The following is adapted from an Independence Day Address delivered on July 15, 2014, at Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C.
You might think it’s a little late to give an Independence Day address, but New York’s delegates to the Continental Congress didn’t vote to approve the Declaration of Independence until July 15. So I’d like to think I’m fashionably late—or as they’d say in New York, “right on time.” But the topic is always timely, because the Declaration of Independence remains the defining statement of the American Idea and the greatest political statement of human liberty.
We all know the stories about how the American Revolution was a difficult and often desperate struggle. But we forget in hindsight how unlikely it was that our forefathers would succeed. Many times defeat seemed all but inevitable. Yet that small band of patriot-statesmen achieved victory against a long-established ruler of seemingly unlimited power and authority. They did so by remaining dedicated to America’s cause and to each other . . . fighting hard at every turn . . . knowing that their success or failure would determine whether they, or possibly any people, would ever fight again for the great cause of self-government.
America has survived many great trials, and it has prospered and endured. I believe we are in a period of great trial again. Yet I am confident that our country can survive, prosper, and endure for generations to come. But all this depends—as it did in the spring of 1776, and in the fall of 1860, and at the end of 1941—on how we act to shape the course of events.
On the surface, the problem seems obvious: Our current president treats the rule of law like a rule of thumb. But look more closely, and you’ll see the problem isn’t this president—or at least not only this president. When he leaves office, there will be plenty of politicians like him ready to take his place. All he’s done is continue to empower a certain governing philosophy—one at odds with our Founding principles. This governing philosophy has been gaining ground for a very long time, and continues to do so. The point is, the opponents of American conservatism see politics as a long-term project; we conservatives need to do the same.
In everything we do—in every policy we propose—we need to renew the American Idea. Conservatism in our nation is not about the past. It’s not a misty-eyed nostalgia for a world that’s come and gone. And it’s not a skittish disposition to “go it slow”—to tinker around the edges. Nor is American conservatism about blind opposition to government. For sure, government today is too big, bureaucratic, inefficient, and unaccountable. But we must not jettison the very rule of law that shields our liberty. No, American conservatism is about conserving something—principles that are timeless because they are true—to be renewed and applied in our time.
What is the American Idea? In short, it is self-government under the rule of law. It is rooted in our respect for the rights with which we are each endowed, a respect that shapes a society where every person can work hard, achieve success, and advance in life. For almost all of human history, a very different idea reigned supreme: the idea that people are fundamentally unequal, some born to rule and others to obey. Almost all were subjects or serfs—shorn of all distinction and with no ability to move up in the world or to provide a better future for their children. America’s Founders rebelled against this. They declared that human beings are created equal, with unalienable rights that come from God. They declared that government is legitimate only if it secures these rights. They were the first to announce to the world—and then to prove by their example—that the best government rests on the consent of the governed.
Proving it by example wasn’t easy. The Founders’ first attempt at organizing a government—under the Articles of Confederation—failed. So they produced a new Constitution that both strengthened and limited the federal government. It gave Congress power to legislate for the common good. But it also gave the president and the courts power to push back when Congress overreached—and vice versa. The very structure of the federal government was a vindication of self-government—the three branches would control each other so that none of them could control the people. Limiting the powers of government and allowing the associations of civil society to flourish would make safety and security, self-government and liberty, comfort and prosperity accessible to everyone.
So in addition to our birth certificate, the Founders gave us the blueprint for a free society: a set of unchanging principles, as well as a framework of government for a growing nation. But it was more than a set of abstract ideas and a procedural code of law. Our Declaration and our Constitution define nothing less than a way of life for a people—a free people of good character, who would labor for themselves, their families, and their communities, grateful to the Creator for their rights, and committed to providing the blessings of liberty to their posterity.
The Founders disagreed among themselves about many particulars in the Constitution. No sooner had it gone into effect than they added a Bill of Rights. Each generation struggled with different issues. Could Congress create a bank? Could the president buy Louisiana? Could the federal government build roads and bridges? But there was one thing on which they all agreed: The Constitution was our guide and the Declaration our North Star. And the Constitution endured because it allowed prudent statesmen to make wise decisions that preserved self-government under the rule of law.
There was one massive injustice left unsolved by the Founding generation: slavery. All the leading Founders knew well that slavery was wrong. But they also knew they couldn’t end it there and then and still hold the Union together. That work fell to Abraham Lincoln. He accomplished this not by departing from the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution, but by returning to them. In the struggle of the Civil War, the Declaration defined the high ground, and the Constitution proved powerful enough to reunite a shattered nation. Completed with three postwar Amendments, the Constitution emancipated and secured citizenship for millions.
Having endured for over 100 years, the Constitution was a victim of its own success. As our cities grew more crowded—and our economy more prosperous and unpredictable—some came to believe the Constitution was obsolete. For the first time, it was said that we needed a wholesale change. The Founding project was over, some argued, and the age of “administration” had begun. Newer and more complicated times called for a “living” Constitution, one whose meaning did not rest on fixed principles but changed according to the prevailing winds of time. In this Progressive vision, self-government should give way to technical expertise, to professional bureaucrats governing according to centralized plans.
The Founders believed in the ability of men and women to govern themselves and distrusted unchecked power, which is why they limited government and promoted a robust civil society. Progressives believed in a much larger and more active central government that reaches further and further into our lives and shrinks the scope of civil society. Unfortunately, through fits and starts over the course of the 20th century, the Progressive view came to dominate the modern Democratic Party—and to cloud Republican thinking as well. This is the core problem we face today.
The American Idea has not been rejected. Far from it: The Progressive counter-vision has never commanded a settled majority. Americans embrace some programs first championed by Progressives, but reject others. They accept many aspects of modern government, while still insisting on individual rights and constitutional forms. They have never consented to have their lives micromanaged by bureaucrats.
So how should American conservatives proceed? We must begin by recognizing practical reality, but at the same time move—sometimes coaxing, sometimes pushing—toward the enduring principles to which we are dedicated. Maneuvering in the sea of politics, we will sometimes be forced to tack—but must always be guided by and steer toward our fixed North Star.
Self-government under the rule of law—which rests upon the fact that we are endowed equally with fundamental rights—is the touchstone of American conservatism. Keeping it always in mind will allow us to identify measures that conform to the American Idea, as well as those that weaken or conflict with the American Idea. It provides us a sure guide for reform.
Here’s a practical distinction: There is a difference in principle—a clear bright line—between two kinds of government programs. On the one hand, there are those that can be repaired and restructured within the bounds of limited government. Let’s review those, and seek to reform and upgrade them, making them more efficient through market mechanisms, more decentralized and transparent, more fiscally sound and more conducive to self-government.
On the other hand, some government programs require massive bureaucracies to direct large segments of our society and economy through arbitrary regulations that increase uncertainty and insecurity. These programs, which have resulted in a hodgepodge of boards and commissions with uncertain responsibilities and unaccountable decision-making, undermine self-government. The way they operate also creates relationships between government and money that encourage cronyism and breed political corruption. More and more Americans are right to see these programs as threats to their freedom. They are incompatible with the American Idea, and they must be rejected.
The American Idea imposes a duty to oppose programs that subvert popular government and impose bureaucratic rule. These programs and their administrative forms—leading examples are Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial apparatus—cannot be reformed and restructured, but must be ended or, if we choose, replaced by something completely different and consistent with popular consent and self-government. No reform is possible without recognizing this problem. No reform is worth pursuing that does not turn against this rule and take us on the path of renewal.