Matthew Spalding’s We Still Hold These Truths is the book for anyone seeking a better understanding of Constitutional principles. It is lucid, well researched, and goes beyond the structure of government to the history and political insights that animated the Founders. In addition, the author analyzes the “living Constitution,” promoted by progressives as a replacement for the original, and compares the two very different conceptions of human nature, freedom, and the proper role of government. The final two chapters are devoted to a discussion of progressive ideology, its strategies, and successes, and practical suggestions for reversing the progressive extension of government beyond what the Constitution permits.
The problems we face today, the author writes, are the result of a loss of conviction about whether the principles embedded in the Constitution are still relevant in the 21st century. He brings to life ”ten core principles that define our national creed and common purpose:” liberty, equality, natural rights, and consent of the governed are foundational. From those four flow all the rest; religious liberty, private property, the rule of law, limited government, self government, and independence.
It would be a mistake to think that what follows are the lifeless civic lessons found in textbooks (when they can be found at all). Instead, readers will find a lively discussion illuminated by quotes from historical figures, some of which may surprise if not shock.
Spalding writes, “Liberty is the essential idea that is America.” The English language has two words to describe it, liberty and freedom. The Founders distinguished between them in important ways. Freedom is more expansive, signifying a lack of political restraint and it operates within the context of a constitutional and moral order. Liberty means the rightful exercise of freedom, “the balancing of rights and responsibilities.”
Animals are free, the author writes, but they lack the rational capacity for liberty. “Liberty is an inherently human word.” In the American tradition, liberty comes with the duties and obligations necessary for self-government. The author surveys the roots of American liberty and their theological underpinnings in the concepts of human nature and human equality. He notes that the Founders were steeped in classical education, either formally or self-taught. They studied the histories of ancient confederacies and learned from both their failures and successes.
The most immediate influence on the Founders was British constitutionalism. It was their rights as Englishmen, the colonists argued, that had been violated by England. The most overlooked influence on the Founders, Spalding observes, was their own practical experience in the essentially self-governing colonies.
Spalding maps the road to revolution as beginning when England imposed taxes without the colonists’ consent, that is, without legislative representation. Herein lay a logical dilemma. They were fighting for their rights as Englishmen against England! They resolved the problem by focusing on the original root of their privileges as Englishmen – liberty grounded in natural law.
William Blackstone, an authoritative English source on the laws and statutes of England, wrote:
The law of nature, … dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times; no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all of their authority … from this original.1
The greatest significance of the Declaration of independence was not the decision to separate from England, but as an enduring statement of the limits of political authority and the proper ends of government … an appeal not to any evolving theory but to rights inherently possessed by all men’ and ‘the separate and equal station to which the laws of Nature and nature’s God’ entitled them as a people.
Once that is understood, it is self-evident that all men, sharing the same nature, are equal.
“The emphasis on nature”, Spalding observes, “is profoundly significant, as it provided the philosophical mooring for everything else. It was the concept that defined the ends of politics and political community. As such it is the necessary premise of the foundational and operational first principles of American liberty.”
Jefferson went to the heart of the matter when he wrote that the columnists claimed “their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their Chief Magistrate.”2
Space prohibits a detailed exposition of the author’s exploration of the remaining core principles and their connection to the concept of natural rights. However, the importance of private property to the moral and political economy of the new nation requires elaboration, as does the related concept of the rule of law.
The right to property, broadly understood, was what the American Revolution was all about.
Property was understood, not as a mere possession but as an integral component of freedom, deeply intertwined with and derivative of equal rights and liberty itself.
The right to acquire, dispose of and bequeath property was not simply an economic concept; it was the precondition for liberty. Only if man could be independent, could he be free.
The Founders were enemies of hereditary privilege and artificial governmental restrictions on economic exchange. The American Revolution was not about redistributing wealth. It was about equal opportunity to acquire and dispose of it.
…They linked the rewards of the marketplace to the creativity of the human mind –unleashing innovation, enterprise, and the vast expansion of prosperity for the well-being of every American, indeed for the benefit of all mankind.
By definition, the opportunity to succeed assumes that “an unequal distribution of property is a necessary component of liberty—inherent in human nature itself. What is crucial is that the right to acquire property is guaranteed to everyone, rich and poor alike. Likewise all must enjoy equal protection of their property.”
The rule of law, a precondition for property rights, is a principle with roots in classical antiquity. It means that government, as well as the governed, are subject to the law. It requires a fair legal process available to all citizens, not a discretionary authority imposed on some but not others.
If the American people shall ever be so far debased as to tolerate a law not obligatory on the legislature, as well as on the people, the people will be prepared to tolerate anything but liberty. Madison, Federalist 57
Spalding provides a front row seat at the constitutional convention. He makes us privy to the thinking that gave form to the government, and the compromises, (most notably having to do with slavery) that were made.
Some key points: The Founders were realists, well aware that the success of the government they created would depend, ultimately, upon the character of the people whose assent provides its legitimacy. Their vision was not only of a government that protected freedom, but one that nourished the attributes that make an association of free men possible. The Founders had no illusions about human frailties. For them, the Constitution was the framework within which religion, family, education and voluntary associations would encourage virtue and restrain vice.
Progressives see government very differently. The end of government is not freedom, but the social reconstruction of human nature to bring about the perfect society.
Spalding traces the history and ideology of progressivism and explains its repudiation of the foundational principles of the Constitution. Progressives reject the concept of permanent principles or fixed truths. Not only are ideas relative to each other, but also to their moment in time. Ideas must change as conditions and the government may require. Change, then, is an end it itself. In this light, Candidate Obama’s vague iteration of change now can be understood. He could not define something that is contingent upon the demands of circumstance and the decisions of government experts.
In this view, government cannot be restricted. Those pesky check and balances must be nullified because they make it harder to get things done. In this brave new world, the real decisions and details of government are handled by an elite class of wise administrators, trained in the science of progressive ideas, and unhampered by public opinion.
The Founders’ concept of inalienable rights equally held by all is repudiated by the progressives’ view that rights are created, defined, expanded and conveyed by government to deserving groups as needed to accomplish the goals of social and economic justice.
Individual rights, as conceived by the Founders, has been reinterpreted to mean rights defined by group characteristics, as in women’s rights, black rights, gay rights, ad infinitum.
This direct assault on constitutional principles started at the beginning of the last century. Theodore Roosevelt, as an example, declared that the ideals incorporated in the Declaration of Independence were obsolete.
I do not for one moment believe that Americanism of today should be a mere submission to the American ideals of the period of the Declaration of Independence3
Woodrow Wilson, an early progressive, was of similar mind. “Some citizens of this country have never gotten beyond the Declaration of Independence.” He went on to explain that document “did not mention the questions of our day,” and is “of no consequence to us” unless it can be turned into a program of government action for modern circumstances.4
Franklin D. Roosevelt also believed the founding documents inadequate to meet the exigencies of the time.
The Republic has its beginning, and grew to its present strength under the protection of certain inalienable political rights…they were our rights to life and liberty.
As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure equality in the pursuit of happiness.5
FDR proposed a second bill of rights conferred by a beneficent government. The New Deal established the basic structure of the welfare state.
By the time Lyndon Johnson came along, there was no longer any effort to mask the real goal of progressivism – equality of result.
We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and equality as a result.6
Spalding traces the steady growth of progressive ideology and the erosion of constitutional protections throughout the 20th century. John Dewey, the influential proponent of progressive education and his followers, took over education at all levels. The progressive ideology seeped into every corner of American life, sowing confusion and weakening understanding of the Constitution. Spalding writes:
The modern theory of government based on evolving rights and an expanding state has vast implications for every aspect of American life. The objective of the new thinking, and a major cultural component of modern-day liberalism, is to transform America from a decentralized self-governing society based on a framework of limited government, free markets, and traditional cultural institutions into a great progressive society, built around a homogeneous national community focused on national ideals and the achievement of social justice.
Nationalized public education, a key component for inculcating progressive values, has been on the way to realization since the Second World War. The current administration’s financial incentives for states to adopt so called “core standards effectively transfers control of education to Washington.
Judicial reinterpretation of the Constitution, already well under way, is a major component in the drive to replace the original with “a living constitution.”
This effort to remake the nation, although called progress, is really the decline of a civilization. Progressives’ efforts to redistribute wealth is a return to feudal times when the king determined who was allowed to own property, even deciding how it could be distributed within families.
In a 1926 speech, when the progressive attack on American principles was still in its initial phase, Calvin Coolidge laid out the fallacies of progressivism. To date, no one has said it more clearly.
After 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 cannot be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that’s 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 those 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.7
Spalding begins the last chapter of his book with a quote from Abraham Lincoln:
If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher, Lincoln observed in 1838. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.8
Do we still hold these truths?
Sixty-eight years ago, speaking of the founding documents, President Truman warned of the likely outcome of a loss of conviction.
Liberty ’can be lost and it will be if the time ever comes come when these documents are regarded not as the supreme expression of our profound belief, but merely as curiosities in glass cases.9
Every generation is tasked to preserve liberty for the generations to follow. In the last chapter, the author suggests some commonsense measures to halt the march to self-destruction.
As it was with our forefathers, so it is now our task to ensure that the principles of liberty are securely enshrined in the hearts and minds of the American people