Critique of the 1776 Commission Report/Original text/Page 4


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But this too must be qualified. Note that Jay lists six factors binding the American people together, of which principle is only one — the most important or decisive one, but still only one, and insufficient by itself. The American founders understood that, for republicanism to function and endure, a republican people must share a large measure of commonality in manners, customs, language, and dedication to the common good.

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All states, all governments, make some claim to legitimacy — that is, an argument for why their existence and specific form are justified. Some dismiss all such claims to legitimacy as false, advanced to fool the ruled into believing that their rulers' actions are justified when in fact those actions only serve the private interests of a few.

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But no actual government understands itself this way, much less makes such a cynical claim in public. All actual governments, rather, understand themselves as just and assert a public claim as to why. At the time of the American founding, the most widespread claim was a form of the divine right of kings, that is to say, the assertion that God appoints some men, or some families, to rule and consigns the rest to be ruled.

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The American founders rejected that claim. As the eighteen charges leveled against King George in the Declaration of Independence make clear, our founders considered the British government of the time to be oppressive and unjust. They had no wish to replace the arbitrary government of one tyrant with that of another.

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More fundamentally, having cast off their political connection to England, our founders needed to state a new principle of political legitimacy for their new government. As the Declaration of Independence puts it, a "decent respect to the opinions of mankind" required them to explain themselves and justify their actions.

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They did not merely wish to assert that they disliked British rule and so were replacing it with something they liked better. They wished to state a justification for their actions, and for the government to which it would give birth, that is both true and moral: moral because it is faithful to the truth about things.

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Such a justification could only be found in the precepts of nature — specifically human nature — accessible to the human mind but not subject to the human will. Those precepts — whether understood as created by God or simply as eternal — are a given that man did not bring into being and cannot change. Hence the Declaration speaks of both "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" — it appeals to both reason and revelation — as the foundation of the underlying truth of the document's claims, and for the legitimacy of this new nation.

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The core assertion of the Declaration, and the basis of the founders' political thought, is that "all men are created equal." From the principle of equality, the requirement for consent naturally follows: if all men are equal, then none may by right rule another without his consent.

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The assertion that "all men are created equal" must also be properly understood. It does not mean that all human beings are equal in wisdom, courage, or any of the other virtues and talents that God and nature distribute unevenly among the human race. It means rather that human beings are equal in the sense that they are not by nature divided into castes, with natural rulers and ruled.

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"All honor to Jefferson-to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression." — Abraham Lincoln