Understanding he 'truths' in the US Declaration of Independence is central to understanding the American experiment itself. Photo: iStock

On July 4, Fox News Online had a section titled “Read It,” and it opened to the American Declaration of Independence. But what does it mean to “read it”? The Declaration is based on a political philosophy that is not transparent, embodies inconsistent principles, and is grounded in certain assumptions about the good and the role of God in human affairs. To read it meaningfully, it must studied in this context.

The Declaration is based upon a fundamental set of beliefs:

“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. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

What is a truth? What does it mean to be self-evident? What is meant by being created equal? Who is this Creator? What is an unalienable right? What do the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness mean beyond being good-feeling words? What is meant by the consent of the governed? These questions are not rhetorical. They are among the deepest question asked by human beings.

The founding “truths” are the light to which the United States’ entire law-making structure – constitution, legislature, executive, courts and bureaucracy – should look to if it is to be true to the founding meaning of America.

They are not law, but frame the proper intent of the law. They will be ignored, even by the men who promulgated them, because human beings are imperfect, and in the tradition of Christianity, are sinners. They were violated in the extreme at the outset when the US constitution, the primary law instituting the US government, permitted slavery, in which case a portion of the people were denied liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and even life.

But a violation on the part of a specific group of human beings in a specific place and at a specific time cannot take away a right endowed by God. The right stands above the men in the same way that the moral law emanating from God stands above the actions of human beings. The right provides a concept of the good to which the political should aspire.

In like vein, confession is central to the Catholic Church not because human beings adhere to the moral law, but because they do not, and therefore forgiveness is intrinsic to communion with God.

The American experiment is profound because its ground, the Declaration, rests on profound assertions. It can only be true to its principles if leaders throughout government, academia and industry seriously consider those principles in their depth and paradoxical nature. This, of course, is the role of education, in particular, the university.

Thus it is critical that every American university student study Western civilization, especially the 17th and 18th centuries, both historically and philosophically. Only in that way will a person be able to comprehend the subtleties of the Declaration, and thereby appreciate its role in both forming the society and continuing it into the future.

The questions posed above have no simple answers. They must be considered in their place in the human experience, most notably in the West for an American, but one hopes also as they might appear in other cultures, such as China and India, for instance, as with Confucius or Buddha.

As the US stands today in multiple crises – the Covid-19 pandemic, a partially shut-down economy, and an industrial and technological struggle with China – one is struck by the triviality of the political debate. No doubt there are many nihilists running about doing what nihilists do – destroy – but the real problem is with the leaders of society who, in a complete absence of historical or political context, fix on positions without nuance, and repeat them in unison as if they were cheerleaders at a high-school football game.

There are those who want to change America fundamentally. This means that they want to discard the basic “truths” of the Declaration; yet we rarely hear a critique of the basic “truths,” nor what they are to be replaced by.

One gets the impression that people want to replace something they know nothing about with something they know nothing about. Absent knowledge of the essential civilizational ideas and how they came to be, transformational understanding is impossible. We are not starting from today, but from hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago. America is not solely a creation of today, nor even of its founders. Its roots stretch back to antiquity, as do the sources of its successes and failures.

On the other side, those defending the Declaration seem to act as though its basic “truths” represent universal truths that hold for all of humanity. The Declaration states that “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” not that all people hold them to be self-evident.

Those who defend the Declaration must do so within the framework of its cultural assumptions, which means within Western civilization, while recognizing that the principles of the Declaration have rarely been applied in that civilization, and that they come out of a certain time and place within the civilization. The Declaration is a fragile thing and those defending it should be aware of the much greater number who throughout history have disagreed with its tenets.

There is reason to be pessimistic. It has been decades since US universities provided serious humanities education. The arguments today are not at all similar to the intellectual debates between republicans and Marxists of 50 years ago, when each side appreciated the positions of the other. Each would use its own intellectual sword to break down the other, not by shouting about the topic of the day, but by undermining the other’s logic and historical support.

The Marxist would not deny the capitalist argument, but would superimpose a dialectical argument to show that capitalism was just a stage toward a final synthesis. One had to be prepared to counter with questions concerning the logic of the Marxist position.

One can certainly question the legitimacy of the Declaration, especially in a society in which God has been marginalized. In the absence of God, what is the ground of its rights – or any other rights that one might postulate?

One can think of no more fundamental question. It is a question that in different forms has arisen across major cultures for thousands of years. It should concern anyone interested in politics. Without sound education, this and questions like it cannot be reasonably discussed. Instead, we get loud chatter.

Should Americans read the Declaration? Absolutely. But ask yourself what it means. Learn of its roots in European thought. Try to understand its relevance today and how it can apply to a society whose European roots are vanishing, as has the Europe from which those roots sprung.

Ask yourself whether it remains relevant today, and if not, then is America anything more than a collection of people living within certain boundaries and governed by law only as deep as the whim of those in power?

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Edward R Dougherty

Edward Dougherty is distinguished professor of engineering at Texas A&M University.