A gay activist recently claimed on national television that legal rejection of gay “marriages” violates the Declaration of Independence, while an ACLU member insisted that posting the Ten Commandments in a courtroom was a violation not only of the Bill of Rights but of the Declaration. Though absurd, these positions logically follow from the dominant liberal interpretation of the document. Its claim that all men are “created equal” and are endowed with “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” has been treated as the sole meaning of the document, which—in this view—underwrites a radical ethic of individualism. In this way, the Declaration privileges the liberty of individuals over the corporate liberty of the people of a state to protect a valuable way of life, which includes authoritative interpretations of what the rights of individuals are. This Lockean reading of the Declaration is then read into the Constitution as its animating principle—despite the obvious fact that the Constitution was designed to protect the reserved corporate liberty of the states against encroachment by enumerating the powers granted by those states to the newly created central government. The language of “natural rights” does not appear in the ancient Greek and Roman traditions, nor in the Bible, nor in the Constitution: The only individual rights specified there are traditional English common-law rights (no ex post facto laws, etc.). Americans, of course, had strong beliefs about individual rights; but they left their exposition and interpretation largely up to the states. Still, we are told that America is a “Lockean” nation. And so Mortimer Adler could write a popular book on the Constitution with the title We Hold These Truths.

The Declaration is a secession document justifying the corporate liberty of 13 distinct political societies to break the “political bands” that had connected them with another “people” and to govern themselves. But what seceded was not the American people in the aggregate (as the “Lockean” reading would have it). The Declaration begins with an assertion of corporate liberty and ends with the ringing claim that 13 distinct political societies—hitherto colonies—are now to be recognized individually as “free and independent states.” If liberals do not understand what the Declaration asserted, his Britannic majesty did: In the Treaty of Paris, he acknowledged each former colony by name to be a free, sovereign, and independent state.

The Declaration, then, is not about an aggregate of atomistic Lockean individuals uniting to secure their individual self-interest, but historically pre-existing political societies, each seeking to establish (out of its desired sovereignty) legal protection for what it considers a valuable way of life. But what about the abstract proposition that “all men are created equal?” It is just that: an abstraction. Without a moral and religious tradition to interpret it—with all its contingency and particularity—it is entirely empty and cannot serve to guide any conduct whatsoever.

Consider the metric system. The length and weight of anything in die universe can be measured with it. Further, the connection between a meter and 100 centimeters is “unalienable.” Yet the system cannot actually measure anything until we know how long a meter is. A meter could be the length of Napoleon’s left hand or the length of Josephine’s favorite hairpin: In either case, it would equal 100 centimeters. To know the length of the standard meter, we must accept a story told by authority about the selection, by authorities, of a particular iridium bar encased in Paris. Not even in the rationalistic metric system can we escape the contingencies and particularities of tradition. Philosophers may prove God’s existence through self-evident argument, but we still need the biblical and Church tradition as the guide to man’s relation to Cod.

The same is true of the abstract natural rights of the Declaration. To say, as liberals on the left and right tirelessly do, that America is an “idea” rather than a culture, or that ours is a “proposition country,” is like saying that the metric system is not like other systems of measurement (which have a traditionally determined standard of measurement), but instead is merely an idea or set of abstract principles. It is always morally corrupting to think we are guided by what is, in fact, impossible.

The Framers were, at times, given to rationalistic language, and Jefferson uses it in the Declaration. But his main object is not the propounding of an abstract proposition but an affirmation of the corporate liberty of 13 states, each with its own particular moral and religious tradition. Jefferson and his contemporaries well understood that the content of natural rights would have its source in those distinct traditions. It would not be until the 1830’s, when the founding generation had died out, that a new, aggressive breed of Americans would appear, bent on centralization and speaking the French revolutionary language of nationalism. They reconceived the abstract natural rights of the Declaration as standing on their own, and used them (with all the arbitrariness that empty abstractions allow) to destroy die moral and religious traditions of those very states the Declaration had said should be independent.