The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
The 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence was commemorated in an speech by President Calvin Coolidge in Philadelphia. Born of the Fourth of July, 1872, Coolidge explained the eternal truth of our nation's founding document.
In 1926, as today, some persons thought that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were obsolete. According to some of the people who considered themselves "progressives," the hoary ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution might have been alright in their time, but social and technological changes had made them impractical.
Others insisted that that the Declaration's words "all men are created equal," were false. Supposedly, people were unequal because of inherent racial or ethnic differences. According to the Ku Klux Klan, which was powerful in American politics at the time, racial difference obliterated common humanity.
President Coolidge's speech debunked anti-Declaration notions. He examined the history of the key ideas of the Declaration. The principle of consent of the governed had been present in English and Dutch history. So had the idea of inalienable rights.
One idea was new: "All men are created equal." In Coolidge's words: "But we should search these [historic European] charters in vain for an assertion of the doctrine of equality. This principle had not before appeared as an official political declaration of any nation. It was profoundly revolutionary. It is one of the corner stones of American institutions."
As Coolidge well knew, the United States of 1926 and 1776 were hardly perfect in equality, inalienable rights, or consent of the governed. In Coolidge's first State of the Union speech (1923), he declared:
Numbered among our population are some 12,000,000 colored people. Under our Constitution their rights are just as sacred as those of any other citizen. It is both a public and a private duty to protect those rights. The Congress ought to exercise all its powers of prevention and punishment against the hideous crime of lynching, of which the negroes are by no means the sole sufferers, but for which they furnish a majority of the victims.
Coolidge favored strict economy in government, with spending only on essentials. Apparently essential, in Coolidge's view, was new federal funding to support medical education at Howard University–the leading historically black university, located in D.C.
Kurt Schmoke, President of the University of Baltimore (and former Mayor of Baltimore), summarizes: "the historical record testifies of Coolidge's commitment to the ideal outlined in the Declaration of Independence: that all men are created equal. He worked in many quiet ways to advance that ideal during his six years in the White House." Kurt Schmoke, The Little Known History of Coolidge and Civil Rights, 1 Coolidge Quarterly (no 3, Nov. 2016). It is fair to criticize President Coolidge for not taking sufficient action to match his eloquent words. See Maceo Crenshaw Dailey, Jr., Calvin Coolidge's Afro-American Connection, 8 Contributions in Black Studies (art. 7, 1986); John L. Blair, A Time for Parting: The Negro during the Coolidge Years, 3 Journal of American Studies 177 (no. 2, Dec. 1969). No-one is perfect based on standards past, present, or future.
As Coolidge's political career demonstrated, Declaration of Independence principles are diminished by human frailty, including the frailty of persons who advocate for human rights. Even in a maelstrom of politics, with its many human imperfections, we can find the way forward in the eternal truths of the Declaration. As President Coolidge said on the Declaration's 150th anniversary:
…Amid all the clash of conflicting interests, amid all the welter of partisan politics, every American can turn for solace and consolation to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States with the assurance and confidence that those two great charters of freedom and justice remain firm and unshaken. Whatever perils appear, whatever dangers threaten, the Nation remains secure in the knowledge that the ultimate application of the law of the land will provide an adequate defense and protection…
The American Revolution represented the informed and mature convictions of a great mass of independent, liberty-loving, God-fearing people who knew their rights, and possessed the courage to dare to maintain them….
It was the fact that our Declaration of Independence containing these immortal truths was the political action of a duly authorized and constituted representative public body in its sovereign capacity, supported by the force of general opinion and by the armies of Washington already in the field, which makes it the most important civil document in the world. It was not only the principles declared, but the fact that therewith a new nation was born which was to be founded upon those principles and which from that time forth in its development has actually maintained those principles, that makes this pronouncement an incomparable event in the history of government. It was an assertion that a people had arisen determined to make every necessary sacrifice for the support of these truths and by their practical application bring the War of Independence to a successful conclusion and adopt the Constitution of the United States with all that it has meant to civilization.
The idea that the people have a right to choose their own rulers was not new in political history. It was the foundation of every popular attempt to depose an undesirable king. This right was set out with a good deal of detail by the Dutch when as early as July 26, 1581, they declared their independence of Philip of Spain. In their long struggle with the Stuarts the British people asserted the same principles, which finally culminated in the Bill of Rights deposing the last of that house and placing William and Mary on the throne. In each of these cases sovereignty through divine right was displaced by sovereignty through the consent of the people. Running through the same documents, though expressed in different terms, is the clear inference of inalienable rights. But we should search these charters in vain for an assertion of the doctrine of equality. This principle had not before appeared as an official political declaration of any nation. It was profoundly revolutionary. It is one of the corner stones of American institutions.
….A very positive echo of what the Dutch had done in 1581, and what the English were preparing to do, appears in the assertion of the Rev. Thomas Hooker of Connecticut as early as 1638, when he said in a sermon before the General Court that–
"The foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people"
"The choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people by God's own allowance."
This doctrine found wide acceptance among the nonconformist clergy who later made up the Congregational Church….
In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause….
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.
President Coolidge knew the same sort of reactionaries who afflict us today: Marxists, racists, and all the scammers who peddle new versions of the old poisonous lies against equality, rights, and consent.
On Independence Day 2020, honor the many Americans who have sacrificed for equality, rights, and consent. Defy the mobs, and stand for the eternal truths of the Declaration of Independence.