It is common among our political elites and pundits to link the Declaration of Independence with Abraham Lincoln, who found in it the ground and telos of the American nation: the Enlightenment doctrine that all individuals are endowed with rights that precede and are independent of any political society. To define these rights, we must bracket out all political tradition, because tradition is grounded in inherited authority, not in rational choice. Since a rational man is governed only by those rules he has imposed on himself, he must free himself from the prejudices, biases, myths, and superstitions of tradition. Only through an heroic act of philosophical reflection that logically (if not psychologically) brackets out these prejudices can he see things clearly. The free mind—the truly rational mind—is one that has collected itself within a philosophical vacuum untainted by the prejudices and contingencies of tradition.
Inside the philosophical vacuum, the rational man discovers that he is endowed with inalienable “natural rights” to life, liberty, and property. Upon entering political society, these rights can be restricted—but only with the individual’s consent, or that of his freely chosen representatives. Lincoln, though unread in philosophy, had absorbed the rationalism of his age: “Happy day, when all . . . matters subjected, mind, all conquering mind, shall live and move the monarch of the world. Glorious consummation! Hail . . . Reign of Reason, all hail!”
Though fashionable, this rationalist philosophy of natural rights cannot be the guiding principle of the American regime, because it requires conditions that cannot be satisfied in any regime. Jeremy Bentham was right to describe the theory of natural rights as “nonsense on stilts.” First, the principles of natural rights formed in the philosopher’s vacuum are abstract and indeterminate. Without a tradition to give them content, they are empty and cannot guide political conduct of any kind. Second, in attempting to apply them, there is always a sense of arbitrariness and self-deception. This is inevitable because, being abstract and indeterminate, the principles need content, but the thinker can provide it only by smuggling in some favorite part of tradition, while passing the principles off as the work of pure reason independent of tradition. Consequently, the Enlightenment notion of reason is irrational: The principles formed in the philosopher’s vacuum are either empty or arbitrary.
For example, the metric system is an abstract rational system that can be used to measure anything in the universe. Yet it cannot be a guide to measurement unless we know how long a meter is. And this, the abstract system cannot tell us. The length of the standard meter was a particular iridium bar, in a glass case, in a particular building in Paris. The length of that particular iridium bar was decided upon by certain authorities in a tradition. From the philosopher’s vacuum, the length must appear arbitrary. Why couldn’t it be the length of the king’s foot or the circumference of the Duke d’Orléans’ belly? The meter would still have 100 centimeters.
Or, to take another example: God, as Creator, requires our obedience to His will, which is transcendent and timeless. Yet we cannot properly know what the will of God is without becoming a loyal, diligent, and critical participant in a particular biblical tradition. Aristotle said there is no justice outside the polis. In saying this, he did not deny that justice is transcendent and timeless; yet he thought it could not be known, rationally explored, and enjoyed outside the tradition of the polis.
For the same reason, there is no scientific knowledge of the physical world outside the tradition of scientific inquiry. To become a scientist is to offer oneself as an apprentice to master craftsmen in a tradition. At the dawn of the modern era, there were those who thought that science could not progress unless it, too, conformed to principles framed in the philosopher’s vacuum. Just as natural rights are grasped through philosophic reason apart from a political tradition, Descartes thought that science had to free itself from scientific tradition and begin with absolutely certain principles. What Descartes, and all rationalists, do not understand is that certainty and justification are only achieved after rigorous inquiry by skillful and loyal participants in a tradition.
There are, and can be, no “natural rights” independent of tradition. Rights serve human interests and cannot be justified apart from a moral and political tradition informed by a vision of the human good. The natural-rights doctrine is a philosophic superstition. The members of a society, however, might mistakenly believe such rights exist and act in accord with that erroneous belief—but this would be corrupting. It is always corrupting to act in accord with principles that specify impossible conditions.
Such a society would be poisoned by massive resentment. Natural rights are not ideals of the human good that people might strive to achieve as an athlete strives to achieve a higher excellence; they are rights that everyone already has but which are not being recognized. And, no matter how far it expands the scope of individual rights, such a society can always be seen as hypocritical and a failure. In our society, many have seen the Declaration of Independence as a lie, because its writers did not recognize equal rights for women and the African population. Still others have found the Declaration to be a lie in acknowledging only negative rights (the right to be left alone in respect of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) as opposed to positive rights (the right to acquire, at public expense, those things—health, education, property—necessary to pursue happiness). Latter-day Lincolnians insist that the Declaration allows only negative liberty. But why can’t positive liberty, as well as negative liberty, be found in the philosopher’s vacuum? With a little logical ingenuity and sufficient lack of shame, there is no end to what can be demanded by “natural rights.”
A society obsessed with the philosophic fiction of natural rights necessarily encourages egoism and an ethic of autonomy—that the individual should be governed only by those rules he has imposed on himself. Such an ethic hollows out the substance of an inherited moral and political tradition, and people eventually lose the practical knowledge of how to behave.
Members of a society educated to believe that its ground and telos is the pursuit of natural rights will not acquire the virtues necessary to gain a connoisseur’s understanding of their own moral tradition and how to reform it. Policy will be determined by merely deducing theorems from the natural-rights axioms framed in the philosopher’s vacuum.
The ethic of choice making favored by natural-rights theory cannot stand on its own, though it does contain a grain of truth (as all philosophical superstitions do). For it is not mere abstract choices that we desire but meaningful choices, and those require the background of an inherited tradition. Stripped of one’s culture, choice making loses its magic—and, certainly, its claim to be the ground and measuring rod of moral and political authority.
Belief in natural rights, if relentlessly pursued, generates self-deception, permanent resentment, and self-imposed ignorance about one’s tradition and how to reform it to achieve a higher degree of human excellence. Such a society must eventually hollow out its inherited moral substance and go mad. This, however, seldom occurs, because no one can really believe in natural rights. Some favorite part of one’s tradition is always smuggled in (often unknowingly) to give content to what would otherwise be a vacuous principle. Whenever the favored principle is threatened by the claim that it violates someone’s natural rights, the philosophical fundamentalist suddenly retreats from his position of transcendence and produces an argument from circumstances. We are now told that natural rights cannot be applied without considering circumstances. So, how do we decide which circumstances can legitimately suppress my natural rights? The theory itself cannot give an answer, for circumstances were purged from the vacuum. Hence, the sense of arbitrariness and consequent resentment.
One must wonder how seriously Americans who approved the Declaration in 1776 believed in the philosophical theory of natural rights. It is also worth observing that the Constitution ratified in 1789 does not mention rights at all (except for “copyrights”). The ten amendments added to it were designed primarily to protect the corporate rights of the states, not the natural rights of individuals. The states wrote individual rights into their constitutions in accord with their distinct moral and political traditions.
It was Lincoln’s war to crush the right of self-government in 11 American states, and the rhetoric he used to justify it, that introduced the philosophical superstition of natural rights as the goal and ground of an American nation-state. America, Lincoln famously said, is a country “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Since the rights of all men are the same everywhere in the world, the American tradition of a federation among sovereign states had to be eliminated, in favor of an all-powerful centralized regime. One cannot have different states giving different and conflicting interpretations of “the proposition.”
Not only is Lincoln the rhetorical father of natural rights as the telos of a would-be American nation, he is also a perfect specimen of the syndrome of corruption, resentment, hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and self-deception to which the doctrine inevitably leads. In his speeches, Lincoln presented the conflict as a titanic struggle between two abstract moral and philosophical principles—between those who think slavery is “RIGHT” and those who think it is “WRONG.” (Lincoln used those capital letters.) Lincoln presents himself and his party as taking the side of freedom, and Southerners as taking the side of slavery. This is not the language of a great statesman but of one calling forth the passions of hate and fear. Such rhetoric is a baneful part of the Lincoln legacy and animates the work of Straussians such as Harry Jaffa, who see traditional political theorists such as John C. Calhoun and M.E. Bradford as Nazis because their words were not adequately shaped by “the proposition.”
Such rhetoric is possible only in the heroic moment of natural rights as it transcends all tradition. But then, Lincoln was also a participant in the American political tradition, in which most everyone, including abolitionists, agreed that America is a white European polity. Neither the African population nor the Indians were to be social and political equals. The constitution of Lincoln’s own state of Illinois prohibited the entrance of free blacks and mulattos. Those already in the state were not citizens; they could not vote, serve on juries, or testify against white people. Similar restrictions existed in other Northern states. Lincoln fully supported these oppressive codes. “I am not,” he said, “nor have ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” This Negrophobia was as firmly planted in New England; the policy of New Englanders was to rid themselves of the African population they acquired when they were masters of the slave trade. New England’s best and brightest, Ralph Waldo Emerson, thought that innate inferiority doomed blacks to extinction: “[T]he black man declines. . . . It will happen by & by, that the black man will only be destined for museums like the Dodo.”
In his first presidential campaign, Lincoln, who had not done anything in his own state to relieve the oppression of blacks, suddenly made an issue of opposing the extension of slavery into the western territories. (This was an imaginary horror since, in 1860, the total number of slaves in the western territories, where slavery could have expanded, was 17.) It was rank hypocrisy: What Lincoln really wished to do was prohibit the entrance of free blacks into the western territories, which, he insisted, “should be kept open for the homes of free white people.” “Is it not rather our duty,” he asked, “to make labor more respectable by preventing all black competition, especially in the territories?”
Lincoln’s own final solution to the problem of slavery was deportation of the entire black population. In 1857, he supported a bill to deport the Negroes of Illinois. Deportation would free America, he said, from the “troublesome presence of free Negroes.” As President, he looked all over the Western Hemisphere for land on which to colonize them. He even considered deporting them to Texas and Florida. Northwestern states, of course, were off the table.
Lincoln’s retreat from heroic natural-rights transcendence to the special-pleading prisoner of circumstances is captured in the following passage, in which “dedication to the proposition” is united with Negrophobia:
Negroes have natural rights . . . as other men have, although they cannot enjoy them here, and even Taney once said that “the Declaration of Independence was broad enough for all men.” But though it does not declare that all men are equal in their attainments or social position, yet no sane man will attempt to deny that the African upon his own soil has all the natural rights that instrument vouchsafes to all mankind.
There we have it: To enjoy those “natural rights” that belong to men as men and that cannot be alienated by tradition, circumstances, or positive law, blacks must be deported to Africa.
Robert E. Lee freed his slaves not because he was “dedicated to the proposition” but because, as he put it, “slavery is unchristian.” This disposition was found in many leaders of the Confederacy. If left alone, slavery would have been abolished in a reasonable time. Practical circumstances were such that extending bourgeois individual rights to an African population only two generations from tribal existence would have been difficult anywhere in the West. It would have required statesmanship, patience, good will, social stability, and economic prosperity. Lincoln’s brutal invasion achieved an emancipation under the worst possible conditions: killing 25 percent of Southern men of military age; waging a scorched-earth war against civilians; destroying 60 percent of the region’s capital; and making it a debtor region and an exploited colony of the United States for a century.
The philosophic doctrine of natural rights is not only a fertile ground for hypocrisy; it also occludes evil. Lord Acton described Lincoln’s invasion as an “awful crime.” But he had a perfect alibi. He was “dedicated to the proposition.” In the 1950’s, Camus sardonically observed that the flags flying over the Soviet gulags were the flags of human emancipation. Marxism, too, was “dedicated” to a proposition about universal human emancipation.
The Declaration of Independence is a secession document. Its first sentence declares a severing of the “bands” that had connected one “people” to another. The entities declaring a right to secede from Britain were not individuals but political societies. The Declaration’s author, Thomas Jefferson, believed in individual rights, and he was inclined toward the rationalism I have criticized. But he thought these rights were best defined and protected, not by a centralized unitary state (as Lincoln did), but by a federal system of competing jurisdictions. Each state would have its own tradition of common law. And because the states are sovereign (contra Lincoln), they can protect their moral and political traditions by nullifying unconstitutional acts of the central government. It was Jefferson who introduced the concept of state “nullification” into legal discourse in the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 (as well as those of 1799, where the word first appears). Although Jefferson always sought to preserve the Union, he never regarded it as more than an instrument to protect the moral and political traditions of the several states. Concerning past and present New England secession movements, he wrote, in 1816, “If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation . . . to continuance in union . . . I have no hesitation in saying, ‘let us separate.’”
For Lincoln, however, the Union was an end in itself, and the states, a mere means to that end—which is why he did not hesitate in brutally crushing those that sought to exercise their sovereignty. Like a worker in black magic, Lincoln conjured out of the Declaration a French Revolution-style unitary state—the very sort of entity from which the colonial representatives, in signing the Declaration, sought to free themselves. Few things reveal more clearly the deep fracture and incoherence of the American political tradition than that our political elites, following the Great Emancipator, think of the Declaration as a philosophical statement authorizing a nation-state endowed with the mission of establishing individual autonomy.