The Founder's Key (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012).
Among other things, Larry Arnn is the president of Hillsdale College, a wonderful place of learning and liberty, known for their dedication to the founding principles and philosophies of the United States of America. I made Dr. Arnn's acquaintance two years ago and found him to be a delightful fellow who demonstrates both knowledge and grace. His recent publication is an examination of the relationship between the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Timely, for we are in an age where the principles of limited government are all-but-completely-ignored for the rise of an overbearing bureaucracy.
It is a short book (123 pages) which requires a pondering of history and political philosophy.
Chapter One speaks to the importance of our nation's remembering - remembering how it began and with what principles it was sparked. As these revolutionaries gathered together, they sought to build a society with laws that would facilitate liberty among all peoples. The two primary founding documents - the Declaration and the Constitution - are thus joined together and vital for the understanding of our freedoms. According to Arnn, "They make a series of demanding claims . . . They command by blood, and the command by principle" (5). Thus, he argues that there is a great burden, which many in our current generation are unwilling to bear, that comes with this liberty. But, as one of Arnn's great statements (in the form of a question) states, "Our fathers were revolutionaries. Should we not be the same?" (5).
Chapter Two begins to examine the break between Declaration and Constitution which seems to have become a part of our modern culture. There appear to be some who liberally favor the ideas of the Declaration, but who come to resent the conservative limitations of the Constitution. One of the chief problems which this book seeks to address is that apparent disconnect which shapes the way many Americans see these two documents. In reality, they are bound together and work together for the common cause of our country's freedom. The Declaration of Independence is a universal and sweeping statement of the blessings of humanity (eloquently written and majestic in its language). "It proclaims the inclusion of every human being - past, present and futre - in its reach. No nation is left out. No era is excluded" (8). This is important, for the founders did not see liberty from their own efforts or government, but as a gift from the Creator within history.
On the other side is the Constitution (the longest surviving written constitution in history). The obstructions to those who seek power over others is found in this document. As Arnn writes, "Still today it commands the hearts of most Americans, and still today it places inconveniences in the way of those who would overcome it" (10). The words of the Declaration are bold and sweeping, and those of the Constitution seek to give order and law. There have been attempts (both successful and not) to move one or other of these documents out of the way, some of which Arnn reviews, but they still remain able to guide a nation.
Chapter Three asks whether the Declaration and the Constitution are divorced from each other. The two documents have different intentions, "One throws off a government; the other builds one . . . Like its author, the Declaration shows imagination and eloquence. Like its author, the Constitution shows order and balance" (21). This does not mean that the two documents do not (or cannot) serve one common goal, which they do. The Declaration begins the process of setting forth a new government, but it takes a fuller statement to complete such a task.
Arnn makes an important statement for the fuller understanding of the purpose of these two documents: "The American Revolution is not justified by the fact that government is an alien force. The truth is the opposite: the Revolution is justified by the fact that government is necessary. The king has sometimes failed to provide it, and other times he has provided it in ways that subvert the purpose of government" (26). In understanding the central seventeen paragraphs of the Declaration, Arnn divides them topically (and then discusses them in turn) into three categories: representation, limited government, separation of powers (27-36). The sovereignty of the people are not given a place in the government, for it is not from within the government that liberty is guaranteed (34). Ultimately, it is the Declaration which lays down the foundational thought for constructing the Constitution (37).
Chapter Four examines God's laws of nature evident in the writing of the Declaration. It is a document which appeals to the higher laws of creation rather than simply making a political argument. "The Declaration of Independence does not read like a document from this world of kings. It hardly reads like a document from any particular world at all . . . Its signers are at the crisis of their lives, and they begin by placing it in context" (43). Therefore, it begins with a 'self-evident truth' of the equality of all persons. Though we have a bent tendency to lord over each other, the Declaration appeals to the created order as evidence that our nature is one of equality. Arnn turns from this chapter to the next with a great question, "The whole volume of human nature has been around for a long time. Why, one might wonder, should the Declaration of Independence become the first parchment to reflect those laws?" (48).
Chapter Five speaks to the assertion that all men are created equal. I rather enjoyed his opening statement, bookended as such, "If you are going to defy the mightiest empire on earth, you might exercise a little caution . . . The Declaration of Independence does not adopt this tone" (49). In an interesting discussion, Arnn argues that the self-evident equality ought to be understood not by comparing one person to another, but placing humanity next to its Divine Creator (cf. 50-51ff.). The principles which come from this are at the center of this nation's limited government. "For that reason, human beings must hold the means of their well-being in their own hands" (58).
One of the difficulties of our modern age is that too often "we think of equality as an outcome" rather than an opportunity (59). From this point it becomes something of entitlement rather than of liberty to pursue. "The Founders thought that the greatest effort in relief of poverty in human history is the building of a free republic, protecting equally the right to property and resting on consent through a free Constitution" (63).
Chapter Six addresses the charge of hypocrisy among the founders, specifically that they spoke of equality yet 1) held slaves and/or 2) did not abolish slavery in the Constitution. To this Arnn begins with historical perspective. First, that slavery had come to America under British law (and the British would not abolish slavery until 32 years after it was abolished in the United States) (66). Second, that the founders made attempts to bring slavery to an end, specifically setting up mechanisms within the government which fostered that end (cf. 67-69). Even Jefferson, who wrote and spoke eloquently of equality and against the practice of slavery, owned slaves. Yet he still composed the words and supported the principles of liberty for all, being drawn to that truth (69).
Chapter Seven moves to discussions regarding the Constitution in particular. Both the Declaration and the Constitution were surrounded by debate, but ultimately adopted and remaining two centuries later (77). "The Constitution gives the nation its shape, and by doing this, it exercises a powerful influence constantly on all that we do" (81). One of the important aspects of our Constitution is that it is written to make significant changes to our laws and government slow. "The Constitution does not give any of us the power to do what we want, right now" (81). It is sad how striking such a claim has become in light of recent Congressional and Presidential activities.
Citing John Adams, Arnn discusses the notion of the city as the soul writ large (93f.), "What happens in the soul happens in the city, and what happens in the city happens in the soul." Thus, there is a call to virtue which is at the center of this republican form of government. The people have a great responsibility in their sovereignty. "Moreover, no government, before the American government, had been based purely on the consent of the governed" (95).
Chapter Eight is therefore titled "The Soul Writ Large," speaking to the responsibilities of the nation's citizens. What the Declaration and the Constitution set out to do is unique and powerful. "This is to be the first purely representative government in history" (99). There are ups and downs to freedom, and challenges which exist within the republican form of government. But, "The right forms of government benefit the character of the citizens; good character in the citizens benefits the public good" (104). Arnn also reviews the checks and balances which lie at the center of the Constitution's mandate, advocating a mutual respect between the government and the governed.
The final chapter is a Conclusion which draws together the book's themes. As he brings his thoughts together, he makes a good observation: "History, then, is a story of circumstances playing on human beings. Human beings are shaped by these circumstances, and also they shape the circumstances back" (117). The weight of liberty is upon our country once again, and the long road back to the Constitutional government which was envisaged by our nation's founders will be long and (at times) difficult. But there still remains an opportunity for a government which is representative, separated in its powers, and limited in its scope . . . that is what Arnn describes as the founder's key.