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Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Perhaps I do not go too far when I say that, next to the introduction of Christianity among mankind, the American revolution may prove the most important step in the progressive course of improvement. It is an event which may produce a general diffusion of the principles of humanity, and become the means of setting free mankind from the shackles of superstition and tyranny, by leading them to see and know 'that nothing is fundamental but impartial enquiry, an honest mind, and virtuous practice, that state policy ought not to be applied to the support of speculative opinions and formularies of faith'. 'That the members of a civil community are confederates not subjects, and their rulers, servants not masters. And that all legitimate government consists in the dominion of equal laws made with common consent, that is, in the dominion of men over themselves, and not in the dominion of communities over communities, or of any men over other men.' – Richard Price, Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution and The Means of making it a Benefit to the World, 1785


Perhaps nothing is as comic, in Bush America, than the idea that the United States was founded on religious principles.

Only among a people who have been taught nothing about their own history, and are proudly ignorant of anybody else’s, could an idea like this be paraded around like a circus geek, performing its astonishing feats in the outlying provinces (Alabama, Mississippi, etc.)

In fact, it is easy to see how this molding of rank prejudice into factual claims could only happen in a state like Alabama, which officially voted, in the last election, that the State has no obligation to provide an education for its citizenry, and which would certainly vote down any politician who possessed the beliefs of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, or Benjamin Franklin “right quick.” As in so many of the Red states, the preservation of the yahoo like fantasies of the average citizen is considered to be the first duty of the government. The reality principle, whether it consists of evolution or the fact that eventually, a government has to pay for its services through taxation, is devoutly to be skirted, or even derided.

In 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was written, there existed no state in Europe that did not claim the sanction of being a Christian commonwealth. From the Calvinists of Geneva to the Bourbons in Paris, the legitimacy of state power was expressly dependent upon an official belief in divine history.

This is what is unique about the Declaration’s God. “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” The trumpet flourish of Nature’s God makes it clear from the outset that this is not the God of the fathers – this is not, in fact, God the Father at all. This is God as the ultimate variable. Freeing the populace to fill in that variable had the meaning that Richard Price, the dissenting minister we quoted above, recognized and welcomed.

Price, you will recall, was the immediate stimulus to Burke’s Considerations on the French Revolution. Under that gorgeous onslaught, Price rather disappeared, into footnote status. But during his lifetime he was connected with a network of English radicals, including Joseph Priestly, who recognized, in the features of the American Revolution, the great emergence of a secular civil society.

The break, of course, though large, retained some of the oppressive legacy of the past – notably the notion that there were such things as nature’s laws. One must remember that the Declaration faces two ways. One way is the official separation from a Christian commonwealth, Great Britain. The other way is to the official sanction on a society that imported slaves and held its territory in the very blood of the Indians it slaughtered. Here, the sanction of Nature’s Law was, a flimsy disguise for the arbitrary exercize of power.

Yet the beauty of the Declaration is the tension between the two functions it assumes. By granting human events an autonomous history, Jefferson actually losens the iron and oppressive grip of natural law. It is a breach that will only get wider as human events sweep us into an ever more human world, one from which we chase even the last God – Natura. Rather than a brooding, protective spirit, Nature can well become, as happens in the next century with Darwin, an infinite series of games.

In fact, there were hints that this was so even in 1776. Remember, that date marks not only the writing of the Declaration, but also the publication of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, which rediscovered, seventeen hundred years after St. Paul, the unknown God. This one consists of only one attribute : an invisible hand.


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