In 1926, President Calvin Coolidge spoke in Philadelphia on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Known as “Silent Cal” for his reserve and discretion in his personal life, Coolidge was an effective orator. His remarks stand as a clear enunciation of the spirit and intent upon which the United States was built.
But when we come to a contemplation of the immediate conception of the principles of human relationship which went into the Declaration of Independence we are not required to extend our search beyond our own shores. They are found in the texts, the sermons, and the writings of the early colonial clergy who were earnestly undertaking to instruct their congregations in the great mystery of how to live. They preached equality because they believed in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. They justified freedom by the text that we are all created in the divine image, all partakers of the divine spirit.
Placing every man on a plane where he acknowledged no superiors, where no one possessed any right to rule over him, he must inevitably choose his own rulers through a system of self-government. This was their theory of democracy. In those days such doctrines would scarcely have been permitted to flourish and spread in any other country. This was the purpose which the fathers cherished. In order that they might have freedom to express these thoughts and opportunity to put them into action, whole congregations with their pastors had migrated to the colonies. These great truths were in the air that our people breathed. Whatever else we may say of it, the Declaration of Independence was profoundly American.
Church and state are not separate. There is no state religion because we are devoutly observant that no man has right to dictate a form of worship. The colonies and the States grew as a haven for those escaping religious oppression. At one time, this was a nation of Faith.
If this apprehension of the facts be correct, and the documentary evidence would appear to verify it, then certain conclusions are bound to follow. A spring will cease to flow if its source be dried up; a tree will wither if its roots be destroyed. In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause.
We are too prone to overlook another conclusion. Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments. This is both historically and logically true. Of course the government can help to sustain ideals and can create institutions through which they can be the better observed, but their source by their very nature is in the people. The people have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which that burden can be shifted to the government. It is not the enactment, but the observance of laws, that creates the character of a nation.
Amen. Cries of, “There ought to be a law!” are essentially contradictory to the founding principles. The measure of just government is not the size of the legal code, but the order arising within the people themselves. Laws are the work of Kings and Tyrants, not the product of equals.
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 can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is 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 these 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.
It is our obligation to look past the labels progressive or conservative or whatever. The matter does not turn on the labels, but on the direction of progress and the ideals conserved. More so, as descendants of the Revolution, we must examine the means by which we attempt to progress and conserve. As equals, is it proper to dictate, or to negotiate?
Coolidge said, “About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful.” The reasoning of the Founders is valid and sound. We cannot improve it. We can, under some illusion of arrogance over the perfectibility of men, return to some lesser proposition of government. It was believed that the King knew best the needs of his people.
That belief is manifestly false. To act as the parent of mankind, empowered to instruct and to punish, we attempt to assume the role of God. No man, group of men, nor government, is adequate to such a task.