The Declaration of Independence - Part 1


Dr. Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College, and Hugh Hewitt discuss the Declaration of Independence.


HH: That music means it is the last radio hour of the week and time for the Hillsdale Dialogue. For the past many years, Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College and I have given over the last radio hour of the week to bigger things, to the history of Western Civilization, of course, occasionally politics of the moment will intrude. But we began with Homer, and we are today up to July 4th, 1776. We begin a series on the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitutional Convention, the Federalist Papers and the Constitution itself, as well as the ratifying conventions, which play their role. Dr. Arnn, good morning to you. How are you?

LA: I’m very well. How are you doing?

HH: I’m great. Now you are new to this material. (laughing)

LA: (laughing)

HH: Your book, The Founders’ Key, covers all of this. And how long have you been studying the Declaration, Dr. Arnn? When did it first occur to you that it was more than a 4th of July tribute?

LA: Well, I, so I can remember my education, because it has dates on it, right? So I first took a class by somebody who understood it, concerning the Declaration of Independence, in 1973.

HH: Wow. Who was that person?

LA: His name is Jeffrey Wallin, and he was the man, he’s the reason why I’m not like you, ignorant lawyer.

HH: (laughing)

LA: (laughing)

HH: Who is this man? And why did he destroy our profession? Why, you could be out toiling at $600 or $700 dollars an hour. Instead, you’re an academic in Michigan.

LA: Well, Jeffrey Wallin was a student, as I am, of Harry Jaffa, the late Harry Jaffa, and he was teaching in Arkansas where I grew up. And I was forced to take a class by him. And I even tried to use my credential as an excellent student to get the requirement waived.

HH: Oh.

LA: I didn’t want to study political philosophy. I thought it was stupid. I didn’t know what it was, but I thought it was stupid. Can you see how cocky I was?

HH: Oh, and was this the University of Arkansas?

LA: No, Arkansas State.

HH: Arkansas State. They don’t even have football there, I don’t think. And so there is a political philosophy requirement at Arkansas State?

LA: Well, that was a long time ago.

HH: You bet it was.

LA: I don’t know, I doubt if there is now. But it was, I did hear the other day that somebody I know from Arkansas, a boyhood friend, knows people in the department at Arkansas State University, and they apparently don’t like me. So…

HH: (laughing) Why, they’re, you know, I like to tell people I’ve got two schools on my resume – Harvard and the University of Michigan, and I have never been invited onto the campus of either of them. (laughing)

LA: (laughing)

HH: And so it’s kind of amazing. I get invited all over the place, give commencements and speeches, but not to my alma maters. They are not approving of my political ideology. So why is the document, which is an act of state, actually, also an act of political theory?

LA: Well, that’s, so it’s unique being both those things. That, last night at an event here in Georgia, where I am right now, I introduced the great David McCullough, who has written beautifully about this.

HH: Oh, wow.

LA: And I really love that guy. And he made the point, which John Adams, about whom he’s written a beautiful biography made first, and that is we’re going to have a birthday in this country. And just think for a minute. When was England born? When was France born? You know, they, it’s lost back in the mist of time when there was, there was a day when there was a France, there was a day before when there wasn’t one. But what is that day? And so we have a birthday, and we have reasons to have the nation. And they’re listed out, and it is a formal legislative enactment. It makes the country. And some people don’t like that, but there it stands. And because it’s, because of the nature of the case, when you think about that for just a second, on what authority would you found a country? What kind of authority would you need, because at the moment of the founding, you don’t have any laws.

HH: Correct.

LA: So where do you get them? And they get them in one of the most famous phrases in all of political history, in the laws of nature and of nature’s God.

HH: And we’re going to read that preamble in just a second, but I want to set up a little bit. You mentioned David McCullough. One of his many great books is simply titled 1776. I used to make my law students read it, because they don’t understand how close run a thing 1776 was. It was not, this was not an exercise in a debating society. It wasn’t a Congressional shutdown like the Democrats are going to force next week. It isn’t a legislative act. It’s actually a revolutionary act, which also makes it quite different from anything else in our history.

LA: Well, there’s a body count piling up. And so you know, George Washington has an army in the field, and 1776 was a bitter and difficult year, and only the Declaration of Independence in that year and the Battle of Princeton and Trenton at the end of the year provided any bright spots at all. And so these guys in there who at the end of the Declaration make their personal pledge of their fortunes, lives and sacred honor, they have reason to feel fear for their lives. They, a writ has been issued by the commanding general of the British forces in North America for their arrest. Their names are on a list. And if they are found, the charge will be, probably, treason. And they’ll probably be exported to England to face trial for their lives.

HH: And not long ago…

LA: So they all know that. They all know that.

HH: I was watching, I was flying across the country and watching my neighbor’s movie. He was watching Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, which is a remarkable movie. It’s not correct about Tarleton completely, but it brings home the fact that these are life and death matters, and that the Brits have dispatched some Hessians, and they have dispatched some nasty characters to put down the rebellion. And they’re very good at putting down rebellions. They put down rebellions in a lot of places across their vast empire for a long period of time. So to go to the Continental Congress is itself a dangerous thing. But then to sign this, there’s no getting away from it after you sign this thing.

LA: That’s right. It is an act of treason, and that’s how it’s viewed. You know, the king gave two answers to it. He gave an address from the throne later in the year in which he addressed this situation created by the Declaration of Independence, and refuted many of its main points, and that was wholly ineffective. He passed at the Siege of Boston later in the year. The Mayor, General Washington’s forces had seized the British forces in Boston, which were suckered by their navy in the harbor, and he got guns up on top which he captured from Fort Ticonderoga. And Washington’s army, while the seize was underway, was melting away, because their enlistments were up. And then the king caused his answer to the Declaration of Independence in an address from the throne to be distributed across the lines thinking this will tell them that I’m their kindly monarch, and they have to do what I say, but I’m going to take care of them, which is the burden of his argument. And everybody read that, and then the reenlistments just zoomed.

HH: Yeah.

LA: They thought oh, this is what this guy thinks? And so that’s a proof that the army agreed with the Declaration of Independence. And so that’s, and you know, that means it’s a philosophic document, but it’s also a war proclamation.

HH: Let me begin with the preamble. In Congress, July 4th, 1776, the unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America, 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 separation. So Jefferson’s pretty good at this.

LA: (laughing) Yeah, and put forward by John Adams, who was, you know, himself a brilliant human being whose Massachusetts Constitution is one of the best constitutions ever written anywhere in the world. But he saw a lot of things in Jefferson, who was his lifelong friend, it would turn out, and his lifelong enemy. They just took turns about that.

HH: (laughing)

LA: But he saw in Jefferson a genius. Jefferson was quiet, a reticent kind of man with a lot of dignity that was easy to offend. And it was cause him to fall silent. And Jefferson was a southerner. And he was from Virginia, you know, where they all come from. And Adams is from Boston. And the big scenes of action have been in Boston. That’s where the fighting had been. That’s where the prosecutions had been. That’s where the dead were. And so Massachusetts, a big state like Virginia, and you know, you think about colonial times, the big states were New York, Massachusetts and Virginia, slightly lesser extent, Pennsylvania. And then the others were small states, which would matter when we get to the Constitution. So Adams is looking for friends, and he turns out to be, of course, one of the shrewdest political calculators in history. And he recommends Jefferson to write the document. And that changed the nature of the document, because Jefferson can really write. And he, I don’t know if you want me to do this, but I have to, because it’s too great. In the pamphlet war, because the American Revolution really starts in 1763.

HH: Hold that. We’ll come back and we’ll start with the pamphlet work after the break with Dr. Larry Arnn. We’re talking for the next many weeks about the founding documents that still drive us, or ought to, to this day. The Founders’ Key, Dr. Larry Arnn, the author, the president of Hillsdale College. All things Hillsdale at Stay tuned, America.

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HH: And we begin with the Declaration of Independence, but as Dr. Arnn was saying before break, we actually have to go back to the pamphlet war of 1763. Would you explain, Dr. Arnn?

LA: Well, in 1763, the British and the American colonists won a big war, which they called the Seven Years War, and the colonists mostly called the French and Indian War. And now, they’re, you know, the longboat wars between Britain and France which had gone on for 150, 200 years already, and well, longer than that, really, and would go on until after Napoleon. This is a big episode. And now the British are masters of North America, pretty much. And so they decide to regulate it. And these colonies are 150 years old now, and they say wait, who are you? And so you know, the Stamp Tax and the Tea Tax, and all those famous episodes where they dump the tea in the harbor and all that, and refuse to pay the stamp tax, those are new departures for British administration of North America, and the colonists don’t like it. And they object. And these objections start appearing in pamphlets, and the pamphlets intensify. And they really do rise over time, both in intensity and to elevated levels of principle. And Thomas Jefferson qualifies himself to write the Declaration of Independence by a document he published two years earlier called A Summary View of the Rights of British North America, which had very little effect. It’s actually a long, complicated argument, except for this passage which I’ll read to you now, which comes at the end of the document. And it’s a different way to address the king. “We have thus laid before His Majesty our grievances with that freedom of language and sentiment which becomes a free people claiming their rights as derived from the laws of nature and not as the gift of their chief magistrate. Let those flatter who fear. It is not an American art to give praise where it is not due, might be well from the venal, but would ill be seen those who are asserting the rights of human nature. They know, and will therefore say, that kings are the servants, not the proprietors of the people. Open your breast, sire, to liberal and expanded thought. Let not the name of George III be a blot in the page of history.” That’s Tom Jefferson.

HH: And do you think the king reads this? Or is it just so much noise from across the ocean?

LA: Well, we know he read the Declaration of Independence.

HH: Right.

LA: And we know his counselors were reading these things, but they couldn’t get it right over there. And you know, the British empire, you know, was not, it was not a thing at that time that conformed to the Declaration of Independence, although Winston Churchill would later conceive it so. But it wasn’t the worst of them by any means. And one of the reasons it was successful was that it was mostly moderate, relatively speaking, compared to the other imperial administrations. But this particular administration, because they had in the Parliament Burke and Pitt, you know, very famous, great, wonderful guys, And they were friends of the American Revolution.

HH: Burke, the most eloquent one.

LA: They wanted to moderate…

HH: Burke, incredibly always trying to diffuse what was becoming the revolutionary moment.

LA: That’s right. And those are, you know, among the greatest people in the world, right, and in history, even. And they are not in the administration. They’re critics of these guys, North and Townshend and people like that, and you know, they send Ben Franklin over to, because you know, we’re having trouble. We can’t get on terms with these guys in London, whoever they are, is sort of the way they think over, you know, in the free world as they refer to it. And so they send Ben Franklin, who’s a very flexible human being, extremely good at, you know, talking people into stuff. And so they think we’ll send him over there, and he proved to be very effectively later with the French, ineffective with the British. And he sits down with the cabinet, and they basically say to him you are the children, and we are the mother country, and you have to do what we say. And that’s the only thing to talk about. And Franklin writes back to the Congress, there’s going to be a war.

HH: He knew it, and we will come back and talk about the war’s legal beginning when we return to the Hillsdale hour, the Hillsdale Dialogue, on the Hugh Hewitt Show. Stay tuned.

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HH: Let me intrude with two quick current events, Dr. Arnn. The Washington Post and I are going back and forth on fact checking, and I am arguing that President Trump’s legislative outpouring in the first 100 days has not been exceeded in substantive impact since FDR because of the Congressional Review Act repeals. I’m wondering what your opinion of that is.

LA: Well, they’re, so what we’re, what’s happening is the press is now watching the sausage being made with a critical eye, which they don’t do when more friendly administrations are in power. But Trump has been very aggressive, and the Congress has been relatively aggressive. And I do think that the Congress needs to do something, and I think it will, but it needs to do it before the end of the year for sure. But what they, you know, Trump is rearticulating how the bureaucracy works.

HH: Yes.

LA: And seeking massively to cut it back.

HH: And these CRA repeals bar the door to the agencies returning to the ground. They can’t fight over the same ground again, because the CRA bars it to them. And that’s incredibly important on things like the gun control regulations, on things like the corporate accountability rules, on things like control of Hawaiian outback. It’s an amazing amount of productivity. Much of the credit goes to Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell, but he signed them.

LA: That’s right, and he called for them. And they’re of a piece with things that Trump has been saying since the 90s and all through the campaign, and that is we’ve got a government run away. And understand the point, oh listener. It’s not what you think about these particular substantive issues that are affected by these things. It’s a question of how do you want the laws of the United States of America to be made?

HH: Correct.

LA: Because there’s just, this administrative state where almost all, I mean, I think last year, last year is a typical year, and it probably is, because for 200 years, it’s been about the same, Congress passed somewhere between 80 and 200 bills last year that got signed into law. But in the last year of the Obama administration, 81,000 pages, a record, was added to the federal register.

HH: That’s amazing.

LA: Now where did that come from?

HH: Yeah.

LA: And Trump and the Congress are trying to do something about that. And it’s not what you think the smog standards should be. It’s where you think they should be enacted.

HH: Articulated, yeah, enacted and enforced.

LA: And that, and should they be enacted by representatives for whom the people vote as the Constitution says? Or should they be enacted in a faceless, huge bureaucracy.

HH: And that brings me back to the Declaration, though I’m going to veer back for a second here in a moment. The Declaration is the ultimate act of accountability. They signed their names to a treasonous document. They are, they are really putting, what do they say at the end? They’re pledging their lives, right, as opposed to the nameless, faceless document.

LA: That’s right.

HH: Nothing could be further from an administrative act rule making than the Declaration of Independence.

LA: Yeah. And the document to which they signed their name, remember, you know, forget by today’s standard that the document is beautiful. The document is actually readable.

HH: Yes. And we’re going to come back and do that in a second. The second thing, though, I want to ask you about, and it goes to these men in 1776, and they’re all men, because of course, the nature of the times, are being very articulate and very specific, and they are understood as they intend to be understood, and they use colloquialisms occasionally. Judge, Attorney General Sessions, who’s turning out to be a wonderful proponent of first principles, says yesterday in a rhetorical flourish, a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific enjoins an executive order intended to protect the United States in all of its 50 states. He knows Hawaii is a state. He knows it’s a federal judge. But they are creating a controversy over this by attributing to him, I don’t know, some mixture of ignorance and indifference to Hawaii. That’s silly. The rhetorical point is one federal judge far away gets to control Boston and Florida. And I’m sure they made the same argument when one federal judge did the same thing out of Texas with regards to Obama’s executive order.

LA: Yeah, the senator, former senator, Attorney General Sessions, is a brilliant man. Also, he’s really tough.

HH: Yeah, he is.

LA: And so I don’t think he’s going to be very afraid. (laughing)

HH: (laughing) No, he’s going to swat it down. It’s just so annoying. It’s like the Democrats are going to shut down the government next week, and they’re going to blame Trump and the Republicans for shutting down the government next week when they, all he wants is the money to build the wall on which he campaigned and won.

LA: Yeah, yeah.

HH: It’s a central thing that he campaigned on, and they want to delegitimize his win by defunding his approach. And on Twitter, they’re saying oh, he promised to make the Mexicans pay for it, and therefore, that’s not the same thing. It’s a silly argument. We really are, we’ve come a long way from seriousness of 1776, Larry Arnn.

LA: Yeah, and this, if they do shut down the government next week, it’ll be a very interesting experience, because that’s all, all of those politics have unfolded in recent years when the Democrats controlled the White House, and the Republicans were using it as a tactic against them from the Congress. This is not the same situation. And you know, it’s not like Mr. Trump is not going to get a chance to explain what his part of the argument is.

HH: Yeah, and he’s going to use Twitter to explain it. And I think Chuck Schumer, if he shuts down the government over the border wall, is asking to brand their party as soft on terrorism and security at a time when the Champs-Elysees has an AKA shooting on it last night. It’s not a good look. It’s not a good look.

LA: Schumer has been so wonderfully effective so far. I wonder if he’ll do that.

HH: You know, the most important thing of the first 100 days is that Justice Gorsuch is Justice Gorsuch. And he became Justice Gorsuch by a majority vote thanks to Chuck Schumer. We ought to send him roses forever, and Chuck Grassley said yesterday he expect another vacancy, Larry Arnn.

LA: Yeah, yeah. Isn’t that, see, now I know two people who know Chuck Schumer and who regard him as a very nice and fine man, and I do believe that, too. But he is a mighty liberal guy, right? And he has not really been winning shining victories so far.

HH: Now you mentioned earlier how John Adams intuited that he had to have Jefferson draft this for prudential reasons, right? Sometimes, you take a step backwards in order to move your cause forward. Chuck Schumer just keeps moving backwards.

LA: (laughing)

HH: (laughing) We’re going to, I’m waiting for the advance and the turnaround to begin. Let’s go back to this preamble, and we’ll go to the, I mean, to the introduction. We’ll come to the preamble next week. It’s going to take us a while to get through this. When in the course of human events, why does a country have to explain itself, Dr. Arnn, the way they say that a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

LA: So first of all, think of the, this is all different than has ever been done before, right? That’s the first thing to absorb. And notice in that part where you said when in the course of human events, and then the readers should go, our listeners should go back and go down and read the last sentence, because the last sentence of particular to these people in this time in this room risking their own lives. But the first sentence is universal. When in the course of human events, any time, see, one people, any people. There are rule, and they apply in all cases, and we are only singular, because we are appealing to those rules. And so that, you see, they need, if they’re going to declare that they’re a country instead of letting the country evolve, which countries have always done, you know, out of some mist of time into something, if they’re going to do that, they need reasons, because there’s, you know, by the end of the day when the document was signed, there was a country that had not been before. And so they, it’s a rhetorical situation that is necessary to them, but is created by the radical nature of their action. We…

HH: And is original, correct? It is the first time that anyone has done this.

LA: That’s right. Very much. And you know, the first time, because it’s been done in later times. The French Revolution in, are very like this, are attempting to be very like this, and not nearly so successful. And, but this is the first time, and it was a terrible struggle. That’s what, you know, this, this is, they’re in the midst of the misery of all this right now when they pass this document. But that misery is going to go on for six more years. And war and difficulty and inability to pay debts, and after they win the war, they can’t really get a peace conference called, because the king still holds them in contempt. And you know, as late as 1792, you know, because after the Declaration, they have to do the Constitution, because the Articles, we’re going to go through them, didn’t work. And so the country is contemptible for most of the lives of these people who did this. But by the end of most of their lives, it’s becoming a great thing, and they get to see that.

HH: The last line to which Dr. Arnn referred is, “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 fortune and our sacred honor.” So it did go from the universal to the very specific. Our lives, our money, our land, our families, right, dispossessed?

LA: That’s right.

HH: Destroyed, and I believe the riches man on the continent is Charles Carroll, and he’s there, and the most significant man on the continent, George Washington, is there, and they’re signing this. It’s really amazing that we infrequently pause to reflect on that. A minute to the break, Dr. Arnn.

LA: Yeah, he, George Washington was out in the field, so he didn’t sign this. But he’s…

HH: Oh, you’re right. I’m sorry.

LA: He’s very much committed to it, and he’s on the list. But that’s right, and you know, John Hancock was rich, and Governor Morris was rich, and Edmund Randolph was rich. And John Carroll was rich. And you know, there’s, and I’m going to forget his name right now, but never mind, I’ll look it up for next week. There’s a, one of the signers from Pennsylvania lived near Philadelphia, and he says to his wife the night before, he says tomorrow, we’re going to declare independence, and she says yes, dear. And he said I’m going to sign the document. And she said yes, dear. And he said we live near the sea. They’re going to take our farm. And she said find us somewhere to go.

HH: Ah. I’ll be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College. We continue to talk about the Declaration of Independence. We’ll lay out or plan when we return. Don’t go anywhere, America.

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HH: Dr. Arnn, I must pause, though, to tell you your friend, the Vice President of the United States, did a great thing last night. He was flying on Air Force Two to Australia. And he mandated that the greatest sports movie ever made, Hoosiers, be played, and the press corps had to watch it.

LA: Yeah.

HH: So the cynical sons of guns in the back had to actually be inspired by Gene Hackman and a story of the Hoosier boys that actually occurred. I love that the Vice President had it piped into the back.

LA: Yeah, and then in the next days, he’ll probably have to make them row boats over there to get to Australia. (laughing)

HH: (laughing)

LA: Isn’t that good?

HH: So let’s go back. Why are we, let’s tell people about this project. The next line of the document, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, maybe the most important sentence ever written.

LA: Yeah, and you know, so you have to get past the word self-evident. And the reason it’s hard to understand what it means is because it’s too simple. And here’s what it means. It means that things of a kind are all of the same kind. That’s all it means. And so it, if you think about the king for a minute, the king thinks he’s born to rule. That’s his argument in response to this, to the besieging army in Boston. He’s saying I was born to rule you, and you were born to obey me, and I have to rule you in your interest. That’s my duty. But your duty is to do what I say. And this sentence is George III is just like us, a human being. And therefore, we are equal. And we’re just equal in that way. We’re human. Now if he were an angel, it comes in later in the Federalist Papers, that would be different. Then he could say all the things he said. Or if we were dogs or horses, that would be different. Human beings are human beings, and they are not dogs and horses on the one hand, and they are not angels on the other. And they are equal, therefore, and that is where their having common rights originates in that natural equality all being the same thing.

HH: And it being self-evident. And, by the way, an appeal to the Creator, often lost, we debated that this week in the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Trinity Lutheran, and there was an argument about whether or not religion could be discriminated against in the Supreme Court of the United States, a kind of a silly argument given the way our framers approached this. They really, they’re arguing whether or not churches can, by little Blaine amendments, just automatically be segregated from the receipt of otherwise generally available public benefits.

LA: Yeah.

HH: And they’re not ashamed of that. Sotomayor, Justice Sotomayor said that’s an admirable tradition. 39 states have these things. They were all anti-Catholic bigotry volcanos, Larry Arnn. It’s amazing to me that people defend these things.

LA: Yeah, and you go back and read, well, maybe we’ll read it along the way, go read the Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Institutions by…

HH: Madison.

LA: …Religious Establishments by James Madison…

HH: Yeah.

LA: I mean, the founders had all that figured out beautifully at the beginning. That’s one of the causes of this document. And see, talk about that self-evidence one more time. If you walk in a room and you see, I’m looking in my room. You see a lamp, and you see a table, and you see a desk. And my wife is here with me, but she’s not in the room right now. But if she walks in, there’ll be a human walk in. And it is evident. It is self-evident that that’s what she is, see, just as it’s self-evident that all of the chairs, although they’re different in this room, are the same kinds of things. And that’s how we’re able to use the common noun chair. And so they just point at this amazing thing that despite his glittering carriage, despite the way everybody treats him, despite the terms of address we use for him, George III is as human as we are.

HH: And as a result, the same rights that we have go to the colonists. They go to the soon-to-be Americans. They’re not going to be colonists at the end of the signing of this. They’re going to break away at the end of the signing of this. And we will return to that next week. Dr. Arnn, we have one minute. Why are we spending so much time on this now?

LA: Well, there’s so many reasons. One, the main reason is it’s beautiful, but here’s something more contemporary. This is an exciting time in American politics, because now, about the Constitution, we’re not just waiting for the Supreme Court to rule and tell us what it all meant in a decision that none of us can understand or affect. Now, what we’re doing is we’re watching positions taken about the operation of the Constitution by the Trump administration, by Mr. Schumer, by all kinds of people. The Constitution is at work right now in a controversial way just as was meant. And the roots of the Constitution are in the Declaration of Independence.

HH: And we will return to that, and we are going to stay on this, because it is exactly for that reason that we are going there at this time in the beginning of this administration. First principles are back on the table, and no assumption that has been creeping in like barnacles over the last 40 years about governance is going to be untested by this searching inquiry. Dr. Larry Arnn, a pleasure. Read all of the Hillsdale Dialogues at

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