The Liberal Century: How Progressivism Transformed America by Thomas B. Silver

Chapter 1: Natural Right and History, A Preview

Harry Jaffa: Equality as a Conservative Principle

Crisis of the House Divided, a commentary on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, was published in 1958, on the 100th anniversary of those debates. Its author, if not a lone voice surely a very lonely one within the academy, clearly felt more at home within the political and moral horizons of the 19th century citizens who listened to Lincoln and Douglas than he did within the 20th century horizons of his own political science colleagues. In the introduction to the 1973 edition of his book, Jaffa described a distinction made by his colleagues

between normative theory, which dealt with ‘values,’ and empirical theory, which dealt with ‘facts.’ Distinctions such as ‘the just powers of government,’ like the rights to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ were ‘values.’ That is to say, they were the preferences of those who had established this government, and to refer to them as the ‘laws of Nature and of Nature’s God’ was a rhetorical redundancy adding only emphasis to a preference. It was thought to be a delusion, however, to believe that one might actually arrive at a judgment as to whether a government was or was not legitimate by examining whether that government was or was not in accordance with the laws of nature.[1]

In this respect, the world of political science was very far from the world of Lincoln and Douglas, who, however important their differences, had treated each other’s arguments with respect.

What was their world? It was, of course, a pre-Darwinian world. The Origin of Species, published the year following the Lincoln-Douglas debates, profoundly subverted a world in which nature—discovered and articulated by human reason—was understood to be the permanent ground of political obligation and an enduring source of guidance on how life should be lived. By challenging the very notion of permanence, by reducing the distance between man and beast, and by calling into question a teleological universe in which reason could get its bearings, Darwinian evolution helped to undercut the prior understanding of nature. John Dewey, himself born in 1859, once said that “Doubtless the greatest dissolvent in contemporary thought of old questions, the greatest precipitant of new methods, new intentions, new problems, is the one effected by the scientific revolution that found its climax in The Origin of Species.”[2]

The old understanding of nature, of course, had come down to Abraham Lincoln and his generation from the Founding Fathers. According to Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence is the fountainhead of the American political tradition, the Source from which our deepest principles (and our deepest quarrels over those principles) flow.[3] The Declaration opens in the first paragraph with an appeal to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” from which the magisterial second paragraph follows:

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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . . .

This statement of principle, says Professor Jaffa, “is not merely an assertion about man, but about man, God, and the universe. . . . [T]he relationship of the Creator and of the God of the laws of nature both expresses and justifies the ground of the authority of the people. . . . For the Declaration—as we have noted—expresses the conviction that there is a permanent order in the universe by which human beings ought, directly or indirectly, to be guided, whether as men or as citizens.”[4]

The conception of the world as a great chain of being is of course an ancient teaching, found both in biblical and classical thought, but the specific prototype for the language of the Declaration is in the philosopher John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, specifically the famous fourth paragraph of Chapter Two, where he says that men are naturally in a

state . . . of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank . . . should also be equal one amongst another without subordination and subjection.[5]

Professor Jaffa’s gloss on Locke rephrases the argument in contemporary language: “there is no difference between man and man, as there is between man and—for example—dog, such that one is recognizable as the other’s natural superior.”[6] Thomas Jefferson put this more picturesquely when he said that “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”[7]

From the principle of human equality it follows, as the Declaration of Independence says, that all men have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as well as other correlative rights. As Professor Jaffa explains:

Man’s right to self-preservation—his right to life—is the foundation of all else. His right to liberty follows from his right to life, because a man may not be right fully denied the liberty of any action he thinks is necessary to preserve his life. If there were in the state of nature anyone who might rightfully tell him that he ought not to take a certain action to preserve his life, or who might tell him that he ought not to preserve his life by taking such an action, that would imply a natural inequality of human authority such as Locke, Jefferson, Madison, and the tradition of the Founders uniformly deny. But further: individuals in the state of nature must have a right to property. For everyone, exercising his natural liberty, acquires and (within limits) accumulates food, clothing, shelter, and weapons. Without these—the necessary consequences of natural liberty—he could not preserve his life. Hence also the right to bear arms becomes an unalienable right, alongside of, as it is implied in, the right to property. . . . The rights themselves form a continuum of inferences from man’s natural equality. It is the self-evidence of this equality which is the sole—but sufficient—ground for all man’s natural rights.[8] (Italics mine)

The problem with natural rights is that when there is no common superior (government) over men, i.e., when they are in the so-called “state of nature,”[9] the exercise of these rights is insecure. Thus, “by the logic of the Declaration, civil society is instituted for the security of men’s unalienable rights. It is instituted to gain for those rights a security it is not possible for them to enjoy in the state of nature. . . . Hence the form of civil society, if it be legitimate, must be adapted to such ends.”[10]

The form of government most consistent with the principle of equality is constitutional democracy—democratic because those who live under the law make the law; constitutional because those who make the law must live under the law. “The unbroken chain of inference, connecting natural equality, with government by the majority of all who are parties to the social contract, connects the proposition of equality with government of, by, and for the people.”[11] The Declaration of Independence logically entails the Gettysburg Address.

This syllabus of democracy, as taught by Jefferson and Lincoln, transcends time and place. The principle of universal human equality that lies at the heart of the Declaration is an abstract idea that applies to all men everywhere and always.[12] [As Lincoln said, “The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society.” Lincoln honored Jefferson because he,

in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.[13]]

Notwithstanding the rise and rapid spread of the historical school in the nineteenth century, the belief in the a-historical and universal character of America’s founding principles remained authoritative within the American political tradition up to the eve of the New Deal. Speaking at Independence Hall on the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration, President Coolidge, with full awareness of what was at stake,[14] defended the canonical interpretation of equality:

About the Declaration there is a finality that is
exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the
world has made a great deal of progress since
1776, that we have had new thoughts and new
experiences which have given us a great advance
over the people of that day, and that we may very
well discard their conclusions for something more
modern. But that reasoning cannot be applied to
this great charter. If all men are created equal, that
is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights,
that is final. If governments derive their just powers
from the consent of the governed, that is final. No
advance, no progress, can be made beyond these

Equality is the true ground of political obligation.[16] Men by nature have rights, the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but outside of civil society (i.e., in the “state of nature”) the enjoyment of rights is insecure. Therefore men come together to form governments (“to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men”). Because no man is by nature the ruler of any other, government is based on consent (“deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”). Government comes into being to protect the rights that men possess by nature but that, individually, they cannot defend against violators.

From this natural rights teaching, the Founders’ derived their conception of limited government. Government is limited by its purpose, to safeguard the persons and property of its citizens. Nature itself thus establishes a presumption in favor of the private and against the unlimited encroachment of the public sector.

This catechism of American democracy is obviously an abstraction from a mesh of concepts, many of which have become far more controversial today than they were at the time of the Founding. “The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”: Are there things such as laws or standards that are “by nature?” Is there even such a thing as nature in that sense? “We hold these truths”: What is truth? And to the extent that we call these concepts into question, to what extent do we also call into the question the ideas of equality and democracy with which they are enmeshed?

*                 *                 *

Richard Rorty: Liberal Utopia

In the evolutionary tree of American pragmatism, Professor Richard Rorty is the most prominent contemporary descendant of William James and John Dewey.

Professor Rorty would not regard Jaffa’s account of the American Founding as wrong exactly, nor would he pretend that the thought of the Founders could be refuted by rational arguments. On the contrary, their concepts of natural rights and “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” played an invaluable role in the history of the world. To use one of William James’s favorite phrases, their ideas had an important “cash value” at a critical moment for human freedom; but “God” and “nature” are not useful concepts any more.[17]

In other words, the Founders are not so much “wrong” as passé, and Harry Jaffa’s attempt to use their vocabulary in this day and age is anachronistic and an impediment to progress. History has moved on, sweeping rapidly past the island where Jaffa is so deeply dug in with the ghosts of the Founders, like some diehard Japanese soldier thirty years after the end of World War II. The world—or our view of it—has simply changed, and as history rushes forward those looking back will see Jaffa’s island shrink to a tiny dot . . . and then disappear. His powerful intellectual fortifications need never be stormed and taken—indeed cannot be stormed and taken; they have merely become irrelevant. Hence the transformation of the meaning of liberal democracy that has taken place in this century is less a matter of an explicit refutation of the founders, more a matter of a re-description of the liberal experience.

The Founding Fathers thought that their new science of politics, grounded in the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, was a decisive breakthrough in substituting truth for error. “The foundation of our empire,” wrote George Washington, “was not laid in the gloomy ages of ignorance and superstition, but at an epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any other period.”[18]

For Rorty, however, these formulations no longer make sense. The very vocabularies in which the 18th century spoke have been replaced with new vocabularies that do not contain words like “nature” and “God.” The Founders did not realize that just at the moment they were reaching what they regarded as a new peak of human understanding the ground was already crumbling beneath their feet.

About two hundred years ago, the idea that truth was
made rather than found began to take hold of the
imagination of Europe. The French Revolution had
shown that the whole vocabulary of social relations,
and the whole spectrum of social institutions, could be
replaced almost overnight. This precedent made utopian
politics the rule rather than the exception among
intellectuals. Utopian politics sets aside questions about
about both the will of God and the nature of man and
dreams of creating a hitherto unknown form of society.[19]
(italics mine)

The Founders’ delusion that they had discovered something important about human nature was based on the false assumption that there was something to be discovered.

“Ever since Hegel . . . historicist thinkers have . . . denied
that there is any such thing as ‘human nature’ or the
‘deepest level of the self.’ Their strategy has been to
insist that socialization, and thus historical circumstance,
goes all the way down—that there is nothing ‘beneath’
socialization or prior to history which is definatory of
the human . . . This historicist turn has helped free us,
gradually but steadily, from theology and metaphysics—
from the temptation to look for an escape from time and
chance. It has helped us substitute Freedom for Truth as
the goal of thinking and of social progress.”[20]

Among the historicists, of course, were those such as Hegel and Marx who believed that history is a rational process moving toward a terminus, an “end of history.” Pragmatists, like Rorty, reject that early version of historicism. For them, nothing escapes contingency, not God, nature, reason or history. Nothing is sacred or final.

“The line of thought common to Blumenberg, Nietzsche,
Freud, and Davidson suggests that we try to get to the point
where we no longer worship anything—where we treat
nothing as a quasi divinity, where we treat everything—our
language, our conscience, our community—as a product of
time and chance. To reach this point would be, in Freud’s
words, to “treat chance as worthy of determining our fate.”[21]

In the first paragraph of the first number of The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton raises precisely this question, whether the intellectual and moral virtues (“reflection and choice”) can shape history or whether history, in the form of chance (“accident and force”), determines our fate. On their affirmative answer to this momentous question the Founders staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. According to Rorty, they were mistaken.[22]

An elaboration of this point will be most instructive. When pragmatists, including Rorty, say that the world, and the human beings who are part of it, do not possess an intrinsic nature or essence, it does not follow that there is no reality whatsoever independent of human creation. They accept that there are processes within space and time which are the effects of causes that do not include human mental states.[23] Reality, however, is not self-articulated. It just is.

Reality is neither true nor false; it just is. Truth is a property of sentences; sentences are parts of language; and language is a human creation. Therefore: “Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own—unaided by the describing activities of human beings—cannot.”[24]

Descriptions of the world are contained within “language games,” as Rorty calls them. Reality, however, provides no criteria for choosing among the variety of language games. Does this then mean that the choice among language games is arbitrary? No:

“The realization that the world does not tell us what
language games to play should not, however, lead us
to say that a decision about which to play is arbitrary,
not to say that it is the expression of something deep
within us. The moral is not that objective criteria for
choice are to be replaced with subjective criteria, reason
with will or feeling. It is rather that the notions of criteria
and choice (including that of ‘arbitrary’ choice) are no
longer in point when it comes to changes from one
language game to another. Europe did not decide to
accept the idiom of Romantic poetry, or of socialist politics,
or of Galilean mechanics. That sort of shift was no more an
act of will than it was a result of argument. Europe gradually
lost the habit of using certain words and gradually acquired
the habit of using others.”[25] (italics in the original)

The interplay of reflection and choice is replaced by the interplay of habit and history, in the pragmatist account of the dynamics of human destiny. (“Habit,” said William James, “is the enormous flywheel of society.”) Human experience through history becomes merely a succession of re-descriptions of the world. Because Rorty has previously said that “Only descriptions of the world can be true or false,” but also that the world offers no criteria for judging the different descriptions, the interest in traditional truth-seeking (philosophy) inevitably withers. As Rorty forthrightly says:

To say that we should drop the idea of truth as out
there waiting to be discovered is not to say that we
have discovered that, out there, there is no truth. It
is to say that our purposes would be served best by
ceasing to see truth as a deep matter, as a topic of
philosophic interest, or “true” as a term which repays
“analysis.” “The nature of truth” is an unprofitable
topic, resembling in this respect “the nature of man”
and “the nature of God.”[26]

Which brings us back to Harry Jaffa and the “language game” he plays, which is the same old game the Founders played. Rorty makes no pretense of being able to “refute” such a language game. (“Conforming to my own precepts, I am not going to offer arguments against the vocabulary I want to replace.”) The point is, however, that as a practical matter, the vocabulary of the Declaration of Independence constitutes a dead language. It makes no more sense to go around speaking in those terms today than it would for Jaffa to resurrect the language of the ancient Hittites and go around speaking that. There is nothing wrong with it; it just doesn’t have much use in today’s world. Harry Jaffa has made a career of explicating the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” But nobody is listening any more.


Read more of The Liberal Century by Thomas B. Silver:

Table of Contents & Introduction

Chapter 1: Natural Right and History, A Preview

Chapter 2: 1936


[1] Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973), p. 10.

[2] John Dewey, The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy (New York: H. Holt and Co., 1910), p. 19.

[3] Lincoln: “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”

[4] Harry V. Jaffa, How To Think About the American Revolution (Durham: Carolina Academic press, 1978), p. x.

[5] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), p. 309.

[6] How to Think About the American Revolution, p. 109.

[7] Jefferson, Letter to Roger Weightman, June 24, 1826. Available online from

[8] How to Think About the American Revolution, p. 110-111.

[9] The “state of nature” is not a place set in the distant past but an ever-present possibility or reality. For example, when an intruder breaks into your house and the police are not present, you and the intruder are in a state of nature with each other. Likewise, nations are in a state of nature with each other.

[10] How to Think About the American Revolution, p. 111-112

[11] Editors’ note: Silver did not provide a citation for this quotation.

[12] “The Declaration, by proclaiming the unity of the human race, and the universality of its rights, constituted an epoch in secular history as significant and as unique, as that in sacred history, that followed the proclamation upon Sinai of the unity and universality of the living God.” How to Think About the American Revolution, p. 60.

[13] [Editors’ note: Silver left a note to insert here an example of “Lincoln’s everywhere and always rhetoric.” We offer this instance, from Lincoln’s letter to Henry L. Pierce and others, April 6, 1859, which he seems to have written to be read aloud at a celebration in Boston honoring the birthday of Jefferson.]

[14] The progressive historian, Carl Becker, had published his classic, The Declaration of Independence, in 1923. Wrote Becker: “To ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration is true or false is essentially a meaningless question.” The reason for this, according to Becker, is that the thought of the Founders, like all human thought, is time-bound. Thus the philosophy of the Declaration was not appropriate to the changed circumstances of modern America. “This faith could not survive the harsh realities of the modern world.” Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence; A Study in the History of Political Ideas (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1942), pp., 277-278.

[15] Calvin Coolidge, Foundations of the Republic (Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1926), p. 451.

[16] Becker, p. 450: “Placing every man on a plane where he acknowledged no superiors, where no one possessed any right to rule over him, he must inevitably choose his own rulers through a system of self-government. This was their theory of democracy.”

[17] “The vocabulary of Enlightenment rationalism, although it was essential to the beginnings of liberal democracy, has become an impediment to the preservation and progress of democratic societies.” Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 44.

[18] The Writings of George Washington, ed. Worthington Chauncey Ford (New York & London: Putname’s, 1891), Vol. X, p. 265.

[19] Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 3.

[20] Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. xiii.

[21] Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 22 (italics in the original).

[22] “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist.

[23] Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 5.

[24] Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 5.

[25] Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 6.

[26] Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 8.

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