On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, President Calvin Coolidge provided a keystone speech. He was known as a man of few words,* but the occasion of our nation’s birthday inspired him to pay homage to those who had gone before. The entire address is worth your time, but this excerpt in particular speaks to today:
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 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. 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. ((Emphasis added))
For most of human history, despots and absolute rulers held life-and-death sway over their people, who had little control over their own lives. When America is referred to as ‘exceptional’ it is in that context, rather than in comparison with contemporary nations (although it often applies there, too). The Founding generation carefully distilled centuries of human experience into a philosophy of governance that managed to be both idealistic and pragmatic at the same time. They recognized the dignity of the individual as a creation of God, yet also allowed for the fact we are fallen in nature and prone to abuse our authorities. As James Madison, chief architect of the Constitution put it:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
Those who want a ‘living Constitution’ they can warp to the whims of the times forget how carefully its systems of checks and balances was forged. The chains they placed on Leviathan have been weakened over the generations by tinkerers and would-be tyrants. The recycling of old ideas as “new” has not improved our charter, for truly, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Rather, it’s demonstrated the wisdom and foresight of those who crafted it. As the title quote for this blog suggests, we are on a wrong road. To truly be ‘progressive,’ we need to turn back and get onto the right road.
(*) A female visitor to the White House once approached Coolidge to inform him she’d made a wager she could get him to say more than two words. “You lose,” was Coolidge’s reply.