The people were no longer the center; the government was.nThe plural United States was now an artificial singular. “American,”nwhich had meant the fellow feeling of related peoples,nnow meant merely obedience to the same government.nAmericans have never lost the idea of, and the instinct for,niinQyfSXzMnequalit)’—and that is a good thing. But we appear to have lostnthe idea of, and the instinct for, freedom and independence. Cannwe recover them? The prospects are not good, but strangernthings have happened in historj’.nnDedicated to the Proposition”nA gay activist recentiy claimed on national television that le-n1 gal rejection of gay “marriages” violates the Declaration ofnIndependence, while an ACLU member insisted that postingnthe Ten Commandments in a courtroom was a violation notnonly of the Bill of Rights but of the Declaration. Though absurd,nthese positions logically follow from the dominant liberalninterpretation of the document. Its claim that all men are “creatednequal” and are endowed with “unalienable rights” to “life,nlibert}’, and the pursuit of happiness,” has been treated as thensole meaning of the document, which — in this view—underwritesna radical ethic of individualism. In this way, the Declarationnprivileges the liberty of individuals over the corporate libert)’nof the people of a state to protect a valuable way of life,nwhich includes authoritative interpretations of what the rightsnof individuals are. This Lockean reading of the Declaration isnthen read into the Constitution as its animating principle —despitenthe obvious fact that the Constitution was designed to protectnthe reserved corporate liberty of the states against encroachmentnby enumerating the powers granted by tiiose statesnto the newly created central government. The language of “naturalnrights” does not appear in the ancient Creek and Romanntraditions, nor in the Bible, nor in the Constitution: The onlynindividual rights specified there are traditional English common-lawnrights (no ex post facto laws, etc.). Americans, ofncourse, had strong beliefs about individual rights; but they leftntheir exposition and interpretation largely up to the states. Still,nwe are told that America is a “Lockean” nation. And so MortimernAdler could write a popular book on the Constitutionnwith the tide We Hold These Truths.nThe Declaration is a secession document justifying die corporatenliberfy of 13 distinct political societies to break the “politicalnbands” that had connected them with another “people”nand to govern themselves. But what seceded was not the Americannpeople in the aggregate (as the “Lockean” reading wouldnhave it). The Declaration begins with an assertion oicorporatenhherty and ends with the ringing claim that 13 distinct politicalnsocieties—hitherto colonies—are now to be recognized individuallynas “free and independent states.” If liberals do not understandnwhat the Declaration asserted, his Britannic majesfyndid: In the Treaty of Paris, he acknowledged each formerncolony by name to be a free, sovereign, and independent state.nThe Declaration, then, is not about an aggregate of atomisticnDonald W. Livingston is a professor of philosophy at EmorynUniversity, auf/zor of Philosophical Melancholy and Deliriumn(Universit)’ of Chicago Press), and director of the League of thenSouth Institute for the Study of Southern Culture and Histor}’.n24/CHRONICLESnby Donald W. LivingstonnnnLockean individuals uniting to secure their individual selfinterest,nbut historically pre-existing political societies, eachnseeking to establish (out of its desired sovereignty) legal protectionnfor what it considers a valuable way of life. But what aboutnthe abstract proposition that “all men are created equal?” It isnjust that: an abstraction. Without a moral and religious traditionnto interpret it—with all its contingency and particularify—nit is entirely empty and cannot serve to guide any conduct whatsoever.nConsider the metric system. The lengtii and weight of anythingnin die universe can be measured widi it. Further, tiie connectionnbetween a meter and 100 centimeters is “unalienable.”nYet the system cannot actually measure anything until we knownhow long a meter is. A meter could be the length of Napoleon’snleft hand or the length of Josephine’s favorite hairpin: In eitherncase, it would ec|ual 100 centimeters. To know the length of thenstandard meter, we must accept a story told by autliorit)’ aboutnthe selection, by authorities, of a particular iridium bar encasednin Paris. Not even in the rationalistic metric system can we escapenthe contingencies and particularities of tradition. Philosophersnmay prove God’s existence through self-evident argument,nbut we still need the biblical and Church tradition as thenguide to man’s relation to Cod.nThe same is true of the abstract natural rights of the Declaration.nTo say, as liberals on the left and right tirelessly do, thatnAmerica is an “idea” rather than a culture, or that ours is an”proposition country,” is like saying that the metric system is notnlike other systems of measurement (which have a traditionallyndetermined standard of measurement), but instead is merely annidea or set of abstract principles. It is always morally corruptingnto think we are guided by what is, in fact, impossible.nThe Framers were, at times, given to rationalistic language,nand Jefferson uses it in the Declaration. But his main object isnnot the propounding of an abstract proposition but an affirmationnof the corporate liberty of 13 states, each with its own particularnmoral and religious tradition. Jefferson and his contemporariesnwell understood that the content of natural rightsnwould have its source in those distinct traditions. It would notnbe until the 1830’s, when the founding generation had died out,nthat a new, aggressive breed of Americans would appear, bentnon centralization and speaking the French revolutionary languagenof nationalism. They reconceived the abstract naturalnrights of the Declaration as standing on their own, and usednthem (with all the arbitrariness that empty abstractions allow) tondestroy die moral and religious traditions of those ver’ states thenDeclaration had said should be independent.n