Prudence, in the Face of Light or Transient Causes: Misinterpretations of the Declaration of Independence

The Battle of Trenton by H. Charles McBarron, Jr., 1975.
The Battle of Trenton by H. Charles McBarron, Jr., 1975.

November 10, 2021

The modern American left has issued many excuses for the nationwide riots that ensued in the wake of George Floyd’s death. All sorts of mainstream media melodrama would flood our computers and phones about 400 years of oppression and “how much more can they take!” One of the most interesting and amusing justifications, however, has been the occasional deference to the American Revolution and the founding document that officially declared it. According to some pundits, if the nation was conceived out of violence, we ought to be solving our alleged modern day systemic woes with violence as well.

This type of cherry-picked drivel has been echoed by many on the left who believe that burning down police precincts and destroying neighborhoods and small businesses—ironically displacing the very minorities they claim to be advocating for—because of a handful of statistically rare instances of police brutality, can somehow not only be used to adequately indict modern America and hold her in contempt for the charge of “systemic racism”, but also boldly claim that this somehow falls comfortably within the parameters of the revolutionary politics of 1776. 

And this, of course, led to conservatives getting chastised by almost everyone who wasn’t a conservative. Because after all, conservatives love their Declaration of Independence and Constitution, so they must be hypocrites in this instance, right? And hence a new narrative was born: one in which conservatives were hypocrites for honoring the American Revolution but failing to give the left’s proposed revolution, packed to the brim with racialized identity politics, the proper light of day. 

After all, the Founders ultimately wound up facilitating the violent upending of British tyranny some 250 years ago. Just read the Declaration of Independence, man!

Well, we have read the Declaration of Independence, and it would suggest that it is the leftists who are doing the cherry-picking. Indeed, the Declaration declares the right of the people to alter or abolish genuine forms of tyranny; but the Founders understood that that right is predicated upon humanity being biologically predisposed to be imperfect. Any system of government established by mankind, whether it be a republican mode of governance or a monarchical one, would be predisposed to those same imperfections that lead to tyranny.

Not all Revolutions Are the Same: American Revolutionary Politics vs. Contemporary Leftist Revolutionary Thought.

Not all revolutions are created equal. Let us compare the American and French Revolutions, which are commonly mistaken to be predicated upon the exact same philosophical ideals. The French Revolution is used as an example because it is extremely reminiscent of contemporary leftist revolutionary politics, in that it entailed a movement far broader in scope — an entirely new conception of the civil social order. It was predicated very much on an abstract rationalist view of the world that threw out the notion that good governance could come with experience and tradition, and instead advocated for a society governed solely by a scientific, or “reasoned” approach.

The French revolutionaries found most, if not all characteristics associated with conventional or ancient modes of European governance to be repugnant and therefore worthy only of complete and total abolition. The result was a much more radical revolution that, unlike its American counterpart, wanted to completely rebuild the social and cultural fabrics of French society in addition to its political fabric.

The French Revolution followed a similar pattern that would later be repeated by the Marxist and Leninist-inspired revolutions in the later 20th century, in which the evils the radicals managed to sweep away were replaced with regimes that instated equal levels, if not higher levels of tyranny, as was ultimately required of their Utopian endgame. 

The French Revolution can also be characterized by an unbridled level of envy on part of the French peasantry. This envy existed due to the privileges and entitlements that were, indeed, enjoyed solely by the nobility at their expense. And while no one is disputing the fact that the French monarchy was in fact incredibly tyrannical and detrimental to the French peoples’ future social mobility, it was nevertheless succeeded by a group of radicals who sought the destruction of all things old in pursuit of all that was new, regardless of the merit of many old institutional characteristics of European society.

The American colonists were not envious of their British rulers, nor did they seek the abolition of their longstanding social, cultural, and political institutions given to them by the English Kingdom. The true grievance was the mode of governance to which such institutional traditions were being administered, as well as the unfair political treatment of the American colonies, to which the Americans felt they could no longer ignore. The symbol of the American Revolution is the Liberty Bell, whereas the symbol of the French Revolution is the guillotine.

The struggle of the Americans was far less inspired by classist divisions, and was more driven simply by the stubborn insistence of their God-given rights, which they argued were upheld by the English Common Law. The American Republic was born out of the innate desire to eventually establish and ordain a system of government by and for a people who had already grown culturally detached from the British Isles, huddled on the American Eastern seaboard — a place King George III never even visited. Having the right to chart their own political destiny as a sovereign power was a far larger pillar in the American Revolution than a mere trivial struggle between rich and poor (though these concerns would become a significant factor in the framing of the Constitution, especially when it came to balancing power between the wealthy, industrialized North and the predominantly agrarian South). To paraphrase Tocqueville, an American is merely an Englishman wanting to be left alone.

If the French Revolution is the minimum standard for all revolutions, then the American struggle for independence hardly qualifies as such. As Nicolas de Condorcet, French philosopher and mathematician states in his Sketch For a Historical Picture on the Progress of the Human Mind (1795):

It was more complete, more entire than that of America, and of consequence was attended with greater convulsions in the interior of the nation, because the Americans, satisfied with the code of civil and criminal legislation, which they had derived from England, having no corrupt system of finance to reform, no feudal tyrannies, no hereditary distinctions, no privileges of rich and powerful corporations, no system of religious intolerance to destroy, had only to direct their attention to the establishment of new powers to be substituted in the place of those hitherto exercised over them by the British government. In these innovations there was nothing that extended to the mass of the people, nothing that altered the subsisting relations formed between individuals: whereas the French revolution, for reasons exactly the reverse, had to embrace the whole economy of society, to change every social relation, to penetrate to the smallest link of the political chain, even to those individuals, who, living in peace upon their property, or by their industry, were equally unconnected with public commotions, whether by their opinions and occupations, or by the interests of fortune, ambition, or of glory.”
[Emphasis added]

The Founders’ Understanding of Man’s Predisposition Toward Imperfection.

The American Revolution, unlike other revolutions, was not one catalyzed by mere abstract rational principles. The notion that our rights come from God, that we are all endowed equally by Him, were not ideals that suddenly appeared out of thin air upon the Founders declaring the thirteen states independent from Great Britain. Instead, they were derived from centuries of theology, Christianity, and English Common Law. 

Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of 1787 grappled with these ideals, they are not mere affirmations. The Declaration explicitly listed a series of grievances toward the King. The Constitution was conceived not out of strict adherence to the Declaration’s assertions but rather out of compromise: The three-fifth’s slave clause; the different modes of representation between the Senate and the House of Representatives; the electoral college; and many other structural characteristics about the American take on republican government, which demonstrate the Founders’ heedy awareness of man’s predisposition toward imperfection. 

The American Constitution indeed empowered the people in a way that was viewed as “radical” for the time, but it did so while placing judicious restraints on them to adequately check and balance its democratic mechanisms. It was generally understood among the Founders that a government by and for the people could only truly last if the will of that same people was adequately checked, balanced, and well-channeled through constitutional mechanisms that could facilitate prudent decision-making and mitigate the destructive tendencies of inflamed passions. We know this was a Founding intention because such an exception is made rather bluntly in the Declaration of Independence:

“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

The Founders understood that the right to abolish genuine forms of tyranny should not be misconstrued as radically altering long standing governments simply because the passions of the moment demand it. Black Lives Matter activists may make observations about the imperfections of the American institution of law enforcement, such as misconduct or brutality on part of a small minority of its officers, but such an observation hardly constitutes a worthy indictment of the institution as a whole, let alone a worthy indictment of the entire United States.

Citing the Declaration of Independence for the sake of one’s own “revolutionary” ideals may work on the surface, but when such an argument is merely a euphemism for one’s own partisan agenda, and nothing more, one winds up making a lot of sloppy arguments.

The American Declaration of Independence was the official initiation of what is typically considered to be one of the most radical political experiments in political history. It declared that the thirteen British-American colonies were completely independent from their mother country. It was a daring move chosen reluctantly by a rag-tag group of representatives tasked with exercising due-diligence and doing justice to their constituent states. The Declaration of Independence declared that all men were created equal, each of them naturally entitled to a divine set of inalienable rights, ordained and established by God’s natural law. 

In viewing the Declaration in a more practical context rather than an abstract, philosophical one, we also realize that it functioned more in praxis as a declaration of war, the climax of the inevitable boiling point of a people, governed by a distant tyranny that showed little to no appreciation for what were the rights of Englishmen who had resettled the civilized world. 

In this process, while many of the traditional institutional norms of British governance remained predominant, we ought to do well to acknowledge the various socio-political nuances about the colonies that ultimately made them culturally distinct from their fellow Englishmen across the Atlantic. In doing so, the initial cultural, social, and political framework of the American nation state, which would succeed British rule, is gradually revealed to us. 

To paraphrase the remarks of National Review editor-in-chief Richard Lowry at the 2019 National Conservatism Conference, the American nation developed the way it did due to every English colonist waking up and going to bed every night with a King James bible on their nightstand. If we were to place, say, Russians or Spaniards on the Eastern seaboard and leave them alone to fend for themselves, it is extremely unlikely that any of them would have come up with the American Founding. 

The American Revolution was “radical” for its time only in the sense that it sought out to establish a form of government that was incredibly uncommon both in principle and praxis. The American Revolution wasn’t particularly comparable to the French Revolution, just like it isn’t particularly comparable—and quite frankly, incompatible—with the modern revolutionary tendencies of Black Lives Matter or other far-left organizations in the modern American context.

Such tendencies are also fairly reminiscent of the French revolutionaries, with the most radical members of BLM being convinced that all long-standing traditional institutional characteristics about the United States are rooted in oppression and therefore must be uprooted and destroyed. Indeed, their “revolution”, as Nicolas de Condorcet stated, is far more “complete” in the sense that it entails a whole new conception of the moral, social, cultural, and political order. They have a worryingly profound disdain for the institutional traditions of English common law, constitutionalism, due process, and religion, among other things.

The revolution they seek to impose upon the people of the United States is one that teaches that America is evil and irredeemably systemically discriminatory to its core, incapable and unworthy of reform; and the Declaration of Independence is occasionally disingenuously cited as a sort of endorsement for such “revolutionary” activities.

If you want to advocate for a sort of neo-Marxist cultural revolution in America, then I suppose that is your prerogative. But doing so by attempting to apply a fantasist, historically revisionist narrative to the American Founding by convincing a relatively historically illiterate population that it is somehow predicated upon a sort of abstract rationalism is both intellectually lazy and wrong. To conflate modern left-wing revolutionary tendencies channeled through BLM’s racial identity politics with 18th century American revolutionary politics completely slights the reality of America’s founding being rooted in a long social, cultural, and political experience. 

The Declaration’s call to abolish genuine tyranny is not synonymous with doing away with prudence or ceasing to act with deliberation when implementing change. Russell Kirk, in his Ten Conservative Principles, states that: “Conservatives are champions of custom, convention, and continuity because they prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know.”

It is one thing to desire progress, another to be bound to the cult of progress. Order, justice, and freedom, as Kirk says, is not the result of violent usurpations, revolutions, or the hyper-authoritarian reorienting of society, but rather the “artificial products of long social experience, the result of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice.”

If the Declaration of Independence is to be remembered, let it be remembered for all its contents. That includes not only its call to abolish tyranny but also its warning against the impassioned drum beat of modern discourse catalyzing radical, sweeping societal change.

Let us act with prudence in the face of light or transient causes.

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