Death Of A Propositional Nation – OpEd
The mythical nation dedicated to a proposition is dying, and rioters, looters, and social justice warriors are playing Dr. Kevorkian. Because the United States has not reached their construct of the purest Platonic form of equality, it must be euthanized to make room for a new empire to rise in its place.
It’s fitting that activists, who once were content to topple statues of Confederate heroes, are demanding that Abraham Lincoln—the father of the propositional nation—suffer the same fate. For example, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Black Student Union and the Student Inclusion Coalition have called for the removal of a prominent Lincoln statue because of Honest Abe’s unwoke views on race. “He was also very publicly anti-black,” said Nalah McWhorter, the president of the Wisconsin Black Student Union. “Just because he was anti-slavery doesn’t mean he was pro-black.”
Recently, the Boston Art Commission voted unanimously to remove the Emancipation Memorial in Park Square. The statue features Lincoln waiving the Emancipation Proclamation as a male slave sits at his feet. Protestors claimed that the memorial was a symbol of white supremacy. They argued that the Great Emancipator only cared about saving the Union and thus should be treated like the Confederate heroes who shared Lincoln’s 19th century views on black inferiority.
In 1863 Lincoln, then in the process of destroying the old American Union as a voluntary federation of states, spoke at the dedication ceremony for the National Cemetery of Gettysburg. In his address, Lincoln famously described the U.S. as a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” tying the formal birth of the nation to the Declaration of Independence. For Lincoln, the Declaration was the founding document of the U.S., and incorporated natural law into any subsequent charter or positive law. “The Declaration is the apple of gold,” Lincoln averred. “The Constitution is the frame of silver. The Constitutional frame is made to fit the apple, not the other way around.”
In modern times, the chief proponents of Lincoln’s propositional nation have been Leo Strauss and his disciple Harry Jaffa. They worked hand-in-hand during the latter half of the 20th century, much like Screwtape and Wormwood. According to Jaffa, natural law in the Declaration “embodies, a fortiori, the original intent…of the Framers and Ratifiers of the American Constitution.” The Federalist Papers, the ratification debates, and the plain, public meaning of the Constitution’s provisions must take a backseat to Jaffa’s revelation of divine law.
Many scholars trace Lincoln’s admiration of natural law to his study of William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. Blackstone recognized that common-law judges should adhere to precedent unless the decision was “contrary to reason” or “contrary to the divine law.” Perhaps the ablest critic of Blackstone’s natural law theory was Jeremy Bentham. Bentham was a legal positivist and taught that rights were “the fruits of the law, and of the law alone. There are no rights without law—no rights contrary to the law—no rights anterior to the law.”
Examining Blackstone’s assertions, Bentham questioned whether judges or any other official could identify natural law. If it is difficult “to say what is the human Common Law,” Bentham observed, “it is a thousand times more difficult to say what is the Divine Law.” A person applying natural law, Bentham believed, would in most instances be guided by his personal preferences. Hence, Bentham derided natural law and natural rights as empty phrases (“nonsense on stilts”) that merely express the sentiments of the speaker. To the society daring to embrace natural law, Bentham admonished: “Farewell Law and Common Sense: Welcome, Fanaticism.”
Fanaticism, of course, is what we now witness in the streets as protestors invoke the divine law of radical equality, our alleged founding principle. Rather than quaint ideas of due process of law or equal application of the law, the protestors demand equality in its fullest. Outcomes among racial groups must be the same and we cannot factor for family structure, income levels, or IQ. Those who have acquired property by lawful means, whether through work, inheritance, or luck, must surrender it to favored groups as reparations, not for individual crimes or wrongs, but as a response to “systematic” societal failures.
The impossibility of objectively discovering and applying natural law aside, the Declaration was not the founding document of the Union as Lincoln and his cult contend. To understand the Declaration in context, we should examine its primary author’s view of the controversy between the mother country and the Colonies. The most concise explanation of Thomas Jefferson’s thought in this regard is found in his Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774).
In this essay, Jefferson urged a “humble and dutiful” address to the king protesting the “unwarrantable encroachments and usurpations” of Parliament. He urged the king to recognize that the Colonies were outside the jurisdiction of Parliament and thus should be governed by their own duly elected legislatures.
Indeed, when complaining about an act of Parliament suspending New York’s colonial legislature, Jefferson questioned how “one free and independent legislature” could take “upon itself to suspend the powers of another, free and independent as itself.” Jefferson ended the essay by entreating the king to “let no act be passed by any one legislature, which may infringe on the rights and liberties of another.” The crux of the Summary View is that the king was the glue of empire and through him the various parts interacted. The legislatures of the 13 Colonies were on equal footing with Parliament (i.e., were sovereign) and were the sole authorized source of legislation within each colony.
Of course, George III rejected Jefferson’s invitation to intervene on behalf of the Colonies and matters escalated. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee, acting on instructions from Virginia’s convention meeting in Williamsburg, offered the following motion in the Continental Congress:
That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
Some conservative delegates thought it was too early to declare independence. They feared that people in the middle Colonies had not progressed in their thought as far as the Virginians and New Englanders. The pro-independence delegates, according to Jefferson’s notes, were led by John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and George Wythe. They countered that “the question was not whether, by a declaration of Independence, we should make ourselves what we are not; but whether we should declare a fact which already exists.”
Under the prevailing theory at the time, the Colonies had always been independent of Parliament and the people of Great Britain. Parliamentary restraints on trade and other matters had not been true law, but existed “from our acquiescence only.” The Colonies no longer owed the king any allegiance because he ceased to provide protection and was in fact “levying war on us.”
Lee’s motion eventually passed and on July 4, 1776, Congress adopted a declaration that was primarily the work of Jefferson. Consistent with the theory of sovereignty expressed in his Summary View, the Declaration of Independence mostly addressed the “history of the present King of Great Britain.” The Declaration only indirectly addressed Parliament by accusing the king of “combin[ing] with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution.” The Declaration saw the king as the only constitutional link between the Colonies and Great Britain. Because of the king’s multiple abuses and refusals to respond to sundry petitions, the Congress declared him a tyrant that was “unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” In dissolving the political connection with Great Britain, the 13 Colonies became “free and independent States” with the full power to perform all acts “which independent States may of right do.”
Seen in context, Lincoln’s view that a consolidated American nation was formed in 1776 cannot stand. The purpose of the revolution was to allow the separate Colonies (now states) to rule themselves through their individual legislatures. Lee’s motion and Jefferson’s Declaration make clear that the result sought by the Colonies was status as “free and independent States.” Certainly the Colonies worked in a united fashion in making war against the 18th century superpower of Britain, but this cooperation does not translate into a consolidated union. Had the delegates in the Congress thought they were establishing such a nation, they would have amended Lee’s motion, which urged forming a confederation. Only free and independent states can create and join a confederation. Moreover, why form a confederation if you are already a nation?
By the war’s end, George III certainly understood what was happening in the Treaty of Paris, which enumerated the 13 Colonies and declared them “to be free sovereign and Independent States.” The Constitution of 1787 also throws water on 1776 as the birth of a consolidated nation. Under Article VII, the Constitution went into operation once nine states ratified but only as to “the States so ratifying.” Rhode Island and North Carolina did not ratify until long after the other 11 and thus were outside the Union for a time.
In sum, the U.S. is not a propositional nation founded on natural law principles in 1776. If an idea or proposition was at the heart of independence, we would have to point to the right of self-government in the various American states—not equality. Historical context and viewing the Declaration as a whole demonstrate the folly of taking one phrase in isolation and using it to peddle a theory of union alien to the facts and incidents of the Founding period.
So, if the U.S. was not a nation dedicated to a proposition, what was it? Contemporaries saw it as very much a daughter of the mother country. According to John Jay, writing in Federalist No. 2, Americans were blessed to be:
a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.
John C. Calhoun, in his Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States, echoes Jay and describes the Colonies as “closely bound together by the ties of a common origin, identity of language, similarity of religion, laws, customs, manners, commercial and social intercourse.”
While Brandeis University’s David Hackett Fischer recognizes that today only a small percentage of Americans have British ancestors, he avers that “in a cultural sense most Americans are Albion’s seed, no matter who their own forbearers may have been.” Fischer’s research has identified remnants of British folkways in American regional patterns, speech, and political life. According to Fischer, this British legacy “remains the most powerful determinant of a voluntary society in the United States today.”
Fischer published his book Albion’s Seed in 1989, many years before our current cultural revolution and the advancing soft totalitarianism of the woke left. Wokeness, or a belief in radical equality as the founding proposition, has worked to undermine the voluntary society formed by our British heritage. Of course, the attacks of the mob are not limited to figures associated with Great Britain, but are focused on all emblems of wider Western civilization. For example, protesters in Baltimore yanked down a statue of Christopher Columbus and threw it into the harbor. In Albuquerque, hoodlums vandalized a statue depicting Don Juan de Oñate and other conquistadors marching through “New Spain.” And we all know about various acts against memorials to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other early American statesmen who did not hold 21st century views on race and society.
Black Lives Matter (BLM), the organization at the heart of many of the recent protests, says on its website that it specifically targets “the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement” and promises to disrupt it. The nuclear family, of course, is the building block of society in Western culture and in civilized societies across the globe.
Taking the matter further, “anti-racism” scholar Rebecca Futo Kennedy of Denison University argues that Western civilization and study of the classics only provides cover for racism and sexism. Ancient Greece must be condemned, Kennedy explains, for being “an imperialist, anti-immigrant society convinced of its own superiority because of its ethnic purity.” Aristotle must be kicked to the curb because he “tells his readers that women are naturally subordinate to men.” If people of good will do not denounce Western civilization, we “give sanction by our silence to the classical past’s uglier tendencies and embolden those who would use it as justification for present racism and misogyny.”
Our 21st century revolutionaries seek to tear down Western civilization and build a new world ex nihilo. Something similar happened in France in the 1790s. The French radicals did not seek a reformation of the ancien régime, but its wholesale destruction and replacement. The debate was not merely about the power of the monarchy and privileges of French citizens, but how to create a new society from scratch. The French revolutionaries created surveillance committees in all cities to monitor people for adherence to revolutionary principles. They established a special criminal court known as the “revolutionary tribunal” for the trial of political offenders. More than 40,000 were executed at the guillotine for being enemies of the revolution.
While the guillotine has not yet been set up on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., cancel culture is in full swing, silencing individuals or corporations who dissent from the cultural revolution or simply fail to endorse it. A prime example is the boycott of Goya Foods. The radicals got their dander up because Goya Chief Executive Robert Unanue had the temerity to accept an invitation to visit the White House.
This fraternization with the enemy earned Goya, the largest Hispanic-owned food business in the U.S., the wrath of the woke revolutionaries. Even Unanue’s minority status could not rescue him from an attempt to destroy him personally and economically for the crime of not showing obeisance to the revolution.
So, what is to be done now that we see that the mythical, dying, propositional nation is too infirm to do battle with modern cultural revolutionaries? Firstly, Northern brethren, you can no longer cling to what the Southern writer Robert Penn Warren described as the “Treasury of Virtue.” For many years, Warren wrote, the Yankee has taken comfort that he “has in his pocket, not a Papal indulgence peddled by some wandering pardoner of the Middle Ages, but an indulgence, a plenary indulgence, for all sins past, present, and future, freely given by the hand of history.”
Today, however, having an ancestor in the Union Army or residence in a state that sent troops to invade the Confederacy cannot insulate you from charges of white privilege or institutional racism. Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and various abolitionists have had their statues vandalized or torn down by the woke sans culottes of urban America. Yankee indulgences have been permanently rendered void.
Northerners must let the scales fall from their eyes, as happened recently to American Conservative writer and blogger Rod Dreher, who has learned the folly in acquiescing to attacks on Confederate monuments. “I was one of those people who was divided over whether or not to take down most Confederate statues, but was mostly okay with it, because I thought it would stop with the Confederates,” Dreher wrote. “I was wrong, and was, in fact, a fool. This has nothing to do with history. This is about hatred and power, nothing more. I see that now.”
Welcome to reality, Rod. Confederates were simply the easiest targets in the opening days of the upheaval. Conservatism, Inc. and other useful idiots, blinded by their deification of Lincoln and his misguided constitutional theory, could not accept that the arguments employed against Confederate monuments could be logically extended to the entirety of American history. The cultural revolutionaries want to destroy the civilization that produced not just Lee, but Grant, Webster, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Washington. This is about power and the ushering in of a new order. Paeans to the Gettysburg Address or the Grand Army of the Potomac will only hasten our destruction.
As the nation dedicated to a proposition breathes its last, we must embrace Western civilization, which forms the core of our heritage from the mother country. Western civilization is the true target of our enemies, the modern-day Jacobins, and it is the best this world has to offer.
This article was also published in Chronicles