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The Declaration of Independence in American History and World History

Harry V. Jaffa, Claremont McKenna College
March 24, 2007

The crisis in our affairs, in the confrontation between the United States and Islamic fundamentalism, is little understood in high places, on either side of the great divide. President Bush has declared that there is a desire for democracy in the hearts of all people everywhere, an assertion hard to square with the prevalence of tyrannies in the greater part of the world. The conflict between Shia and Sunni in the Islamic world resembles nothing so much as that between Catholics and Protestants in 16th century Europe.

This reminds us that religious intolerance was transformed, in the American Revolution and in the American Founding, first into religious tolerance, and then into the equal natural human right to the free exercise of religion. It is this transformation, which occurred nowhere else in the world before it occurred here, that laid the foundation of constitutional government and the rule of law. Only by removing sectarian differences from the political process, could political differences be resolved by majority rule. No minority will permit any majority to determine its faith by its votes. Yet in the Islamic world, virtually all political differences are sectarian.

The Republican party platform upon which Abraham Lincoln was elected, asserted without equivocation that the principles of the Declaration of Independence are embodied in the Constitution. Yet this is denied here today by virtually all constitutional jurists. The crisis of the West is therefore a crisis within the West no less than with its external enemies. Abraham Lincoln is today a prophet without honor.

Harry V. Jaffa is a distinguished fellow of The Claremont Institute. He is Professor Emeritus of Government at Claremont McKenna College and the Claremont Graduate School. He received his B.A. from Yale, where he majored in English, in 1939, and holds the Ph.D. from the New School for Social Research. He is the author of numerous articles and many books, including his widely acclaimed study of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. His other books include Thomism and Aristotelianism, The Conditions of Freedom, How to Think About the American Revolution, American Conservatism and the American Founding, Original Intent and the Framers of the Constitution: A Disputed Question, and most recently the first volume of the sequel to his classic Crisis of the House Divided, titled A New Birth of Freedom.

Questions:

  • Do the laws of nature and of nature’s God impose any obligations that we are not free to disregard?
  • Can American foreign policy be based, in any sense, upon the principles of the Declaration?
  • What obligation, if any, does the Declaration impose upon us to be custodians of the freedom of foreign peoples?
  • Is the equality of mankind affirmed in the Declaration the same or different from that implied in Jesus’ injunction to love our neighbors as ourselves?

Readings:

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