Michael Anton raises several good points in his brief against Brion McClanahan’s assault on the 1776 Commission and that commission’s yoking of universal equality with the American founding. Anton is perfectly correct that state declarations of the rights of citizens drafted during or after the American Revolution incorporate the natural right phraseology of the Declaration of Independence. Thus, the attempt by members of the Old Right, including Willmoore Kendall (whom I usually follow in these matters), to downplay natural rights language in the American Founding is open to question.
Anton is also right that at least several of America’s founders opposed slavery in principle, even if such a theoretical opponent as Thomas Jefferson only freed a small number of his slaves. It is of course also true that Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) wished to send the emancipated slaves out of his state because of what he thought were intractable differences between the races. Like the signers of the Declaration who went along with what the Claremont Institute understands as the authoritative passage in that document (and not all members of the Continental Congress approved of that wording), we are supposed to assume that all human beings have inalienable rights to life and liberty.
But that did not mean that for the founders “all men” were equally entitled to citizenship or that all human beings were equally fit to exercise that right. Certainly, Jefferson, even as a critic of slavery, did not believe that blacks were able to do so in the foreseeable future; and I doubt that many members of the Continental Congress were ready to extend the vote to women. The reason is not that the founders were not as enlightened as Michael Anton and the 1776 Commission. They simply understood the right to life and liberty as stopping with that right and not requiring the full panoply of civil and other rights that our modern political and educational leaders attach to the notion of equality.
In Novus Ordo Seclorum, Forrest McDonald offers a detailed analysis of what educated 18th-century Americans understood by equality. Looking at five general usages of that term, several of which were derived from the politics and epistemology of John Locke, McDonald concludes that equality for most of the founders “did not necessarily imply a conflict with the institution of slavery.” According to McDonald, few people of that generation went as far as Alexander Hamilton, who assumed the “blacks would prove to be intellectually and socially equal to whites,” given the proper conditions and a long enough apprenticeship. Although Jefferson “trembled” with fear of divine retribution when he contemplated the evil of slavery in 1776, “few of his countrymen trembled with him.”
What may be argued, however, is that certain convictions held by the founders, e.g., belief in a shared moral sense and the equal dignity of all human beings before a Divine master, would have led them over time into a stronger anti-slavery stance. But this is different from ascribing to these figures an anguished preoccupation with the injustice of slavery. Please note that Lincoln before the Civil War opposed slavery but did not wish to grant full rights of citizenship to freed blacks. Like other members of the American Colonization Society, Lincoln was hoping that the emancipated blacks could be resettled somewhere other than in the United States. The restricted concept of equality that most early American leaders accepted was not as expansive as the one that Harry Jaffa or Michal Anton would like us to accept. It was far more limited in scope.
* The imaging that there was a founding based on two sentences in a document (the Declaration), a fall from grace, and a redemption under Lincoln is a religion.
The Declaration was not intended to be a founding document. It was a plea for help from other nations. Jefferson tells us what the Declaration was in his 1825 letter to Henry Lee. The Declaration is not what Jaffa and his students imagine it to be.
There was no founding. America grew organically from the mainly English settlements.
* The problem with ‘all men are created equal’ is how to cash out that value without destroying every community standard or even normalcy itself.
‘All men are created equal’ means in practice that any individual can imagine an ‘inequality’ and demand it’s correction.
This is why ‘conservatives’ cannot say ‘No’ to any aspect of the equalitarian Left and make it stick.
Now conservatives are pro-transsexualism because ‘equality’ now includes the equal right o decide one’s sex and to demand the necessary medical interventions to remove the ‘chains’ of ‘natural sex’.
* All men are created equal means we share a common humanity, shared general characteristics that impose upon all of us – within the limits of our particular endowments – similar obligations to think and support ourselves. From this equality comes an equality of the individual rights we require to sustain our lives within a functioning society. There is absolutely nothing in this concept that requires treating any inequality as an injustice requiring correction and thus ample opportunity to say no to the left, at least by those who actually understand the principles properly.
* The natural rights of every individual, following Locke, exists in a state of nature prior to government and the so-called civil rights that government brings to those within its jurisdiction. Of these natural rights, property rights, is the right which distinguishes us from the political left.
The “civil rights” legislation of the 1960s violated property rights just as Jim Crow did. Some opponents of Jim Crow, as you remember, opposed the new Civil Rights laws precisely on those grounds.
When I read an essay by a conservative that doesn’t revolve around the concept of property rights, I wonder what good are conservative intellectuals and how are they going to help us revive our founding principles.