The Founders’ Key is a deceptively modest book whose size belies its robust content. Its purpose, according to author, Larry P. Arnn, is to explain the connection between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He refutes the arguments of Progressives who misinterpret the former and dismiss the latter as antiquated and irrelevant. Along the way, Arnn contrasts the principles that unite the two founding documents with the ideal that animates their critics.
The author does all this in straightforward prose without being preachy or pedantic. The book, however, is packed with meaning and requires readers’ undivided attention.
Many of us today reject the universal and timeless claims of the Declaration, and therefore also we reject the forms of government established in the Constitution. We follow the notion, born among academics, that no such claim can be true and no such forms can abide. This belief is very strong among Americans now, and it has made vast achievements in changing our government. Because of this we are near a moment of choice.
It is an important, even crucial book because Arnn lays out the terms and consequences of that choice. The campaign to “fundamentally transform America” did not begin with President Obama. Woodrow Wilson, an academic before he was president, believed that the Constitution was superseded by science and modernity and that government must change with the times.
However, the author observes, the inspirational words of the Declaration proved stubbornly difficult to undermine. Franklin Roosevelt’s solution to the obstacle presented by the linkage of the founding documents was to divorce them. He redefined the timeless “Creator endowed unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” inscribed in the Declaration to accommodate his new social and economic rights. The Constitution was reduced to an outdated restraint prohibiting government from conferring the new rights.
Arnn refutes the Progressive’s claim that the two documents are fundamentally different by examining the lesser-known middle paragraphs of the Declaration. Here the reasons for the break with Great Britain are enumerated. Here the Founders set forth the concepts of separation of powers, representation and limited government that form the basis of the Constitution. (The Declaration, Constitution, and Federalist Papers are provided in the back of the book for readers’ easy reference.)
It (The Declaration) insists that government be provided to a people, that it be based upon their consent, and that it be arranged so that it can be relied upon to respond to their will and protect their rights. Government being necessary, it matters very much how it is arranged. The Declaration lays the general rules for that arrangement. Those rules, says the Declaration, are to be found in the ‘Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.’
It is “self-evident” that all men are created equal. As part of their nature, human beings have the gift of reason, setting them apart from all other creatures. It equips them to be self-governing and to govern self, to exert control over their interests, wants and passions because the ability to reason, as Madison wrote, does not make them angels.
The necessity of government by consent is written, therefore, in the fact of human equality…To the Founders, government by consent is a necessary deduction from the equality of men in nature. To the Founders, these ideas are inseparable. Today, they have been separated in our understanding.
Today the meaning of equality has been changed to an outcome within human control. The Declaration states that we are all born equal, not made equal by government.
According to the Progressives, we need a new government system that will solve all the problems of the human condition. It will do so through the operation of a fourth branch of government. Where the Founders sought to restrain the exercise of power through representation and the separation of powers, the fourth branch operates outside political control. It is a unified system in which legislative, executive and judicial power is rolled into a single self-perpetuating agency staffed by experts who will reign over a planned society for the good of all. No checks and balances required. They who make the rules, administer them and adjudicate any disputes that arise from them. Thus in 236 years the evil of unlimited government has been transformed into a good.
James Madison’s observation that men are not angels has been superseded by angelic bureaucrats.
Liberty is another outmoded concept subject to Progressive reinterpretation. Liberty no longer means individual thought and volition. It now means, that by whatever means necessary, people think what the state wants them to think and act to advance what the state says is for the general good. Such is the origin of the entitlement state and the administrative system that goes with it.
Arnn explains that the Progressive vision for America is “built on a different understanding of nature, of equality, and of consent, it presupposes different policies and different ways of pursuing them.” It will require a much larger government. One not restrained by representation or separation of powers but by the high-mindedness of the experts in charge.
In keeping with this vision it is perfectly reasonable that:
Eric Holder, addressing the Woman’s National Democratic Club in 1995, (before being elevated to US Attorney General) endorsed a public campaign to “really brainwash people into thinking about guns in a vastly different way;”
That Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood told reporters his agency was working to “ coerce people out of their cars;”
That Cass Sunstein, President Obama’s choice to head the Orwellian titled White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, favors limitations on speech to prevent the spreading of “destructive falsehoods;”
That President Obama is mounting a massive public relations campaign to persuade a skeptical public that his health care legislation isn’t the bitter and hugely expensive pill they know it to be.
In 1792, Madison wrote in the National Gazette:
Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions….
That is not a just government, nor is property secure under it, where the property, which a man has in his personal safety and personal liberty, is violated by arbitrary seizures of one class of citizens for the service of the rest.
The principles that are the basis of the Declaration and the Constitution formed the first self-governing nation in history. In combination these principles produced a system of freedom and justice that became the envy of the world. Unless all are preserved, all that has defined America for over two centuries will be lost.
Arnn holds out hope that with determination and hard work those principles can be restored. But first their meaning has to be rediscovered. That is the Founders’ Key.