(Ron Knecht) – “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.”
Those are the last lines of the Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 2, 1776. The technology of the day – hand-writing in cursive – delayed the final copies until July 4.
Then, John Hancock, President of the congress and governor of Massachusetts, signed first, affixing his large bold signature just below those noble lines in the middle of the space. Tradition says he wanted to send the King of Great Britain a message by signing in that spot and large enough for him to read without his glasses.
Amid recreation, bright sun, BBQ, beer, fireworks and music with friends and family, the noble and ringing phrases of the Founders will be celebrated this week, as usual. Further, throughout the year, when people debate politics or argue law, they almost inevitably invoke the words, intentions and principles left to us by the Founders.
One may reasonably ask: Is this appeal to history and tradition, the Great Men and the Noble Principles really justified? Isn’t it mostly ancestor worship and empty civic religion? After all, many of the Founders were slave owners and had other shortcomings. And the Constitution, our other revered founding document, even provided for continuation of that awful institution.
Some folks – President Woodrow Wilson was an early one over a century ago – even suggest the world has changed so much that the Founding principles are now obsolete and should be replaced by a living, breathing constitution. That is, one determined by the wisdom and virtue of modern judges who are not accountable to the people via election.
Some folks even suggest we trash statues of many Founders, and they cast aspersions upon principles the Founders enunciated.
My own view is the Founders as a group were a remarkably brilliant, inspired, noble lot who deliberated, discovered wisdom and took brave action based on history (their own and other), insight, logic and profound thought.
Whether one agrees with that assessment doesn’t matter for two reasons. First, time has shown that the principles they set down are superior in general to all other alternatives for civil government. Second, the living constitution of progressives violates the essential requirement for human wellbeing and flourishing: the rule of law.
The Founders virtues? Even today’s mostly politically correct historians have voted John Adams and Thomas Jefferson the smartest presidents ever. Bitter rivals in their prime, they later became fast friends and, both dying on July 4, 1826, each took comfort that the other still lived.
Franklin, the grand old polymath was who, among many other things, held these two together as a three-person committee to draft the Declaration. Washington was the great leader who not only guided the troops to victory in the hardest and most uncertain conditions, but later declined to be king and modestly retired after two terms as president. Madison was merely the Constitution’s main author and, with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, wrote The Federalist Papers.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
While Wilson and other progressives disdained the Constitution and thought their modern wisdom and virtue superior to the Founding principles and institutions, they were wrong. The implementation of their living constitution and other shibboleths the last 130 years have been a disaster.
We now know the following are important for maximizing aggregate human wellbeing and fairness: the rule of law; constitutionally limited government; separation of powers between national, regional and local units; separation of functional powers at each level of government; individual sovereignty and personal liberty; individual rights, not group rights; strong property rights; and high levels of economic freedom.
Those are things the Founders left us.
Finally, if we don’t have a fixed set of principles and standards, but instead are at the mercy of impulses of progressive judges, we lack them most basic fairness of having truly the rule of law, not men.
So, this week celebrate the Fourth and thank the Founders for our principles and institutions. Many of them indeed paid with their lives and fortunes.
Ron Knecht has served Nevada as state controller, a higher education regent, college teacher, legislator and economist. Contact him at RonKnecht@aol.com.