The Differences between the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence
Recently, I experienced no small measure of disappointment when an article that I submitted to a little known “conservative” website was rejected. It wasn’t the rejection, however, from which my dissatisfaction stemmed but, rather, the reason for it.
You see, I challenged the conventional bi-partisan orthodoxy that the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are compatible by arguing that each represents a political philosophical temperament that is actually antithetical to the other. This thesis the editor found “deeply disturbing.” The Declaration provides “the principled framework” for the laws delineated in our Constitution, he insisted.
This is Republican Party boilerplate, pure and simple. It is also a specimen of the crassest fideism.
The notion that the Declaration and the Constitution belong to the same politics is an article, not just of faith, but of blind faith. Only from an ignorance, whether willful or otherwise, of intellectual history generally and the history of political philosophy in particular could anyone believe it.
The Declaration itself, on the other hand, is an exhibition, not of fideism, but of that disposition with which it has historically been at odds: rationalism. The quintessential Enlightenment rationalist document, the Declaration embodies the unabashed moral universalism against which conservatism originally emerged as a distinctive tradition of ideas.
The rationalist’s account of morality is inseparable from his account of reason. Morality consists of principles that are either innate or, as the Declaration characterizes them, “self-evident.” That is, these principles are a priori—prior to all experience. What this means is that, in transcending all tradition, culture, and, in short, history, the principles of morality are as independent of the contingencies of place and time as the rationality which alone has access to them.
These understandings of reason and morality conspire together to produce a certain style of politics that the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott once called “the politics of faith.” The politics of faith is the politics of the visionary, and there is no document in the annals of human history that visionaries of all sorts have been more eager to exploit than the Declaration. With its robust affirmation of “unalienable rights”—rights of which all human beings are in possession—the Declaration inspires the pursuit of perfection, not just for this society or that, but for everyone everywhere. Such rights can never be seen as being anything like perfectly secured, and most of the world’s human inhabitants live under conditions that Americans can only view as an affront to human dignity as the Declaration construes it. So, the American government—which is allegedly the first and only government to have been erected upon these rights—has the unique obligation to insure that they are perfected for both its own citizens and the citizens of every other country throughout the world. This, obviously, is an obligation toward the fulfillment of which the United States government will be working forever.
The Constitution, in glaring contrast, is a constitution, not for the bearers of rights the world over, but a particular people living in a particular place and at a particular time. It specifies no grandiose aims to be pursued, no purpose beyond itself. Far from licensing a robust, interventionist or activist government, the Constitution is concerned first and foremost with constraining that government by dividing it against itself. It knows of no “unalienable rights” or “self-evident truths.” It acknowledges rights, but only indirectly, for such rights are the flip side of the obligations that it specified: the right to free speech, for example, is nothing but government’s obligation to refrain from interfering with citizens’ exercise of free, and to prevent others from doing the same.
To use Oakeshott’s terminology, if the Declaration exemplifies the politics of faith, the Constitution signifies “the politics of skepticism.” That the latter expresses a skepticism regarding large concentrations of power is obvious given that it is designed to prevent this. I would prefer to say that the politics the Constitution renders possible is a politics of humility.
But regardless of how we choose to describe the differences between the Declaration and the Constitution, there can be no denying that they indeed belong to fundamentally distinct styles of politics.
Jack Kerwick is a professor of philosophy at several colleges and universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. His area of specialization is the study of classical conservative thought. Visit his Website at: www.jackkerwick.com.
Copyright © 2011 Jack Kerwick. Used with Permission.