The Second Inaugural’s Attempt to Re-Found America

While repeatedly announcing his fidelity to America’s founding principles, President Obama’s second inaugural announces a very different vision of America.  Near the beginning of his speech, the president states:

What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.  That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

So far, so good.  But then he says this: 

Today we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.

This strikes me as imputing a veneer of contingency over what are supposed to be “self-evident” truths.  The president seems to be announcing a philosophy of Historicism in which the ideas—even “self-evident” ones—change over time.  If so, then these truths are not “self-evident” at all—they are evident only through the lens of History.  This is confirmed in the very next line of the speech, when he says:

For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing. That while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.

As we’ll see a bit later in the speech, individual freedom has been remade from an end of government to a means, a contingent idea that must yield to circumstances.  Individual freedom is sufficient only to guarantee opportunity, not the kind of outcome that modern Progressives believe everyone should have as a baseline.  Thus, individual freedom must be limited to the extent that government can first ensure that baseline.  This may be a laudable goal, but it is not a “self-evident” one. 

The president goes on, again announcing fidelity to our founding principles:

Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character.

He then immediately delivers another defense of History: 

But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.

Strawmen aside, the president offers no explanation how we can still pledge “allegiance” to “self-evident” truths if we also accept his vision that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”  At the founding, individual freedom was itself an end.  Their usefulness will depend on the individual and the circumstances, and may in some cases be limited indeed.  But that was largely beside the point—the idea that government should be remade to ensure a minimum “cash value” of individual freedom is of recent vintage.  The freedoms granted by government are the ones that have cash value. 

Through the lens of History, individual freedom could and should be reprovisioned as the means of “progress.”  Progress toward what is the perennially begged question.  As Jonathan Chait attempted to explain, “For us [liberals], everything works on a case-by-case basis. Should government provide everybody’s education? Yes. Should government manufacture everybody’s blue jeans? No. And so on.”  “And so on…what? Where?” William Voegeli asks.  “‘And so on’ suggests continuation in a defined direction, the application of a general approach to new particulars. But there are only political particulars for Chait—generalities have no bearing on the business of governing—so there’s nothing to be said about how liberalism will move from one issue to another. The implication is that since liberalism doesn’t really have a theory, it will acquire all its meaning in practice.” 

Having reprovisioned individual freedom as a means towards that famously open-ended project of Progressivism, the president goes on to say:

But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed.

Again, through seemingly anodyne statements, the president announces profound changes to traditional American principles.  “Effort and determination” have never been the touchstone of “reward.”  For if “effort and determination” have become our touchstone, there is no basis for A-Rod to earn more than his average fan.  As Hayek recognized,

“Any attempt to found the case for freedom on this argument is very damaging to it, since it concedes that material rewards ought to be made to correspond to recognizable merit and then opposes the conclusion that most people will draw from this by an assertion which is untrue. The proper answer is that in a free system it is neither desirable nor practicable that material rewards should be made generally to correspond to what men recognize as merit and that it is an essential characteristic of a free society that an individual’s position should not necessarily depend on the views that his fellows hold about the merit he has acquired.”  “Reward according to merit must in practice mean reward according to assessable merit, merit that other people can recognize and agree upon and not merit merely in the sight of some higher power. Assessable merit in this sense presupposes that we can ascertain that a man has done what some accepted rule of conduct demanded of him and that this has cost him some pain and effort. Whether this has been the case cannot be judged by the result: merit is not a matter of the objective outcome but of subjective effort. The attempt to achieve a valuable result may be highly meritorious but a complete failure, and full success may be entirely the result of accident and thus without merit.”  “If we know that a man has done his best, we will often wish to see him rewarded irrespective of the result; and if we know that a most valuable achievement is almost entirely due to luck or favorable circumstances, we will give little credit to the author. We may wish that we were able to draw this distinction in every instance. In fact, we can do so only rarely with any degree of assurance. It is possible only where we possess all the knowledge which was at the disposal of the acting person, including a knowledge of his skill and confidence, his state of mind and his feelings, his capacity for attention, his energy and persistence, etc.” 

Either the president does not understand this, to his discredit, or he does—in which case, we should expect him to champion greater redistribution, government control over every level of the economy. 

The president’s challenges can be argued on the merits, but they represent a much different view than the “self-evident” truths underlying the American founding.  If he is to lead us toward his vision, he should have the courage to say so. 

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at


  1. Hayek was one of the best founding fathers we ever had. It is a shame O doesn’t understand him better. I am so ashamed of voting for him.

    • Not a founder, true, but I think his treatment reflects the traditional understanding of the relationships among liberty, merit, and value. I would be grateful if anyone could point to a source confirming or denying this. If I am in error, I’ll eat my hat 🙂

    • Hayek’s footnotes to the passages quoted in the OP cite, among others, David Hume, Hugo Grotius, and Adam Smith, all of whom would have been known to the founders.

      Also see David Hume, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, in Essays, vol. 2, p. 187: “were mankind to execute such a law [to assign the largest possessions to the most e xtensive virtue, and give every one the power of doing good, proportioned to his inclination]; so great is the uncertainty of merit, both from its natural obscurity, and from the self-conceit of each individual, that no determinate rule of conduct would ever result from it; and the total dissolution of society must be the immediate consequence”; Hugo Grotius, The Jurisprudence of Holland, Robert Warden Lee, trans. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926), vol. 1, p. 3: “Of the justice which has regard to right, narrowly understood, the kind which takes account of merit is called ‘distributive justice’; the other kind which givies heed to property is called ‘commutative justice’; the first commonly employs the rule of proportion, the second the rule of simple equality”; Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (London: Printed for A Miller, 1759), pt. 2, sec. 1, pp. 141–69, “Of the Sense of Merit and Demerit”[Liberty Fund edition, pp. 67–78];Edwin Cannan, The History of Local Rates in England (2nd ed.; London: P. S. King and Son, 1912), pp . 160–61: “the existing system proportions command over economic goods to the value of services rendered and property possessed. . . .As against this established state of things, we find that many people, perhaps most people, have somewhere in their minds two inconsistent and somewhat nebulous ideals . . . according to [the first], command over economic goods ought to be in proportion to moral merit. . . . The second ideal is the communist one of equal distribution”; …

  2. Today we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.

    This strikes me as imputing a veneer of contingency over what are supposed to be “self-evident” truths.

    Well, no. Because when those words were written, not all men were created equal, and it took another 188 years before we got even close to a approximation of realizing the vision embodied in those words.

    • Their creation does not depend on how they are treated. To the contrary. Slavery was always wrong. The self-evident truths of the Declaration say so, and the Constitution took care never to formally ratify it — it only drew its jurisdiction arguably short of interfering with it so that those higher ideals of freedom and equality could have a space of soil in which to take root and eventually destroy that unholy institution. And this is precisely what happened.

      The Founders knew, of course, that the effect of silence of slavery in the Constitution would mean its continued existence. But this would be a separate problem not directly with the document itself.

      Lincoln said as much:

      neither the word “slave” nor “slavery” is to be found in the Constitution, nor the word “property” even, in any connection with language alluding to the things slave, or slavery; and that wherever in that instrument the slave is alluded to, he is called a “person;” – and wherever his master’s legal right in relation to him is alluded to, it is spoken of as “service or labor which may be due,” – as a debt payable in service or labor. Also, it would be open to show, by contemporaneous history, that this mode of alluding to slaves and slavery, instead of speaking of them, was employed on purpose to exclude from the Constitution the idea that there could be property in man.

      To show all this, is easy and certain.

      Slavery thus was authorized only from a legal realist point of view, as opposed to the legal formalism that I believe the founders and Lincoln held.

      • The early drafts of the Declaration had more direct references to slavery, which were edited due to then current political realities. And there are at least 2 references to slavery (though like you and Lincoln say, nobody used that term explicitly) that I can think of off the top of my head. (3/5 & the prohibition of importation after 18 oh something)

        Neither of which changes Obama’s clear textual meaning (subtext being another thing), and he is absolutely correct in this, that words are nice, but actions and the reality of circumstances are what count. (other the Soviet Constitution would have been worth something)

        • John Calhoun and George Fitzhugh agreed with that sentiment when they argued the slaves didn’t need individual liberty because the reality of the circumstances was they were much better off in the care of their masters. Would it matter if we supposed hypothetically that this were true? Should we as a people set out to evaluate such claims about the value of individual liberty by looking at whether, in the “reality of circumstances,” liberty or subservience produced better results? Of course not. It is wrong on its face, and the nation rededicated itself to that principle through the Civil War.

          I want to be careful not to draw the analogy too far and suggest that we are facing anything like the horrors of slavery. But it must be demanded that, if we are going to undedicate ourselves to that worthy principle, we be quite clear about it and give reasons therefor.

        • But Obama is not ‘undedicating’. He’s ‘re-dedicating’, with deliberate echos to Lincoln and Roosevelt (and probably a lot of other people). (heck even William Henry Harrison did it in a overly rambling way)

          • Sometimes I hear people say things like, “not to be rude, but…” and then go on to say something completely rude. The prefatory statement is a duplicitous cover. This is what the president did today. He paid lipservice to the founding by direct quotations and references, but in his more substantive declarations of intent, he is diametrically opposed to them.

          • With all due respect, isn’t “is diametrically opposed to them.” a bit of hyperbole and hinting at a classic conservative accusation O and D and Liberal’s just don’t get America.

          • Fair enough. Instead, read “he is not finding his philosophical support in the founders, but elsewhere — more specifically, in Hegel, History, Wilson, and the Progressives.”

    • a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American.

      I interpret this as “no American shall be, with no fault of his own, put in a place where no amount of effort and determination can improve his lot”, and I agree with it 100%. There are few things more un-American than hereditary castes (since 1865, anyway.)

  3. Strawmen aside, the president offers no explanation how we can still pledge “allegiance” to “self-evident” truths if we also accept his vision that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

    And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.

    Oh noes! Collective action!

    • You quote from the founders’ declaration of revolution in which they part ways from one sovereign to establish a new one. This is precisely what Obama seems to be doing, even though in a half-hearted, squeamish manner: asking the people to break away and establish a new sovereign while keeping his foot in the still-popular old one.

      • But the current ancien regime includes those elements that were the new order in 1933, and are still with us. Obama’s not being radical at all. His proposals, whether or not you agree with them (and I have plenty to disagree with), all operate on the same spectrum of political power that everyone has granted the federal government for decades now, and both the populace and the Supreme Court agree with it.

        Like you said, the whole thing was rather anodyne. (which I assume means ‘not-Cyberdyne’, which is good, because those guys were bad news)

        • The people agree with some elements of it, and the most important of them — Social Security and Medicare — through a ruse when FDR sold it as an insurance program when it was really just a government tax-and-spend program. One might say that if a company sold products to individuals the way the government does to voters, they’d be void for fraud and unconscionability.

          But my point is not what products the government has sold the public on or what contrivances the Supreme Court has worked. The president is making claims to founding principles — ostensibly because they’re still very popular — that do not support what he aims to do. I’ll grant that, given the trajectory of the last 100 years, those aims are not that radical. If Obama quoted Woodrow Wilson today, he wouldn’t have heard a peep from me. But he didn’t cite Wilson or the other Progressives. He cited the founding. I think it’s duplicitous.

          • Here’s the thing about the Founders, they weren’t all of one mind on anything. I mean, there was a substantially and fairly widespread held opinion that the Constitution was a mistake to begin with. And on the other side, you had guys like Hamilton, who had a substantially different reading of federal power than guys like, for example, Jefferson. (much less the rejectionist caucus)

            The Constitution itself at the end of the day was a political document – sure there were some highminded ideals swirling about the heads of those gathered in Philly, but what they put down on paper was dictated by the circumstances of the day. (and even people of that generation transformed some institutions in their lifetime – the Supreme Court being the most famous)

            Anybody can reference the founders, just like anybody can reference the Bible.

          • Other then a mindlessly repeated catch phrase what the heck does “tax and spend” mean. Everything any gov does at any level it paid for by taxing and then spending. You like sidewalks, traffic lights, clean air, etc, etc its all funded by taxing and spending. Even you favour a minimal state and no income taxes, than your state is still funded by taxing and what is done is spending.

          • Matt Yglesias on Social Security in his opposition to private accounts:

            “What privatizers want to say is that current retirees will keep getting benefits and future retirees will be okay despite our lack of benefits because we’ll have private accounts. But current retirees can’t get benefits if my money is in a private account. And my account can’t be funded if I’m paying benefits for current retirees.” Which is true: if current contributors to the fund stopped paying, the current beneficiaries would be out of luck, because Social Security is not a trust fund, it’s just a tax-in-benefits-out program.

            Kevin Drum said the same:

            Social Security is actually a much simpler program than that. I’m going to put the rest of this paragraph in bold so you can’t possibly miss it. Here’s how Social Security works: every month we take in taxes from working people and every month we turn around and distribute those taxes to retirees. That’s it. That’s how it works, and everyone who actually knows anything about the program knows that’s how it works. Taxes come in, benefits go out. And the key to solvency is simple: making sure that those taxes and benefits are in balance.

            (Interestingly, now that the “social security is a Ponzi scheme” story has blown over, Kevin Drum is now trying to resell FDR’s line that Social Security really is a trust.

            Jacob Lew also acknowledges there is no trust fund in any traditional sense:

            “These [trust fund] balances are available to finance future benefit payments and other trust fund expenditures—but only in a bookkeeping sense. These funds are not set up to be pension funds, like the funds of private pension plans. They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures. The existence of large trust fund balances, therefore, does not, by itself, have any impact on the Government’s ability to pay benefits.”

            As the Social Security Administration’s website points out, the “earned rights” of SS are so only “in a moral and political sense,” i.e., not in any legal sense. “Even so,” the SSA says, “some have thought that this reservation was in some way unconstitutional. This is the issue finally settled by Flemming v. Nestor”:

            In this 1960 Supreme Court decision Nestor’s denial of benefits was upheld even though he had contributed to the program for 19 years and was already receiving benefits. Under a 1954 law, Social Security benefits were denied to persons deported for, among other things, having been a member of the Communist party. Accordingly, Mr. Nestor’s benefits were terminated. He appealed the termination arguing, among other claims, that promised Social Security benefits were a contract and that Congress could not renege on that contract. In its ruling, the Court rejected this argument and established the principle that entitlement to Social Security benefits is not contractual right.

            Similarly, the 1937 decision in Helvering v. Davis held that Social Security was not an insurance program, saying, “The proceeds of both (employee and employer) taxes are to be paid into the Treasury like Internal-Revenue taxes generally and are not earmarked in any way.”

            Why is it significant that Social Security is a run-of-the-mill tax-and-spend program? Because it wasn’t sold as a run-of-the-mill tax-and-spend program. It was sold politically as a trust fund, as a government-run insurance program, in which “checks will come to you as a right.” From the 1936 government pamphlet outlining the Social Security program to average Americans:

            “Beginning November 24, 1936, the United States government will set up a Social Security account for you. . . . The checks will come to you as a right.”

            William Voegeli in his book Never Enough recounts:

            The architects of America’s social insurance system designed it to reinforce that sense of entitlement, to remove any reluctance the people might have about demanding the benefits that were “theirs.” In 1941 Luther Gulick, an advisor to several New Deal commissions, suggested to Pres. Roosevelt that the decision in 1935 to couple Social Security benefits to a regressive payroll tax had been unfortunate. His point was that paying for Social Security out of the government’s general revenues would have better served two liberal goals: tax progressivity, and Keynesian deficit spending to stimulate aggregate demand. In an oft-quoted reply, FDR said, “I guess you’re right on the economics. They are politics all the way through. We put those pay roll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program. Those taxes aren’t a matter of economics, they’re straight politics.”

          • Tim the SS as ponzi scheme blew over because it was painfully stupid and solely designed to give conservatives a quick “elevator pitch” about why they didn’t like it. Regardless of the lack of merit, or sense, of the tax and spend line, SS functions as insurance because everybody gets it. Everybody will have something to fall back on so they won’t starve even if, for whatever reason, they don’t have much themselves. That is insurance.

            Entitlement has become one of those words that carries so much weight and meaning. It’s so bad for something to be an entitlement to many, but that one little word can’t handle all that meaning.

          • Tim, we all know what SS is, yet your comment focuses on proving that, rather than on the claim that your point rests on: that it was sold as something else. You give one meager quote to show that, but it doesn’t show anything of the kind. Don’t you perceive your burden in this argument to which you often return not to be to prove to us that SS actually is what it appears to all of us to be, but instead that it was sold unambiguously as the thing you say it was sold as? You have the balance of evidence backwards if your aim to to sustain you argument.

            Just a helpful observation.

          • Michael, when I first started writing, I intended to simply quote the Drum piece and move on. But when searching for it, I found both him and Yglesias arguing the opposite of what they had elsewhere. That’s why I quoted them both saying it was tax-and-spend and not a trust, and then rounded out with a third source.

            But just because that part is heavy on excerpts doesn’t mean I skirted the burden on the other. The government pamphlet says it’s a right and it’s not. The SSA website acknowledges the same. And FDR himself admitted it was structured the way it was to evoke the sense that there was a moral entitlement to the program. Social Security surely is not treated in our politics like any other tax-and-spend program, and politicians know it.

          • It’s actually extremely thin IMO, Tim. Really, you just have one thing there – the statement that accounts will be set up to track benefits people are entitled to. Whatever FDR’s private correspondence says, it isn’t a public selling campaign. And setting up a program so that people feel they have a moral right to benefits simply doesn’t amount to selling it as insurance.

            I’m not saying the evidence for that isn’t out there. But it’s not here.

          • You’re a tough sell, Mike. Is there another explanation why Democrats still support a regressive payroll tax?

            Another way of putting it is that Social Security is “welfare for old people,” structured as insurance or a trust to keep rich people from opting out:

            [Liberals] support Social Security because it’s redistributive. In other words, it’s welfare for old people. . . . Liberals are willing to keep paying rich people Social Security in the hopes that the payments will keep those rich people from figuring out that Social Security is a redistributive transfer program.

          • Well one reason would simply be a sense that there’s a limit to how much you can sustainably soak the rich over time, and they’d rather help pay over the course of their lives to keep old-age income security in place than let it become more vulnerable, because they value the security part more than the redistribution part, perhaps because they perceive themselves as more likely to have something happen to them that leaves them up shit creek when they’re old than they perceive the rich to be, so it still seems like a good bargain.

            But that’s got nothing to do with how the program was sold. As I say, I’m fairly sure there was plenty of language back then that suggested private retirement accounts simply held by the government, it’s just that you haven’t acquired it so you aren’t reproducing it. But that does raise the question: why would that have been popular at all? After the crash, deposits were insured. People could safely save money. To me, it seems that the only thing that ever really drove the program’s popularity was the security guarantee. That it would be there almost no matter what you did – no matter how much you were able to “save.” In the cases of hardship where there otherwise wouldn’t have been saving – that’s redistribution (not from the rich to the poor, but from the payers-in to those who didn’t pay in as much as they will get). Was that ever really obscured?

            It seems to me that Social Security’s popularity has been sustained on the bare terms of what it does. That’s why Medicare is popular today, too. But if you can give me a full, not selective, accounting of how it was sold in the 30s that suggests a fundamental misrepresentation allowed for its initial acceptance, I’m happy to concede that’s the case, though I don’t remember what the significance of that fact was supposed to have been. But that would involve not just a little, but a whole hell of a lot, more than two quotes.

          • Given the real problems poverty amongst the elderly caused, I’m always a bit confused by those clamoring to kill SS.

            What do you plan to replace it with? Do you plan to screw the people who are currently on it? What about those who have paid into it for years or decades? Where do you plan to get the money?

            And how to you plan to handle, you know, elder poverty? I realize most of us whining in comments on a blog are people who sit down for a living and can do that right up until we keel over (or at least become senile), but what about the people who don’t sit down for a living?

            I mean it’s all well and good to be “Social Security is a Ponzi scheme” and such, but the plain political reality is that is solved a rather pressing problem. And if you want to get rid of it, you’re gonna need a solution that ALSO solves that problem. It’s not like SS was a government program that was just started for the sake of “MOAR GOVERNMENT”.

            I suspect privatization is a bit of a hard sell, given the lackluster performance of 401ks versus defined pension plans, and also the fact that the market ate itself a few years ago. Which makes people think “Hmm, do I want to invest my money in a giant casino? A giant rigged casino? Maybe not…”

            (And yes, it’s rigged. Well, perhaps rigged is a strong word — with stuff like HFT, it’s more like a casino where they claim the table rake is 1% but in actuality they’re skimming 95% out of every pot. You just don’t see it, and think “Boy, the pots sure are crap today”)

          • Tim,
            isn’t it legally insurance? As in, the Amish don’t need to pay SS because they have a religious doctrine against insurance?
            (I agree that in practice it is a tax-and-spend).
            I am VEHEMENTLY against the regressive aspects of SS/Medicare. I’m all for eliminating the top limit on it (or at least raising it by about 10x at least).

          • My understanding (and this could be wrong) is that social security is set up so that everyone pays up to a limit, everyone collects based on what they’ve paid, to separate it from being considered a welfare program, and so separate it from consideration of the politics of redistribution.

            Doesn’t seem to have worked, does it?

          • Kim, that’s an interesting point. What I understand is that it’s not considered “legal” insurance at any rate because there’s no “legal” right to enforce it. My guess would be that, whether or not the law considers it to be insurance (though unenforceable), there’s certainly a good faith belief that it is insurance, or close enough, and in light of a conscientious religious objection against paying insurance, the Amish could be excused from paying in.

  4. “Effort and determination” have never been the touchstone of “reward.”

    Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated failures. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent

    Gosh darn commie

  5. Of all the things I find peculiar about the right these days, this is the most puzzling to me: the endless weaving in and out of decontextualized historical and current quotes, so as to extrapolate from the most mainstream and milquetoast events a great conspiracy to destroy – or, perhaps, “remake” – America.

    • Tod, not perhaps “remake” — that is in fact the word I used. I never said “destroy.” In fact, I was careful to explain throughout the OP that the intentions are laudable and could be argued on the merits, just that they were different than 225 years ago. That’s a milquetoast claim if I say so myself. I doubt anyone seriously maintains there’s been no significant change in the trajectory of American thinking regarding political systems since the founding. All I’m doing is pointing out some of the signals of that change as they’re happening today.

    • I don’t think Tim is as guilty of this as other people on the Right but I have a take on this.

      In my observational experience, many people on the right seem to think that they have a monopoly on being the adults in the room. They are the only ones who see the tough choices that need to be made and that all of liberalism is merely an attempt to be a kindagarten teacher writ large. It plays directly into the old cliche of the Democratic Party being the “mommy party” and the Republic Party being the “daddy party” The Right seems to get off on this narrative.

      Plus large sections of the right-wing have always held that they are the “real Americans” with their harking back to Jefforsonian yeomanery which never existed and is completely irrelevant to the modern world.

  6. As a woman, I find the premise of your lede offensive.

    And things didn’t improve much from there.

    But I will tell you this: for me, for many others, the arc of exceptionalism of this nation has been the path to recognizing that all humans should be included in that phrase ‘all men are created equal.’ No matter if they hold land or not, no matter the color of their skin, their gender, their sexual preference. Self-evident truths keep revealing themselves.

    The founding did not include my gender’s freedom, it required collective action. And I agree with what our president said; and sadly suspect you’re too stuck in the privilege of being white and male to think beyond what you were granted at our nations founding that others were not; that others had to wait upon collective action to achieve. And I’ll pointedly remind you: that founding? It itself was a collective action.

    • What in particular offended you? The founding was flawed, to be sure. But it announced greater principles than could be practicably accomplished at the time in hopes that the principles would eventually chasten reality to comport with them. And it largely worked, to the continuing amazement of the world. This is why America has been called the first nation to be founded upon an idea. And it is why the founding ideas — not their practices, not even the particular individuals — are still so revered today. It is why the president relied heavily on them today. The power of ideas, and of these American ideas in particular, and the relative feebleness and shiftiness of human action, is why so many Americans still demand our political leaders conform their actions with them.

      As for collective action, it is true that the founders launched a revolutionary war to separate one sovereign from another and to establish a Constitution to safeguard that sovereignty. I suspect the president is not referring to using collective action for these reasons. But before we go too far down this road, I hasten to observe that the president didn’t talk with much specificity about what kind of “collective action” or “individual freedoms” he’s talking about. I don’t want engage in conjecture just for the sake of carrying on an argument.

      • The founding father’s spent a lot of time and energy hammering out the details of the Constitution. It goes on for many pages specifying how the government will be structured, with elections of Congress and the President; appointing of judges, who makes laws, who enforces laws, and who makes sure those laws are in keeping with tradition and precedence. These are all forms of ‘collective action.’ The father’s baked that in from the start.

        Ironically, the Bill of Rights, which laid out our individual freedoms, were afterthoughts; the first action they did was to amend that constitution to include those individual rights. So I disagree with your whole notion that individual freedoms and collective action are in conflict. It’s the collective action to change laws within the framework of the constitution — even to change the constitution itself with amendment — that creates individual freedom.

        You’ve got the cart before the horse; and in so doing, disparaging the changes, stemming from collective action, that continue to help perfect the notion that ‘all men are created equal.’

  7. This post reminds me of the age old debate where in two sides battle over the following: should there be an equality of outcome or an equality of opportunity?

    The equality of outcome question has long since been settled. America loves inequality frankly, and often takes the political position that the more there is, the merrier.

    The question of equal opportunity is more muddled. Some conservatives and libertarians often argue that there exists an America where everybody is getting a fair shot at success; liberals argue that this is an incorrect assumption, based upon a faulty understanding of how our society works.

    Our Founding Fathers described a world in which all men were created equal, but they obviously never believed that; they created a political system which they were the most equal of all, and those unlike them were screwed. Ever since, those Americans initially excluded from the original vision have fought to end up in a place for inclusion.

    Which brings us to Obama’s words today. I would argue that he’s trying to hold the Founding Fathers to what they said and not what they actually did. I think some conservatives and libertarians often prefer the opposite, if only because they end up better off for it and they perceive any society that strays as one wherein they’ll be at a disadvantage (even though that disadvantage is mostly imagined).

    • Sam, I get your point, even though I don’t quite agree with the way you’ve framed the premises about what the founders, or conservatives or libertarians believe or argue. As to your larger point, I’d be willing to grant that the president might actually think a program like Obamacare is some kind of realization of the founders’ ideals. Same with respect to his sentiments about equality regarding gender and sexual orientation. But I cannot find any support for redistribution qua redistribution in the founding philosophy. I also think that, to the extent the president’s statement about “reward[ing] the effort and determination of every single American” refers to equality of outcomes, that also is not supported by the founding. But it’s possible he just means equality of opportunity here and that I’ve given him an uncharitable reading.

      So the “re-founding” I’ve referred to may not be as wholesale as I’ve suggested.

      • He merely says that effort and determination should be rewarded in all American cases. he doesn’t say that all rewards should be equal. That may say something about outcomes more than just saying something about opportunity, but it doesn’t say anything at all about equality.

        • He is also accounting for the chaos of life which is something that conservatives seem to find appalling.

          People can get into accidents or develop serious illnesses through no fault of their own. In today’s global economy, they can also lose their jobs through no fault of their own or poor performance. Obama is merely saying that the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” should not ruin someone. People are not at fault for developing cancer or getting laid off in a down slump.

    • “The equality of outcome question has long since been settled. America loves inequality frankly, and often takes the political position that the more there is, the merrier.”

      Yes and no.

      On the one hand there is John Steinbeck’s famous quote that socialism never took hold in America because poor Americans see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” We also seem to let something being pretty get in the way of a political message. Most of my friends are liberal but also really love Downton Abbey. I am not welcome when I point out the fairly horrible socio-economic class politics of the show because it distracts from the pretty and the soapy.

      However, most Americans really like the various New Deal and Great Society programs that still exist as well.

  8. America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.

    So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.


    I wonder what George “Entangling Alliances” Washington would think of that mission creep.

  9. I may have a fuller response in the future, but for now I just want to make sure I have your argument correct. So any rhetorical placement of the major social legislation of the Twentieth Century in the context of the stated aims of the Founders that also claims there is any conceivable consistency between those two sets of aims amounts to an attempt to Re-Found the country? That seems to be what you are saying, even if the reason you put it in such stark terms today is because the argument appeared in a speech with such a traditionally high profile in national life? Is it not?

    • Michael — see my response to Sam above:

      But it should be no great shock that Obama has no real affection for the founding. It’s doubtful in fact that he even places significance on such a thing as a “founding.” In The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote: “Implicit . .  . in the very idea of ordered liberty was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or ‘ism,’ any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course, or drive both majorities and minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the jihad.”

      But we’d have to be specific about what “major social legislation” we’re talking about. Some could conceivably be supported by founding ideas, others not. Much of the New Deal most certainly did represent a re-founding.

      • This operates on your (emphasis on your) apparently rigid insistence that unless a thing prescribes for “future generations into a single, unalterable course,” then it can perhaps be certain things, but it can’t be a founding. That a founding can’t prescribe guiding principles that are meant to be adapted to changes and events. That’s not Obama’s view, and you are in the minority in holding that view.

        • That’s not my view, Michael. The nature of ideas is that they are broad, but they are not boundless. I’ve given my example that I think fits best: the president strongly believes in redistribution and included those themes in his speech, which was tethered to the founding. But I do not believe the founding plausibly supports redistribution qua redistribution, and thus his reliance on the founding either misunderstands it or attempt to replace it.

          Not all ideas, even ones that are arguably praiseworthy, are supported by the founding philosophy.

          • Redistribution qua redistribution? Where does he suggest that he believes in that? (For that matter, what isthat?)

            I think the founding plausibly supports a lot of things that it doesn’t explicitly prescribe by leaving quite open what the national purpose behind the founding was:

            We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence,[note 1] promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

            They could have made things a lot more exclusive than that had they wanted to, but instead they used this broad, sweeping language. All your references to thinkers they were aware of can’t ever make this broad invitation to national action any less clear than it is on its face.

            I think the founding clearly supports redistribution in the form of taxation to undertake projects to perfect the Union, promote welfare, and the like. That is the kind of thing I thought Obama was talking about in his speech. I don’t know what you mean by saying that Obama strongly supports redistribution qua redistribution, and I also don’t see where those founding words speak to it one way or the other. But I do think that among what Obama committed to in his speech as being consistent with the founding and shown by history to meaningfully further the aims expressed in its statement of national purpose above, are programs like Social Security and Medicare, which since their creation millions and millions of citizens have agreed with successive presidents and Congresses as to being consistent with the values of the founding (not prescribed, but consistent). Those, among many others.

            You are certainly free to argue that all those people are wrong, but you are not in a position to declare definitively that this or that moment in history represented a certain re-founding of the republic simply because legislation passed that’s not consistent with your particular view of it. Not without displaying a comical degree of arrogance about the complexity of questions implied by such claims.

          • The discussion of redistribution came up in another comment thread; the president did not reference it in his speech, though it was front and center in the recent “fiscal cliff” debate, wherein the president insisted on making the “rich” “pay their fair share,” even though it had a nominal at best effect toward closing the debt and deficit gaps. That is what I mean by “redistribution qua redistribution.” Most programs and policies have the effect of redistributing wealth in one way or another, perhaps merely as a side effect, but Obama often seems to underscore the redistributive effect of his programs as a feature, not a bug. His “pay their fair share” line of argument during the election and during the “fiscal cliff” debates is an example of that.

            The preamble gave direction to the national government, whose powers the founders took great care to limit. We do not look to the preamble only to understand what the founders had in mind. We look to the structure and text of the rest of the document as well. Incidentally, much of that was already re-founded by the New Deal, which found the federal government exercising authority beyond what could plausibly be discerned from anything in the founding documents and in ways that violate the careful separation of powers. The re-founding is incremental, and many of the steps following the New Deal have served largely to solidify what was accomplished then. Prior to the New Deal, I think it would have seemed less natural to cite the preamble and assume that ended the inquiry about the scope of the federal government’s power. It is with successive re-foundings that it seems more plausible to talk about national compulsory retirement and medical insurance programs as consonant with the founding when “founding” has come to incorporate the New Deal.

            Now, that’s not to say one can’t make the argument that the New Deal represents a legitimate re-founding. (It is certainly a de facto re-founding.) Re-founding projects are not illegitimate per se. In my view, the founding properly includes Lincoln’s re-founding project. But Lincoln spent years making his case that his views about slavery, equality, and freedom are consonant with the founders, digging and thinking deeply on the history of American ideas, the origin of the founding, and how they applied to changing circumstances. FDR, on the other hand, is known as a shrewd politician but not a terribly deep thinker—certainly he was no Lincoln when it came to understanding and appreciation of the founding. Contemporary re-founding projects, especially FDR’s, do not follow the Lincolnian model. Roughly stated, they follow a model of citing new exigencies, insisting that we must act, and then selectively quoting portions of the Declaration of Independence or the preamble. It is far more Hegelian, more practical, more Darwinian. The references to the founding are there mostly because they still poll well. Had FDR gotten his Second Bill of Rights—a more out-and-out expression of his re-founding principles, that would have been something else. It would have suggested the people knowingly and voluntarily accepted his principles. As it was, it seems just as plausible that they accepted the government’s bold experimentation because of the exigencies of the depression and then the war, not because they were founded on considered and enduring ideas about government. In my opinion, they’ve endured as a pseudo re-founding not through appeals to the American mind, but through tactics like bullying the Court and, as FDR admitted with respect to Social Security, “put[ting] those pay roll contribution there …. [so] no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.”

            The ideas established at the founding are not open to infinite interpretations. There is a strain of modern thought that would hold that the inclusion in the preamble of promoting the general welfare authorizes redistribution of wealth to achieve whatever view of fairness Obama or any other politician might hold. That no claim is possible about what policies are legitimate or illegitimate under the founding philosophy because, under the founding philosophy—under any philosophy—everything is legitimate, everything is illegitimate. There is only will and power. I might try to touch on this further in another post. Suffice it to say for now that I reject that view.

        • …Btw, sorry to misunderstand your view. I tried to piece together what you were saying Obama was committing to or disavowing in that quote that amounted to something well-understood as a denial that this country underwent a founding. That’s what I came up with: that you were saying that because Obama was disavowing things like an (ideological) consistency that locks in future generations to a particular course (i.e., excluding redistribution qua redistribution), that that meant that it’s doubtful he places significance on any such thing as a founding. That’s what I came up with. Perhaps you can explain what you mean better.

  10. I’ll be the liberal that says it. I frankly don’t give a crap what the “Founders” thought the American state should be like nearly 200 years after all of them are maggot food. They gave us an all right to decent foundation (even thought quite frankly, we wrote better Constitutions for other countries after World War II) and we’ve built on it since then. I have no doubt that the “Founders” would’ve been against redistribution. They were rich privileged landowners, why would they be for it?

    We should do what’s best for the nation. If Thomas Jefferson would’ve been pissed off about it, oh well.

    • What kinds of laws the founders were in favor of then or would be today is a completely different question from what it was they did founded the country – and of what the meaning of that founding was. I also don’t much care about their political opinions as to what the laws should be then or now. I do care what their broad purposes in framing our institutions were. Though I likewise don’t think these purposes should really entirely bind us in our actions today. But I am interested in the question of whether what we do today is somehow flatly inconsistent with their broad purposes in founding the republic – and in addressing claims that it is. If only because, regardless of whether we all at bottom care if they are inconsistent, the fact is that claims that they are retain a deep political resonance with much of the nation today. So you might was well address them, especially if they’re wrong.

    • I largely agree. There is still a lot of good in the Constitution but I don’t think that it prevents social welfare programs.

    • ‘I have no doubt that the “Founders” would’ve been against redistribution’

      They liked it well enough, though in those days it was redistributing land from Indians to working class white folks. (the dominant form of welfare up till about 1890 or so)

      • +1.

        Beginning with John Q. Adams, we sold land to fund government activities. Many of the soldiers who fought in the Civil War were paid with land to the West.

    • Jefferson thought a revolution every 20 years was a medicine necessary for the sound health of government. So I doubt he’d be too peeved (as long as he ended up on top).

      • I suspect he wouldn’t have been pleased by a slave revolt, even though it would have been the closest American parallel to his beloved French Revolution.

  11. The best part, and this was all over NPR for the last two days “that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

    Wrong wrong wrong. You preserve individual liberties by NOT doing stuff that limits them like say, collective action.

    • I think conservatives/libertarians and liberals think of different liberties when it comes to “individual liberty”

      As a liberal, I see individual liberty as largely relating to the civil sphere with stuff like freedom of speech, press, religion (or freedom from religion), privacy, etc. I think you can have a society with a strong social safety net and still preserve individual liberty.

      The disagreements seem to be about whether a government can ever take collective action if a harm outweighs a benefit. Let’s forget the Soda Ban and use something more deadly like Accutane. Accutane works great against severe acne. However, it can also cause very serious side effects to a person’s gastro-instestinal system. People who took the drug developed very serious Crohn’s Disease. One case I read about involved a man who needed several serious surgeries on his intestines and colon and basically could not work anymore.

      There would seem to be a divide between liberals and conservatives/libertarians on the issue of whether to ban Accutane or not. Liberals would say in this case that the harm of the drug outweighs the good and the government should ban it. Conservatives would seem to say that the best path is to give a warning and let each person choose whether to assume the risk or not.

      There are examples where the reverse is going to happen.

      • I don’t want to get into the weeds of a particular issue, so I’ll keep it at a higher level, especially since you mentioned all the good stuff like freedom of speech, press, etc.

        If you think that your privacy has been increased over the last 4, 6, 8 10, 50 years, there is no way I can help you. Gov’t has been in the forefront of reducing your privacy and it has been inactive in limiting non gov’t privacy reductions.

        • I never said that I think my level of privacy has increased in the past X amount of years but I don’t think all the blame goes to government, liberals. A lot of the decreases are technological advancements and corporations wanting to keep my data.

          As far as I can tell, the only things that will increase privacy in those respects are laws. Specifically the government telling Internet companies like google and facebook that they must truly erase data after a particular amount of time and this includes e-mails and chats that a person wishes to delete. But the companies do not want to do this.

          • corporations routinely steal your data.
            think about the data you don’t even know is getting stored.

          • I’ll second Kim’s comments. I worked for a company in the “info selling” business. I’ve seen many of the products and the amount of info they have on individuals, from where they live, who lives there, credit records, etc. is STUNNING. I’m also personally aware that this company KNOWING sold incorrect data about people to clients (say for background checks for employment) with the attitude that since they didn’t warrant the data as accurate they were under no obligation to correct it.

            As to gov’t privacy, it’s not a liberal / conservative thing. Both sides are complicit and both sides should be damned.

    • I would also argue that one cannot be truly free if one lives in a state of despair and desperation

  12. This post goes to show you, the differences between liberals and conservatives.

    My friends (who are mainly liberal) and the liberal blogosphere largely loved the speech and think it reaffirms the New Deal/Great Society.

    Other than that, I think it is highly galling that the right-wing seems to think they have a monpoly on what it means to be American and how American society/government should work.

  13. I actually quite liked this post, Tim, which I think is quite challenging. I do wish you had chosen a different title, since I don’t think it does a good job of capturing your point.*

    While I agree in substance with Kolohe’s points about the Constitution being a political document without a clear intent, that’s largely besides the point here where the more relevant document is the DOI. I think in general you’re very much correct to insist that, whatever the speech may claim, it owes more to Roosevelt, et al than to Jefferson, and that it is worth recognizing that the Rooseveltian tradition is distinct from that of the DOI (at minimum, FDR’s Four Freedoms add tradeoffs and tensions to the principles already specifically mentioned in the original DOI). So with your main point, I think I’m in agreement.

    That said, I do think I can find some counterarguments to some of your specific points, or at the very least ways of interpreting the speech such that it satisfies your objections.

    This strikes me as imputing a veneer of contingency over what are supposed to be “self-evident” truths. The president seems to be announcing a philosophy of Historicism in which the ideas—even “self-evident” ones—change over time. If so, then these truths are not “self-evident” at all—they are evident only through the lens of History.

    But what if the problem isn’t with the fact that the truths are self-evident, but is instead that the means of absolutely protecting any one of these truths must necessarily be at odds with the protection of one or more of the other truths? For instance, if we were to absolutely protect the notion that all men are created equal, this would mean that we would need to ensure that, at birth, each person must start with precisely the same opportunities – their parents must have the same amount of resources (in fact, since some parents are “better” than others, everyone should be raised by the same “parents,” ie, the state), they must have the same access to education, etc., etc. It is not difficult to see how this quickly becomes a recipe for totalitarianism, in which at least the principles of liberty and the pursuit of happiness are rendered meaningless. Similarly, if we seek to absolutely protect the pursuit of happiness, then we create a situation where externalities and the effects of one’s actions on others’ equality and life are made irrelevant.

    Having reprovisioned individual freedom as a means towards that famously open-ended project of Progressivism, the president goes on to say:

    “But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed.”

    Again, through seemingly anodyne statements, the president announces profound changes to traditional American principles. “Effort and determination” have never been the touchstone of “reward.” For if “effort and determination” have become our touchstone, there is no basis for A-Rod to earn more than his average fan.

    I think on this one you’re overreading the President. To me, all he’s saying with this sentence is that if one works hard and determinedly, one is entitled to a reward commensurate with one’s value added, not to a specific reward regardless of value added. Without hard work and determination, after all, talent is not a touchstone of reward, either. What I think the President was getting at with this quotation is that the purpose of America is to seek to end, to the extent possible, the use of “power” as a primary touchstone of “reward.” I’m not at all certain that this is appropriately considered part of our original, or even recent, national “purpose,” but it seems to me that this is at least an arguable point.

    *On this you have my sympathies – there is nothing I hate about blogging more than trying to come up with titles that are: (1) clever; (2) an accurate portrayal of my point; and (3) not likely to prejudice a reader.

    • I don’t know of any argument among the founders that it was a legitimate interest of the state (or perhaps of any other institution) to equalize conditions at birth. Equality of men was always a moral claim, not an empirical one. And yes, I agree that trying to equalize those conditions would quickly lead to totalitarian policies. At a very general level, I think this is what tends to happen when we frame these issues in empirical terms rather than moral ones; or perhaps in terms of positive liberties rather than negative ones. If we are equal in nature, the significance simply is that there is no basis for different treatment. Distinctions among equals thus are illusory, arbitrary, and cannot be the basis of law. But if equality is an aspiration rather than an innate quality – if it is something we posit and must make so – then not only are such distinctions valid, we have a mandate to conceive and promulgate the kinds of policies you refer to. Again, I don’t believe this latter conception finds any support in the founding philosophy. It is a later invention.

      I not sure if this means we agree or disagree.

      As to the latter point, I think it’s fair to assume the president chooses his words very carefully in a high-profile speech like this. “Reward” is a moral concept, and the sentiment expressed underscores the moral value of effort and determination, and correlates it with economic benefits (i.e., rather than simply the moral/spiritual/psychological satisfaction that effort and determination bring, even when it happens to have little or no economic value). Then again, maybe you’re right and I’m just overreading.

      • Tim,

        I hate to be crass, but even the idea of the Founders making a “moral claim” is total horseshit. We know that they didn’t consider all men created equal. They considered themselves and their interests equal; they considered most other people living in the nation at that point to be inconveniences.

        But despite the Founders’ failures in this regard, perhaps we ought to take them at their word. If so, I think it might be important to consider which side believes more in the “moral” side of that argument. Which side is truly championing equality? Predictably, I have my suspicions, but I’d be interested in your take.

      • The Constitution, without the Bill of Rights, reads as a repudiation of the fiery Rousseau-ian bit about all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. The next sentence seems to clarify things somewhat, That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

        The equality debate only gains traction when we consider the rights to which we are entitled. Though the Declaration says “among these rights” it doesn’t go any further than Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. The 3/5 Compromise clearly shows not all persons were extended those rights, especially not Liberty. The original proposition was to consider the census, including slaves, for tax purposes.

        Equality was never a moral proposition, nor was it empirical. It was a legal position. We are supposedly equal under law, born so, I should hope.

        • When people are out of power they make moral appeals to their superiors.
          When people are in power they make pragmatic explanations to their inferiors.

          This is why the Declaration is such a lofty document.
          This is why the Constitution refers to people held to labor.

          • I don’t know why we make such a fuss over either document, particularly the Declaration of Independence. It reads like the end of a bad marriage. Have you ever been obliged to listen to one-half of a bad marriage coming to an end? We all have, I suppose. I sit there, listening to some self-absorbed, angry jackass loudly decry the evils of a person they once loved to distraction. Furthermore, you know both parties well enough to understand it’s all so much maudlin codswallop and you’re being enlisted into one side of a fight you’d rather stay out of, all things considered. You probably gave them a wedding gift.

      • To elaborate a bit more, let me recast my point and make some implicit assumptions explicit:

        1. The proper purpose of any just government is to “secure” one or more basic moral truths. As defined by Jefferson in the DOI, these truths are the “self-evident” truths of equal creation, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

        2. Implicit in this is the empirical assumption that anarchy will fail to “secure” these truths. This empirical assumption may or may not be correct, but since few of us are anarchists, it is reasonable for our purposes to accept this implicit assumption as true.

        3. The tools government employs to “secure” these truths must, of necessity, infringe at least partially on an absolutist view of one or more of these truths. This is more or less definitionally true – a government that permits anyone to do whatever they want, whenever they want, and to whomever they want, isn’t a government at all. What’s more, a government that seeks to secure, as an empirical matter, an absolutist view of any one of these truths will quickly become totalitarian.

        4. As no government can secure an absolutist view of any one of these truths, a government that successfully “secures” them is one that minimizes its intrusions on these truths while maximizing its protection of these truths.

        5. As such, while the existence of the truths is a moral question, the extent to which a government “secures” those truths is an empirical question, with the recognition that the very act of “securing” any given truth involves at least a marginal decrease in the security provided to another truth.

        6. The actions required to maximize security, or even maintain existing levels of security, of any given truth will vary significantly over time, and thus the marginal degree of infringements on other truths necessary to protect that truth will vary significantly over time.

        7. The DOI does not prioritize amongst the four “self-evident” truths listed therein as proper goals of government, but what is clear is that the DOI considers protection of any one of them to be consistent with the proper role of government.

        8. The more “self-evident” truths you add to the list of items government may properly seek to protect, the more conflicts you create. As such, insofar as they involve infringement of one of the DOI’s four truths, protection of additional “truths,” no matter how noble, is inconsistent with the DOI. (On this, I assume you and I fully agree that the addition of Roosevelt’s freedoms from want and from fear as being on a par with the four listed in the DOI was improper).

        9. Nonetheless, because even the security of the original four “truths” necessarily involves the marginal infringement thereof as an empirical matter, Obama’s statement that there exists “a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time” is in fact correct.

        My examples of how an attempt to “absolutely” secure the truth of equal creation or “pursuit of happiness” were just intended to show how the Founders themselves must have implicitly accepted that some infringements of these moral truths are required to secure them- they themselves, in other words, rejected the absolutist view. What they were rejecting was, in effect, the addition, and indeed prioritization, of non-universal truths as proper ends of government.

        What is important with my equal creation example is that it is not an example that deals with equality of results, which surely was not one of the “universal truths” recognized in the DOI; instead, however, it is an example that seeks to show what would be required, as an empirical matter, to absolutely “secure” the moral truth of equal creation. That they did not conceive of equal creation as reaching this absolutist conception is unsurprising for the same reason that they would not have conceived of the “pursuit of happiness” as including the right to murder without government-enforced consequences.

        While I very much understand, and largely still agree with, your point about positive and negative liberties, the proper way to look at this question is as one where “positive liberties” are really just means to secure negative liberties. As such, because securing life (a negative liberty) is a proper end of government under the DOI, there exists the empirical obligation (the functional equivalent of a “positive liberty”) for government to expend resources to protect its citizens from being murdered, even though this expense may of necessity involve marginal infringements on other of the “self-evident truths.” The government, for instance, will need to impose taxes; it will need to provide citizens with a security or police force to whom they may turn for protection, prevention, or investigation; and the government will need both the legal authority and tax revenue necessary to remove the perpetrators and would-be perpetrators of such crimes from society, both as a deterrent to all and as a means of preventing such persons from committing additional killings. The extent to which such infringements are necessary to maintain a particular security of life may well vary over time with the homicide rate or with threats from foreign entities.

        There is no reason to think that securing the truth of “equal creation,” at least as that truth is formulated in the DOI (keeping in mind that the Constitution is a political document rather than a moral statement) would not, as circumstances change over time, contemplate similar marginal infringements of other truths.

        …..Shorter me: while the existence of the moral truths identified in the DOI is self-evident, the manner and priority in which these truths should be “secured” by government as an empirical matter is not. And, while the truths themselves may not conflict as a moral matter, the means required to “secure” any one of them must, as an empirical matter, at least marginally infringe on the security of one or more other moral truths. With the exceptions of debates invoking freedom from want and fear, the overwhelming majority of political disagreements are disagreements over which of the DOI’s moral truths should be prioritized at a given moment in time.

        • Golf claps. Bravo. Standing ovation. {{Riots in the streets!}}

          Awesome Mark.

          {{The only disappointment for me is I bet you only took about oh, say, youknow, like four or five minutes to write that.}}

        • Mark,

          Thanks for these great comments. I’ll respond by number.

          1. Just one clarification: among these truths are moral equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is not an exhaustive list. There is a proper ordering of natural liberties and moral principles, but it should not be supposed that the ordering is decided by their enumeration or omission in the Declaration.

          2. I’m not sure if I’d sign onto the term “empirical” here. This is still a claim about human nature, derived from rational arguments about a non-empirical state of nature (i.e., a true anarchy). This is important because it leads to one of the founding’s presuppositional claims about human nature and government: the founding rejected the Hobbesian collectivist view (that we must yield all our natural rights for the sake of self-preservation) for the Lockean natural law view (that government must be limited to protect natural rights and otherwise leave them untouched, that no arbitrary power shall rule).

          3. (I think I see where you were going with this before.) I agree in principle, but I want to push back a bit about what an “absolutist” view means. I’m not at the ready with a battalion of examples, but to take just one, an “absolutist” view of “the freedom of speech” does not “of necessity” suggest that any restrictions on speech infringes the freedom of speech. Since we are talking about natural rights, we are in a moral realm—in which we deal with motive and intent—not a purely empirical realm where we can only evaluate gesticulations and noises and so forth. There is no right to falsely shout “fire” in a crowded theater, and thus laws prohibiting it are no infringement of any natural liberty. The same has been observed with property rights under the principle of Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas. Thus, what you call an “absolutist” view I call simply a mistaken view.

          5. By this time, I have a couple issues with the formulation here. First, as briefly described above, the “absolutist” view actually misconceives the nature of rights. A legal regime that permits all speech, i.e., in addition to merely “the freedom of speech,” is prophylactic. It may be justified because it observes the founding philosophy of limited government. It may also be justified because it gives a wide berth and presumption to the freedom of speech. (E.g., I have no natural freedom either to falsely claim on the internet that I’m a scuba diving enthusiast or to claim I’m a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient. The freedom of speech protects neither of these claims. But for practical reasons concerning the morale of our armed forces, etc., Congress may prudently decide to criminalize the latter even if it leaves alone the former.) But there is nothing in the founding philosophy that requires this “absolutist” model in which all gesticulations, grunts, and noises are protected as such.

          With respect to the moral equality of man, I note that the Declaration correctly does not treat it as a “right.” Instead, it helps form the basis of our natural rights. It is another one of the founding philosophy’s great presuppositions about human nature: It is universal. Whatever morally relevant facts we know about ourselves, we know about all mankind. Rights concern what we may do. Equality is what we are. We establish government to secure our inventory of rights, but there is nothing government can add to or detract from equality. And it is because of the equality of mankind that legitimate government may not distinguish among them. Slavery was always wrong, and the Equal Protection Clause is little more than a schoolmaster to bring us to recognize what was always true: Every law that makes distinctions among men on the basis of morally irrelevant categories is arbitrary; and every arbitrary law is no law at all.

          So when we were earlier discussing hypothetical scenarios in which the government might seek to “guarantee” equality or to “correct” naturally occurring inequalities, this misunderstands the role of equality in the founding philosophy. Equality is not an aspiration; it is a moral fact. Government does not act on equality; equality acts on government and enjoins arbitrary discrimination. Once we begin to talk about empirical inequalities, we are talking about a different subject about which the Declaration and the founding philosophy have little to say.

          8. As mentioned above, the “four truths” are not exhaustive. Yes, we agree about Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights, but I wonder if for the same reasons. As I’ve been discussing, I don’t believe there are so many “conflicts” among natural rights (though I don’t want to suggest I disbelieve in them entirely). I certainly don’t believe that recognizing other self-evident truths is inconsistent with the Declaration. I think the correct formulation is that ideas like the Second Bill of Rights are not “self-evident truths.” They do not arise out of the founding philosophy. That’s not to say they can’t be grounded in some other philosophy, but they are not grounded in any that are so enshrined in our political, legal, and moral history as the founding.

          9. The reference to a “never ending journey” is not so problematic in itself. However, he concludes the thought later when he says “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” That is, I think it is a fair reading that Obama is saying the “never ending journey” of applying the founding principles to “the realities of our time” means, for now at least, more “collective action.” Now, this could be so. In Lincoln’s time, preserving individual rights meant preserving the union, and preserving the union meant the most terrible kind of collective action—war. I would welcome a defense of collective action from Obama, but one has not been forthcoming. Instead, just before his entreaty for a higher level of “reasoned debate” in our political discourse, Obama compares the efficacy of individual freedom—ostensibly including its naturally occurring brands of collective action in the form of families, communities, charities, and the free market—to “me[eting] the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias,” and to that of a “single person [attempting to] train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future.”

          In other words, the “never ending journey” part is not the problem. The problem is the president wants to skip the journey and get right to the collective action. That won’t do, because as even he acknowledges, “we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority.” Strawmen will not assuage that skepticism.

          Your points are well taken on the “positive liberties” needed to secure negative ones. The most obvious example (after your nice illustration of criminal law enforcement) is health care. On that point, I’m willing to keep an open mind that the same analysis might apply. (Though I’m putting to the side the question of the extent to which the entire impressive menu of modern medicine is demanded by the natural right to life. I suspect it is well less than what is on offer.) But I am, again as the president put it, “skeptic[al] of central authority” until I’ve been assuaged that the decentralized efforts of free men and women have proven unsuccessful at presenting a satisfactory alternative. The health care industry in America has never been remotely free throughout the 20th century to the present, so it is hard to feel that the president and others clamoring for collective action have seriously sought to assuage Americans’ natural skepticism of central authority, rooted in the founding philosophy.

          In other words, I simply do not believe the president’s suggestion that freedom has been given every reasonable opportunity to address our ills but has proved wanting, thus justifying, in the view advanced in the second inaugural, the resort to collective action. And I think the reason is because he does not actually believe in the founding philosophy and its prescription of limited government and the primacy of negative liberties. I don’t think there is any serious tension in securing one self-evident truth over another, because (1) properly construed, there is far less potential for tension than we might at first think; (2) the question of “positive liberties” to secure negative ones tends to skirt questions of what the actual moral demands of negative liberties are (they are probably much less than what the extend of the positive liberties would suggest); and (3) Obama and the left simply do not believe the government ought to be limited by the founding philosophy.

          • Tim,

            What is the function of the last sentence here:

            I certainly don’t believe that recognizing other self-evident truths is inconsistent with the Declaration. I think the correct formulation is that ideas like the Second Bill of Rights are not “self-evident truths.” They do not arise out of the founding philosophy.

            Are you saying that if an idea does not arise out of the founding philosophy, then it is necessarily and therefore not a self-evident truth?

          • Michael – In a way, that is what I’m saying, but I’d formulate it differently. My understanding (I could be wrong in my formulation) is that the founding philosophy is the philosophy of self-evident truths, or perhaps better, incorporates that philosophy, along with other contemporary theories of government (separation of powers, limited government, etc.)

            So, the Second Bill of Rights (mostly if not exclusively consisting of “positive rights”) are not self-evident truths, and therefore do not arise out of the founding philosophy.

          • Thanks for the challenging reply, Tim. I’m pretty busy today, so this will probably be all I can write today, but a few additional clarifications I’d like to make:

            – Despite my disagreements on the two specific points referenced in my original comment, I should re-emphasize that I otherwise think your analysis in the OP is pretty much correct.

            – I’m making a fairly subtle – but important – distinction here that I’m not sure if you’re picking up on. Specifically, I am not saying that the self-evident truths contradict each other – to the contrary, I fully agree that if we accept natural rights theory (as we must in the context of the DOI), these “self-evident truths” exist in a state of nature, and exist independent of any government action. What’s more, I also agree that this aspect of the DOI is fundamentally a normative, moral claim.

            However, the DOI does not stop there – it continues on to say “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…” This is critical – the DOI here is making at least an implicit empirical claim (albeit not one that we have the means to reliably test) – that not only is the purpose of legitimate governments to secure these rights (a normative claim), but also that legitimate governments actually do secure these rights to a greater extent than in a state of nature. The empirical assumption here is that, although these rights exist in a state of nature, they are not meaningfully secured in such a state, and that government (which is inherently a form of collective action) is necessary to secure them, ie, to give them practical meaning. Although the principles specifically listed in the DOI are not an exclusive list of “self-evident truths,” they do seem to be close to an exclusive list of what we generally view as natural, or negative, rights, especially insofar as the inclusion of “liberty” necessarily acts as a catchall. In other words, it may be self-evidently true that 1+1=2, but this is not the type of truth that the government can help “secure.”

            -What liberals tend to call “positive liberties,” in this regard, are not properly regarded as liberties at all (I assume you would agree with this much, and here is where freedom from want and fear are antithetical to the DOI). Instead, these “positive liberties” are more properly viewed as tools that are considered (rightly or wrongly) empirically necessary to secure one or more negative liberties. According such tools status as rights in and of themselves mistakes means for ends under a natural rights theory such as the DOI and thus surely conflicts with the DOI – this is why I basically agree with your post outside of the specific point about the “bridge” quote.

            -My point is just that the act of securing “equal creation” (as opposed to “equal outcomes”) is a proper end of government even under the DOI theory. Equal creation, no less than life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is a natural right under the DOI that exists regardless of government; but without a legitimate government, each of these natural rights, moral truths though they may be, are rendered devoid of much practical meaning or effect. “To secure” these natural rights is to seek to maximize their practical meaning – the only other possibility is the absurd idea that government exists to ensure that self-evident truths which exist independent of government continue to exist.

            – Since, as I mention above, any act of government, including any act to “secure” one or more of these truths must of necessity involve at least a marginal* infringement of one or more other natural rights, there is a never-ending tension that must be resolved according to the realities of a given moment, not between the natural rights themselves, but between the means required to secure those rights and the rights themselves.

            – Finally, if “securing” means “to give practical effect to,” then it quickly becomes easy to see how “securing” the truth of equal creation can involve wealth redistribution of some sort, though certainly not in the specific form that we see as a result of the New Deal and the adoption of freedom from want and fear as freedoms on a par with the DOI’s negative liberties. Indeed, I can find examples of this principle in action from fairly early on in the history of the US. There was certainly a significant concern from quite early on with the problem of accumulated and inherited wealth, some of which is described here:

            I suspect that article may take things a little bit too far, but the essential point here is that at the very least the Jeffersonian contingent (and arguably even the Hamiltonians) viewed government interventions to restrict vast accumulations of inherited wealth as a legitimate tool to secure the natural right of equal creation.

            *That the infringement be “marginal” is an important measure of whether the action is appropriate – an infringment of one natural right that exceeds the amount of protection afforded thereby for another natural right is a net loss to the security of these natural rights.

          • Mark, your point is well taken that “legitimate governments actually do secure these rights to a greater extent than in a state of nature.” The question then becomes, what is legitimate collective action to secure those rights, which in turn means we have to have an understanding of what means are legitimate (i.e., what forms of collective action are formally authorized in the founding text and philosophy), and what kinds of ends are legitimate (i.e., what rights are according to the founding text and philosophy).

            I also agree with your point about “positive liberties” as “tools” to “secure” natural rights, and that putting them on equal footing with negative liberties gets things backward.

            I’m pretty sure I disagree that “Equal creation, no less than life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is a natural right under the DOI that exists regardless of government,” and that it is a right that must be “secured” by government. Equality is a quality of humanity, a passive characteristic. Securing the right to equality would be like securing the right to be a featherless biped. Not to say these passive qualities are meaningless. They inform what legitimate law is. The very nature of law cannot support ignore either quality – a law treats people differently based on morally arbitrary distinctions is illegitimate just like a law that requires the amputation of all left arms would be illegitimate. But I cannot think of a law that actively secures the passive qualities of equality or being a featherless biped.

            As your analysis applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I’m in general agreement.

            Regarding the “never ending journey,” I take your point. In fact, I believe we are long overdue for a real re-founding – not just empty recitation of the Declaration as political cover – that gives us a philosophical framework to account both for the modern expectations of government as well as our enduring commitment to negative liberties. (That’s a topic I’ve been very slowing working on in a very long upcoming post.) In other words, conservatism is not, or ought not to be, merely an attempt to undo all the progress of the past several decades. It is instead about rooting our political action in an intelligible framework, in a constitution of political thought.

          • A conservative framework on which we might build, not merely sacrifice to the altar of lower taxes (sorry! knee-jerk liberal rx! ;-P), would be very interesting indeed.

            Modernist one might even say.

          • Tim, I hope you do follow up on this discussion with more related posts. In particular, I think this comment from Mark

            Instead, these “positive liberties” are more properly viewed as tools that are considered (rightly or wrongly) empirically necessary to secure one or more negative liberties.

            is crucial. I think this comment captures the best of liberal policy (and his earlier comment probably captures the worst of it). In to fill that thought out some, I broadly agree with Mark that political disputes resolve to priority rankings of the four basic self-evident truths with this addendum: that establishing the necessary conditions under which the expression of those (ranked) truths is guaranteed is what liberals are primarily about.

  14. I do NOT dream of an America where Parents beat their Children to death.
    Where wives are stolen and married against their will.

    From well before our nation was founded, Pennsylvania stood for collective action in pursuit of freedom, even for the weak or disenfranchised.

  15. Tim & Mark –

    I read a little bit last night of what I could find of accounts of refounding in American history. One account I read identified four since the ratification of the Constitution: one in the Federalist era, one in the Jacksonian era, the Civil War refounding, and then with the New Deal and its advancement. I’m more comfortable with the concept when it’s presented as something of the regular mechanism by which the country accommodates change over time (which wasn’t clear from what you’d written or said until you mentioned it in your last comment to me, Tim – indeed I thought you’d made mention, and indeed, people of your views frequently do hold, that the most important changes realized through the Civil War era represent not a fundamental change in American ideals, but simply an expansion of their applicability in society.) I’m still not sure I accept that this is the best interpretation of any of these sets of changes – it seems to me that mere changes in the understanding and application of a constantly embraced set of ideals, and hence the understanding of the scope for institutional action, is best understood as within the scope of the evolution of one nation over time. “The Founding” refers to the founding of a nation, not just a constitutional or governmental order, much less one philosophical approach to the understanding of its scope and limits, so to speak of refoundings to me is to speak of, essentially new nations, or at least new republics, not just evolving philosophical and legal interpretations. There is a literature that makes the case that the Civil War did manage to fundamentally change the nation itself, and I’m pretty open to the idea that it was a re-founding. I actually think the combination of the onset of the high industrial revolution and and concomitant immigration explosion at the turn of the Twentieth Century has the makings of another fundamental change in the national character, though I’m hardly committed to that view. But I don’t think that each of these semi-revolutions in philosophical thought that I listed before those are best understood as refoundings of the nation itself, or of the republic. But as I’ve said, everyone’s free to argue for his view. I’m done listening to claims that it’s certainly this way or certainly that way, however. These are pretty ambiguous interpretive questions, and it is a high claim to make that an event in history represents a refounding of a nation as some kind of indisputable fact, rather than as one possible interpretive approach to actual facts. I wonder if Mark agrees with Tim as to whether the same refounding Tim thinks have occurred have in fact occurred. Beyond dispute, and all.

    This point about past refoundings, though, I think does speak to Mark’s concern to the problem with the title of the post. Tim’s argument, his objection, is that Obama sought to trace a consistency between the first founding and the programs of change that have come since then – whether the Civil War refounding, the possible industrial/immigration/cultural refounding, or the social state refounding, all of which Obama makes reference to. He doesn’t seem to claim that Obama promulgates changes of the kind that would amount to yet another American refounding. (It’s not my impresison that Tim argues that ACA or Obama’s commitment to slightly sharpening the already-written progressivity of the federal tax code amount to a refounding program.) So isn’t the problem with the title that it is precisely at odds with the argument (as clarified in comments) of the piece? The problem that Tim actually has with Obama’s speech is not that it attempts to again refound the nation (he doesn’t think Obama has such a program), but instead that it seeks to deny what to Tim are factual, indisputable refoundings of the nation, and breakings away from the “philosophy” of the first republic.

    Perhaps the right title of the piece, then, not accounting for snappiness, might be, “The Second Inaugural’s Attempt to Deny America’s History of Multiple National Re-Foundings.”

    • Michael,

      I’m impressed (though knowing you, I shouldn’t be) by your thoughtful consideration of these ideas. I’m also open to correction on these ideas, but for the sake of exploring them, I’ll advance the view I’ve staked out in addressing some of your points.

      The real importance of the founding is its philosophy. When we talk about government, we employ concepts like “legitimate,” “reasonable,” “rights,” “liberty,” “power,” “authority,” “truth,” and the like. These are the bread and butter of governance, yet none of them are empirical. They are all abstract concepts that require definition, and their definition depends on a shared philosophy, a shared epistemology. This is the significance of the founding: it is the soil in which all of these necessary concepts take root so we can speak intelligibly about them and carry out the project of self-government. The absence of a shared philosophy means the people, who in the American case are the sovereign, cannot intelligibly cooperate with one another. Without a shared philosophy in which these concepts objectively mean something, they would become like the workers in the story of the building of the Tower of Babel. And as that story demonstrates, a people who cannot communicate cannot cooperate, and thus cannot govern themselves. It would be as if a monarch—a sovereign in his own way—were schizophrenic and otherwise mentally unstable. He could not plausibly govern. So with a sovereign people without a founding philosophy.

      With that in mind, it should be obvious why it is important to examine alleged re-founding projects in our history: to the extent the founding philosophy is changed or replaced, we need to take stock of and understand what the new philosophy is. Otherwise, the people lose the ability to govern themselves. But even as a preliminary matter, we need to know whether such a re-founding has occurred, or whether instead we have simply experienced some temporary flux, whether political, economic, social, military, or otherwise. I’m thinking of many of the populist movements that failed to take permanent hold as examples.

      The philosophy Lincoln announced and defended through the Civil War, the Gettysburg Address, and the eradication of slavery, is considered a re-founding for a couple reasons, in my understanding. First, it was a fulfillment of (or perhaps more accurately, it began to fulfill) the Declaration’s acknowledgement of equality and freedom, that legitimate government could not tolerate arbitrary distinctions, that a legitimate government could not recognize a right of property in human beings without fundamentally misunderstanding the meaning and moral content of all of those concepts. In that way, it was a re-founding in a more literal sense: the nation was founded again under the same philosophy as the Revolutionary founding.

      Second, Lincoln re-founded the nation with a modified or new philosophy concerning the balance of power and sovereignty between the states and the federal government. Settled forever was the question of whether the states could unilaterally secede, whether equality and liberty were relative questions or whether the states reserved the option to ignore them, etc. In this way, it might be said that the founding philosophy was modified or replaced. If so, I think it was legitimate given Lincoln’s full-throated articulation of that philosophy, and the people’s pledge of their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to that re-founding. On the other hand, my view is that Lincoln’s philosophy was not out of step with the founding philosophy, and instead flowed logically from it. In that sense, like the acknowledgement of equality and the guarantee of freedom, I believe the states’ obligation to recognize the separate and independent sovereignty of the federal government was also baked in the cake of the founding philosophy.

      The New Deal, on the other hand, is quite different. No threats to sovereignty or liberty were presented as during the Revolutionary or Civil War periods. Instead, the Depression presented fundamentally pragmatic concerns, not moral ones—at least, not moral concerns that the founding philosophy would recognize as a justification for the kind of government action FDR desired. FDR sought to address those concerns through a Second Bill of Rights, which dealt with contingent propositions like “useful” employment, earning “enough” money, earning a “decent living,” living in a “decent home,” and the like. None of these concepts have any intelligible meaning in the context of the founding philosophy. They would require a new one. Likewise, the new “alphabet soup” of federal agencies had no antecedent in the founding philosophy: it violated the philosophy that laws would be passed by the people’s representatives, and they went far beyond even the much more vigorous role of federal authority into state, local, and private affairs established by Lincoln.

      FDR did not pass his Second Bill of Rights, but he did create the administrative state. What he failed to do, however, was announce or defend a re-founding philosophy by which the sovereign people could evaluate the legitimacy of its government, by which the sovereign people could evaluate the legitimacy of future such agencies and vigorous federal action in the economy, etc. Instead, it was a de facto refounding. And that is why, when conservatives rail against the administrative regulatory state today, the only answer the left can give is one not rooted in any founding philosophy, but based in History: “It’s been this way for 70 years, what are you gonna do about it?” [This is why I rib those on the left like Chait when they say things like ““For us [liberals], everything works on a case-by-case basis. Should government provide everybody’s education? Yes. Should government manufacture everybody’s blue jeans? No. And so on.” This is the opposite of philosophy; it is the absence of intelligibility. This is also why I devoted some posts last year to exploring whether positive rights could find any roots in the founding philosophy. See and links therein. My take-away was that the answer is no.] FDR left the people without an intelligible, rational means to evaluate what its government is doing. He left us without a philosophy. He left us building a Tower of Babel.

      Given all that, there’s a dual meaning to the title of the OP. On the one hand, Obama tried to “re-found” the nation a la Lincoln, by citing to the original founding, insisting that we are simply working to realize the founding philosophy. But as I’ve argued, most of what Obama has championed actually derives from the legacy of the New Deal and Progressivism. That legacy does not have a philosophy, it has only a History. So Obama’s attempt to re-found the country in the Declaration actually finds him re-founding it in FDR, the New Deal, in the Hegelian view of the march of History, the lack of objective truth, and the futility of philosophy. It is a re-founding in Babylon.

      • Tim, I appreciate the further clarifying comments. I wrote a slightly more extensive reply, but my browser crashed. I never regarded the assertion that there have been refoundings as in any way unreasonable, and in light of these comments, I find them more reasonable still. My main point with respect to the idea of these refoundings was to plea that we acknowledge that these are fairly abstract interpretive arguments that are being made, and that the better rhetorical mode for them is one of discussion and suggestion, not assertion and insistence. There’s no moment when we unambiguously re-founded the country; all these changes have had been addressed by both those arguing for fundamental national continuity and for radical reformation. Both as a historical-analytical matter, and in the moments themselves, there have been no events that were so clearly the founding of a country as was the moment when we broke away from colonial rule and created new institutions. Those institutions persist today; though we may have greatly alter how we regard and use them, it’s not clear that any even as foundational as their Framing has occurred. It’s not clear it hasn’t, either. But it’s not true that we must acknowledge national refoundings to take stock of philosophical change in our thinking about government. We can simply take stock of the philosophical change. And refoundings might be another question, not unrelated, but not just the same question either. Whether these changes have caused refoundings would require us to set up and agree upon a framework for deciding what part various sets of philosophies define national foundings. Further, we’d have to agree about whether you have right what you seem to describe as the one unique single philosophy that defined our founding – whether there was just one, and whether that’s it if so. All just for starters.

        This is all a very legitimate debate, but I hope we can agree that it’s rightly a debate, not a question that’s simply settled. To assume the answers to all those questions, as you’ve done by referring to but not naming the founding “philosophy,” nor proving it’s really the one that defined the founding, and so forth — is a lot to assume in one post. i realize that to your mind that’s all been proved elsewhere. But this is here. And I realize the traditional way of engaging debate is to advance a clear position and avoid mealy-mouthed caveating where not necessary. But there’s a fine line between that and asserting that there oughtn’t be a debate. I’m afraid I’m still not sure where you stand on that question.

        So I wonder if you’d want to lay out in a series of posts how it is that the discordant voices aims of the many founders can be distilled into one single “founding philosophy,” and why it is that changes in the popular orientation to or acceptance of that philosophy amount to true national refoundings rather than just evolution in thought in the polity that any country should expect to see over centuries — and whether in your view there is room for legitimate disagreement about whether all that you say in these regards is true, or whether these are principles that Americans of good faith ought to be acceding to as basic civic facts for the sake of a common basis for discussion of more open questions. I hope other regular contributors and commenters would consider offering their views on these questions as well.

        • Well, now hat other reply was actually less extensive than this one…

  16. “We lost the American Colonies because we lacked that statesmanship “to know the right time, and the manner of yielding, what is impossible to keep”. But the lesson was learnt. In the next century and a half we kept more closely to the principles of Magna Carta which have been the common heritage of both countries. We learnt to respect the right of others to govern themselves in their own ways. This was the outcome of experience learned the hard way in 1776.”

    • We lost the American Colonies because we lacked that statesmanship “to know the right time, and the manner of yielding, what is impossible to keep

      You do realise that this is utter nonsense right? Because this is basically an admission that Imperialism is impossible. Either let your colonies go or have them leave against your will. You are going to lose them anyway. Having the statesmanship to know when to yield does not help you keep any colony as that means that you lose the colony either way. So there is no way Britain could have lost the Colonies because it did not have the wisdom to let go before.

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