expression “self-evident” truths mean? Basically, it means that the truth of a given proposition is clear without the inclusion of additional propositions or evidence. Once one understands the terms contained in the proposition, its truthfulness is clear. This implies that a state of affairs contradicting the proposition is not seriously worthy of consideration. Jefferson implied as much in his original phrasing which said the truths were “sacred and undeniable.” A self-evident truth is undeniable in that it's opposite cannot seriously be considered.

The proposition to which Jefferson alluded concerned natural equality, natural rights, and republican government. Whether the propositions really are self evident may depend upon what Jefferson meant by them. The same goes for whether or not they are true at all. Nevertheless, they have become the ideas on which our nation is founded. The next post will look at those ideas.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

When in the Course of Human Events . . .

Thomas Jefferson opened his Declaration of Independence with a paragraph explaining its purpose:

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

Jefferson asserts that events have made it “necessary” to sever our political ties with Britain. This statement almost carries the ring of determinism. Events have forced Americans into this action. They can envision no other way to preserve their natural liberties than to assume “the separate and equal station” of an independent country. The Law of Nature and Nature's God to which Jefferson appeals that entitles the Americans to take this step is simply another name for justice.

Jefferson asserts that a decent respect for the opinions or judgments of mankind requires that we state the causes that have forced or , his words, impelled, the decision for independence. He probably had three audiences in mind. First, the Declaration addressed other Americans. At the Continental Congress, nearly a month passed before a delegates reached a consensus on declaring independence. Moreover, John Adams believed that only about one-third of Americans fully supported the Revolution. The remaining holdouts were undecided or loyalists to the British crown. Second, the Declaration addressed the British public. Many British citizens wondered why subjects to the freest government in the world rebelled against it. Finally, the Declaration addressed foreign leaders. The Americans needed financial and material support from foreign countries in order to win independence. No foreign power cared during the years that the colonists asserted their ancient rights as British citizens. Once America made it clear to seek independence, other powers found it in their interest to encourage the break up the British Empire.

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Declaration of Independence.

After approving Richard Henry Lee's resolution declaring independence on 2 July 1776, the delegates of the Continental Congress began discussing the text of the formal declaration. The draft Jefferson's submitted to the Congress already reflected revisions suggested by the other drafting committee members, especially those by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. The delegates devoting much of their 3 July agenda completing additional revisions of the document, including the ending professing their "reliance on the protection of Divine Providence."

On 4 July 1776 the Congress approved the final text of the Declaration of Independence.

So why is Independence Day celebrated on July fourth instead of July second?

One reason is that it defines the ideas, or ideals, upon which our founders established the nation. In the absence of the traditional ethic, linguistic, religious, and geographic attributes of national identity, the Declaration of Independence substitutes an ideology. As historian Richard Hofstadter put it, "It is our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one." Moreover, because the Declaration of Independence is so intertwined with the creation and definition of a new people, it has assumed a quasi-religious standing not unlike the Ten Commandments to the ancient Hebrews. Some writers have, in fact, referred to the Declaration as the American testament or American scripture.

But the ideas contained in the Declaration did not originate from Jefferson. They consisted of a synthesis from many sources. As Jefferson himself explained in a letter written 1in 1825, shortly before the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration:

"This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c."

The next few posts will look at those sentiments.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Happy Birthday to Our Republic

On this date two hundred thirty five years ago thirteen of Great Britain's twenty seven North American colonies declared independence.

The Second Continental Congress convened on 10 May 1776 to assess the progress made since its sessions the previous summer in maintaining their rights while at the save time preserving their union with Britain. The situation had worsened.

The previous October King George III charged in a speech before Parliament that opposition in the colonies was “carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent Empire.” The colonists, he continued, make “vague expression of attachments to the parent state, and the strongest protestations of loyalty to me, whilst they were preparing for a general revolt.” It was time, he concluded, “ to put a speedy and to these disorders by the most decisive exertions.” In response to the King's charges, Parliament passed the Prohibitory Act. This act declared the colonies outside the protection of the empire, prohibited all commerce with the colonies and initiated a naval blockade, and announced that all colonial ships and cargo forfeit to the Crown as enemy vessels. Moreover, the month before the convening of the Congress, fighting erupted between British regulars and Massachusetts militiamen at Lexington and Concord.

During the month of May, Congress assumed the role of an unofficial provisional government, trying to coordinate the colonies and assume military control over the thousands of militiamen gathering in the Boston area.

Then on 7 June 1776, representative Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced the following resolution:

“That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted tot he respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.”

After a couple of days debate, the Congress postponed additional discussion until July. At the time, only slightly more than half the colonies supported independence. A consensus had to be formed. Meanwhile, the Congress appointing a committee of five to draft a declaration of independence for adoption once the colonies reached a consensus. The committee appointed one of its members, Thomas Jefferson, to write the draft.

Finally, on 1 July, the Congress resumed debate on Lee's original resolution. Although no new points emerged, a virtual consensus had been reached. Only the delegates from the state of New York had failed to receive any instructions to support the resolution. So on 2 July 1776, the Continental Congress voted to pass the Lee resolution declaring independence. The United Colonies became the United States.