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Dr. Larry Arnn On The Declaration Of Independence

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HH: What I have been talking about all day long with Fred Barnes and Peter Hamby and Chuck Todd and Ed Gillespie, everyone – Ebola, ISIS, the pending midterms, comes down to what kind of country we are, what country we want to be. This is the hour of the Hillsdale Dialogue, the last radio hour of the week. We’re going to move it up next week to Wednesday after, the day after the election. But this week and next Wednesday, I wanted to talk to just Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, in the Hillsdale Dialogue, about the sort of country we are and how we ought to look at voting. And very much, that depends upon how we got to be this way. Dr. Arnn, welcome back, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you.

LA: Pleasure to talk to you, Hugh.

HH: You gave a magnificent address this week on Winston Churchill. I liked it quite a lot, very good. And then I jumped on a plane and went off to Louisville. I hope the others who stuck around to hear the rest of it, or have the conversation with you enjoyed it at much as I did.

LA: Gosh, we stayed up half the night. A bunch of judges and lawyers who are friends of Hugh, and so I got to make my joke that’s one of my favorites. I almost went to law school, but I decided to get an education instead.

HH: Well, it was just so wonderful. And I think actually, people could have stayed for more hours because Churchill is that way. But we have work to do today, because I think it’s important on the Friday before the election that we talk about the Declaration of Independence, and not just the Declaration, but the work that went, I’m not going to go back to the colonial, early colonial days, but maybe beginning with John Dickenson and Letters From A Farmer in Pennsylvanian in 1767 through Common Sense and Thomas Paine. What was going on in the country, Larry Arnn, that led to the Declaration about which we’ll be exercising that independence on Tuesday that we got because of it?

LA: Well, there were two sets of things going on side by side, and they were connected. One was events, and those events started in 1763, and the other was arguments. And as the events intensified, the arguments intensified. What happened in 1763 was the British won their great war against the French, and became the greatest power in the world. And they had fought a lot of it in the colonies. It was sort of like the first world war, the first big war around more than one continent. And they decided to run the colonies differently. And the colonies, they were going to tax them, and they were going to get some advantage from them, and they were going to be involved with them more. And the colonies, in America, were 150 years old, and they weren’t used to that. They had in fact developed the freest institutions in the world. It was unprecedented the way they governed themselves.

HH: And how was that? I mean, because I think it’s important to realize the ground out of which this next election grows began very ungoverned.

LA: Yeah, well, it was, you know, first of all, you have to understand about America that it’s an unprecedented thing that also cannot be repeated, because it’s like in the western movies, on the one hand, they’re on the frontier, and it’s wild, and there isn’t law. And on the other hand, they’re connected to a well-developed civilization, The civilization. And so everybody knew about law, and everybody knew about learning, and everybody knew about God. But all of the structure was taken away, and they got to start over. And they developed to a much greater state than anyone ever had. The doctrine of religious and civic doctrines, of civil and religious freedom, and of consent of the governed, and most colonies were governed by an appointed governor by the king, who was not a particularly strong person, and then by legislatures that were popularly elected by nearly everyone, every male, that is, although women’s suffrage came to America in New Jersey right after the Revolution and was there for about 20 years.

HH: Oh.

LA: And so they were, it was a free society, and their rights were important to them, and they thought government existed to protect it.

HH: Now our British ancestors were not tyrannical in any sense of the modern word. They were not totalitarian. They weren’t even despotic. But they did treat colonies differently.

LA: Well, they, yes and no they were not. They became pretty harsh as the conflict went on. And you have to understand the nub of the conflict. And the colonies, by the way, the pamphleteers, which is I think one thing you’re interested in today…

HH: Yes.

LA: They worked themselves around about this, because early, Daniel Delaney, for example, from Maryland, he writes an important pamphlet, and he acknowledges the right of the king to govern them. And that was the king’s position. You are my subjects, and you owe me obedience, and I owe you protection. And we are locked in a relationship that neither of us has discretion over. And so that’s the view. And that had been the view in Europe forever. In 1776, as late as that, during the siege of Boston, the king wrote all that out. And he gave his address from the throne, and he caused it to be circulated over the lines to the American Army, which was busy melting away, by the way, because they had short enlistments, and they were all going home. And he thought that would rally them, by stating that principle. That’s what the address is about. And instead, to a person, they just wheeled around and reupped, and the Army swelled. So right from the start, there was a difference about where the right to rule lay. And that was deep, but its depth exposed itself with the pressure of events. The king would pass a law, and they would resist it. And sometimes, he would rescind the law, but then he would pass another one. You know, they passed in 1772, I think, but don’t quote me, the Declaratory Acts. Maybe it was a little later than that. And that was, they rescinded a bunch of duties, because taxation without representation, which is just, by the way, a specific instance of the principle no one may be governed except by his consent.

HH: Yes.

LA: And but coupling with rescinding the Townshend Duties, they asserted the right to tax them as they pleased. And so that was a silly policy, right, back up and assert the principle at the same time. And that was irksome to them. And they, and so…

HH: But not to all of them. And I think we lose a lot when we go too quickly past the fact that the Tory Party in the United States was deep and strong, and actually in the saddle right through July of ’76, correct?

LA: Yeah, and even after the War began. And the numbers about that, the people who were out of sympathy with the Revolution, the bottom is somewhere of, the estimates is somewhere around a third. But there are estimates that it was more than half.

HH: Wow.

LA: And that was, you know, but it’s all, so that’s true. It was a divided society, because the king, you know, everybody’s always lived under a king. Everybody everywhere had always lived under a king.

HH: So when people talk about a deeply divided America today, it’s really not very different from any kind of division we’ve had in the past. I mean, we went to civil war once. It’s just not the same level when people are not taking up arms against each other. But political deep differences are nothing new in America.

LA: Well, I think this is like those two great, what we have right now is like those two great crises. I think it’s, the depth of the division is, and the danger, is like the one in the Revolution, and like the one in the Civil War.

HH: But without resort to arms, only it will go one way or…

LA: No, I don’t think so. But you know, down the line, who knows, because I actually think that the doctrines that are ruling today in the intellectual classes, mainly, ultimately are despotic. I think they are. And I think that if they got their way, then there would be force used against people in ways that are not legitimate.

HH: And that is indeed very worrisome…

LA: Yeah.

HH: …were it to continue to, the cancer to continue to spread where people felt obliged that…we’re just not there, yet, and I think we’d be, if anywhere, 1763-ish right now.

LA: Yeah, well, but you know, not putting it in chronological terms, but the point is we still vote and elect our representatives, and they still have authority to make policy consistent with the Constitution if they will. And so there isn’t any reason to think about anything except Constitutional action.

HH: Did the king violate the English Constitution in ruling the way that he did?

LA: Well, that was controversial, but of course, he said he didn’t, because he claimed, as you suggested earlier, an authority over the colonies that was different than the authority he had over the British people…

HH: Right.

LA: …because he, it had been established through 250 years of history, including the lopping off of the head of one of his predecessors, that he couldn’t tax the people except through the parliament.

HH: Right.

LA: Now the reason that wasn’t super clear was the parliament itself at that time, and you know, until late in the 19th Century, was really a thing that was heavily under the influence of the aristocracy, because they controlled the House of Lords, and the House of Commons was not really a popularly-elected body until the second half of the 19th Century.

— – – – –

HH: Some of those arguments and events were ongoing in England as well, and there were great voices on behalf of settled precedent of freedom for the colonists, including Edmund Burke, Larry Arnn. So these events and arguments you talk about had parallel developments on the other side of the Atlantic.

LA: That’s right, and you know, it’s interesting that Burke, later the enemy of the French Revolution, was a friend of the American Revolution, as was William Pitt. And so a lot of the leading British saw, because you know, any right reading of the British Constitution is that the king may not tax people except through their representatives. And that’s one way to put what all those struggles were about that made Britain something other than right now. It was always, it was never so absolute a monarchy as they had in France, for example, but it was, you know, a very powerful king for a long time. And now, these colonists, the claim is that the king may tax them as he pleases and regulate them as he pleases, and that the British Constitution would protect them. And you know, that was the basis of the Empire, all of the Empire for a long time after that, too. And they just didn’t, you know, most Americans, by the way, like even Daniel Delaney in his piece, in his article, and in one of his pamphlets, doesn’t say the king may do whatever he pleases to us because we’re just colonists. Nobody really agreed with that.

HH: Right.

LA: And the discussion was about whether the king’s predations were serious enough to justify the resistance they got. And as it intensified, by the way, the king got tougher, because you know, then it became apparent that some of these taxes were going to be used to pay for people to force them, the colonists, the Americans, to obey. And you know, in Boston after the Tea Party, and after the Boston Massacre, well, actually before the Boston Massacre, what sails into Boston Harbor but ships with soldiers on them. And the soldiers get off and they bring writs that they can look in general, in places without naming what they’re looking for. And they bring orders that they may, the specific thing that led to the quartering troops part of the Bill of Rights was that they had the right to take over the barracks of the militia. And the militia was the chief defense of the United States. It’s one of the reasons why governors were not powerful. All the grown up men were the defense of each colony. And now their gathering and drilling place was taken from them. And they also had the authority to take over public houses and what was called unoccupied residences. And the person who would judge whether a residence was unoccupied or not was a justice of the peace appointed by the governor, appointed by the king.

HH: Thus the 3rd Amendment that no one knows much about, which remains very much an indication of what was going on back then.

LA: That’s right.

HH: And that was tyrannical. I did begin by saying they were not despotic. They were despotic in bursts.

LA: Yeah, well, and they were increasingly despotic. You know, it’s as bad in principle as can be done for a king to issue a writ to a general to arrest a bunch of people who are in the Continental Congress with a purpose to put them on a ship and take them to England for trial. First of all, it’s a soldier doing that. Second of all, it denies a jury of one’s peers.

HH: Right.

LA: And if you look at the middle of the Declaration of Independence, one will find the mirror image of the Constitution itself, because the things that the king is accused of doing involve violations of separation of powers, he interfered with judges and legislatures, of limited government, he accrues unto himself the authority to do anything. He even changes the, he attempts to change the borders of the country to get Canadians into the country who would be more sympathetic, he thought.

HH: You see, and while I despise hyperbole, not only because it’s wrong, but it is also useful to the left, when I was in Louisville on Wednesday night with Mitch McConnell, Senator McConnell was telling the story of mines being closed, and people being thrown out of their livelihood, generations suffering because of federal bureaucrats from the EPA. And I had in mind that writ that you’re talking about, that long list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence. He has sent out his officials to eat up our, I can’t remember the exact line.

LA: Yeah, he sent among us a swarm of officials to harass our people and eat out their substance.

HH: Isn’t that just what we’re talking about Tuesday, Larry Arnn?

LA: Yeah, and you know, we, see, the government, the idea that was established in the United States of America was that the government must work for the people, and the people hold sovereignty on it, over it. And the government may only do things on their authority not just by the pass, because the Constitution was passed by the people directly, organized in states. But in addition, they have to be continuously representative of the ongoing and unfolding will of the people. And so if the government becomes so remote, as in the case of the Revolution, or so large as to be able to overwhelm the people, then you don’t have self-government.

HH: And that led Thomas Paine, because I want to spend our last two segments after this talking specifically about the Declaration of Independence and the theory there. That led Thomas Paine to a revolutionary demand in Common Sense, and it set the colonies on fire.

LA: It did. It persuaded George Washington to favor independence. And if you haven’t read it, you should read it. It’s a tour de force. It’s a rant, and it’s brilliant. At one point, he parses out how kings get to be kings. And he says there are just these ways, he says. They could be elected, and then they represent the people. They’re not really authoritative. He said they get there by birth, but that always traces back to some use of force. And so you know, he just undercuts the whole idea of kingship, and calls for the rights of man. And it did, it sold 100,000 copies, I’ve read.

HH: Wow.

LA: And that’s a lot back then.

HH: Yes, it is.

LA: And it was very powerful. It went along with something Jefferson wrote in 1774, which I can quote one part of from memory, it’s so good. It’s called A Summary View Of The Rights Of British North America. And he gives a long, it’s a long piece, some of it, I think may be erroneous, about the theory of British constitutional government. But at the end, he says let those flutter who fear. It is not an American art.

HH: Ha.

LA: You must understand that you have no ministers drawn from us. And therefore, you must make some. And you know, it’s just…

HH: I’m not familiar. That’s the first I’ve ever heard that.

LA: Oh, it’s just beautiful. The last two paragraphs of that thing are one of the most powerful polemics I have ever read.

HH: We will be back to talk about another work of Jefferson in our final two segments of this week’s Hillsdale Dialogue.

— – – —

HH: And now we turn to the Declaration of Independence. In Congress, July 4th, 1776, the unanimous declaration of the 13 United States of America – When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal stations 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 this separation. Dr. Arnn, I spend three hours every year replaying a three hour conversation with your teacher, Harry Jaffa, about this document. And it is not enough time. And we get a grand total of about 16 minutes.

LA: Okay.

HH: So tell us what you think people should think about this document?

LA: Well, it’s the greatest political document ever written. They should think that. They should understand its parts to understand the grandness of the whole, that of course, the Declaration of Independence is written in three parts. The last part is what you would think the document would be about. It’s a legal assertion of the separation, formal and legal assertion. It contains the fourth appeal to God, the supreme judge of the world, in that part. And then the signers pledge their fortunes, their lives and their sacred honor to it. You’d think that would be first, because these are wanted men. And they’re about to go to war, and they know that to lose it is to be hung, and even to fall into the hands of the British on the street is to be deported and probably hung. So you’d think they’d start with that. You’ve been bad to us, and we’re going to fight you. That’s only the end. Now the middle, we’ve mentioned it before, and I won’t belabor it, but you should read, people should read those and think in sort of reverse terms. Because the king has done these things, this list of particulars that occupies the middle of the Declaration, because of that, the Revolution is justified. And that means, by the way, that good government would not do those things, must not do those things.

HH: Correct.

LA: And those things are the essential elements of what came to be the American Constitution. You have to have separation of powers, you have to have representation, and you have to have a limited government. Those are the main themes of the American Constitution. You have to respect people’s civil liberties, and that structure of government is the way by which you do it. People argue all the time, historians do, and I myself think it’s just foolishness, that there was some conservative reaction against the Declaration of Independence in the Constitution, but the truth is the main outlines of the Constitution are right there in the text of the Declaration.

HH: I don’t know how anyone can argue other than that. I really don’t.

LA: Yeah, it’s amazing to me. And you know, the great Harry Jaffa used to have fights with people all the time about that. And I wrote one of my books, because I came to see that more clearly than I had before, that it’s there, right?

HH: Oh, look at it, for suspending our own legislatures and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

LA: Yeah.

HH: That is obviously a requirement of federalism and of respect of dual federalism, of dual sovereignty.

LA: That’s right.

HH: It’s just obvious to most people. But the left does what it has to do in order to proceed as it will walk.

LA: Yeah, and see, the American left, the modern American left, has lived on an appeal from the Constitution to the Declaration, which document, however, apparently they have not read.

HH: And I want to pause before we go to break. The interesting thing about pledging lives, fortunes and sacred honor, the list here includes one Charles Carroll, who was the wealthiest man in the colonies. These were substantial individuals. They were not ruffians. They were the Bill Gates of the day. Jefferson, the greatest political figure in Virginia except for Washington, I mean, these are not, these guys were really playing with fire.

LA: Yeah, one of them who had a farm outside of Philadelphia said the night before he signed the document, he said to his wife, he said we’re going to declare independence tomorrow. And she said yes, and he said I’m going to vote for it. And she said yes, and he said we live near the sea. They’re going to take my farm, our farm. And she said you’ll find us somewhere to go.

HH: Wow.

— – – —

HH: There’s a famous declaration by Abraham Lincoln about golden apples and silver frames, which you probably have committed to memory. Would you explain to them what the golden apple is and why it is so much important for people to understand it, especially four days before they vote?

LA: He said that the Declaration is like, and the Constitution are like apples of gold in frames, or pictures, he said, of silver. And the Declaration is the apple of gold, and the Constitution is the frame in which it lives. And you know, there were three crises in the American Revolution. There was the getting to independence, and there was the war, and there was the writing of the Constitution. And success in all three were necessary to the forming of the American republic. And so that’s why Lincoln said that. And you know, Lincoln, people should know, because a lot of people say otherwise, Lincoln was deeply respectful of the Constitution. Lincoln formed the party with people from Hillsdale College very involved, by the way.

HH: Yup.

LA: …that committed not to interfere with slavery in the states because the federal government had no power to do it, much as they hated slavery. And instead, they thought that another way, which was to forbid it to grow, to go into any of the new territories, would be the way to place it on the course of ultimate extinction. And so he was acting in the name of the Declaration of Independence, but he was acting under the Constitution.

HH: It is an interesting reflection as well that you and I have talked a lot about prudence in the course of the last few weeks. And you were talking about prudence again on Tuesday night in Los Angeles at the California Club. And prudence appears in the second paragraph. Prudence indeed will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes. And accordingly, all experience has shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed, an argument that you have really had to break our patience for us to do this.

LA: Yeah, that’s right.

HH: It’s just…

LA: And that’s why the particulars in the middle of the Declaration are necessary. In other words, we have, let facts be submitted to a candid world. In other words, this is the stuff he did. And this stuff makes him a tyrant, which they call him. And you know, he wasn’t a tyrant on the scale that we have cultivated in the more modern world. But the principle is there. You live in these territories, you happen to be colonists. I can do with you as I please. And that principle, and see, the stuff he did, because you know, he’s taken their homes from them now, and people are, you know, people are starting to shoot. And so it makes it remarkable that the Declaration comes after the shooting has begun. And that’s a fact to remember, especially in light of the ending of the Declaration, because it begins so abstractly. It begins so universally. It begins with the declaration of the rights that everyone has. And that’s what’s beautiful, that’s what, it’s the three parts together that make it so beautiful. But the first part by itself is simply unprecedented, and you know, very lovely. And its claim is that in any time, so see, they have to step outside their own situation to make this claim, when in the course of human events, that in any time any people have certain rights that cannot be violated, and those rights are established in what he calls the laws of nature and of nature’s God. That’s what, by the way, modern intellectuals, progressives, say don’t exist. And they needed something like that, of course, because they were throwing off the law, and they needed some guide to establish a new law. And it rings so well in part because of its elevation. God is mentioned four times in the Declaration, and because He’s mentioned as the maker of the laws of nature and nature’s God, and as the supreme judge of the world. And as Divine providence, He actually is named as all three branches of government, and as the Creator, which is like a constitution maker. Part of its lesson is all of the powers of government must never be combined in any human hands. And so there’s a profundity about it, and an intricacy about it that’s lovely, and yet you don’t have to see that to see that it’s saying something to every living human being at every time, and in every place.

HH: What’s it saying to people, with two minutes left, Dr. Arnn, who are voting between now and Tuesday, and of course on Tuesday itself?

LA: It’s saying that in your nature is written your rights, and that no one may govern you except by your effective consent, that you own the government, and that it may not do anything to you except what you agree that it may do, and that there are agreements you could make with it that would sacrifice your rights, and you would be in the wrong to make those agreements.

HH: So as people approach this, and it’s a very important election, they’ve got to understand it’s not just about gathering up goodies or getting goodies back or cutting debt. It’s really about how we chose to live many, many hundreds of years ago, and how we are very, very rapidly choosing not to live that way anymore.

LA: The question, the political question of the time is, is the government going to overwhelm the people with its strength and size and intrusiveness, because it’s half the economy now or more, and it intrudes into institutions previously thought both private and sacred. And it counts as its, it proclaims itself responsible for every good thing we have. And you know, goodness, I had a woman say to me the other day who used to work at the Department of Education, but you have to take the student loans. And I said well, we don’t. And she said well, then everyone must be rich. And I said no, they’re not. And she said where do you get the money? And I said well, there’s just two choices. And if it doesn’t come from the public sector, it would be the private sector. Ever hear of that?

HH: (laughing)

LA: (laughing)

HH: Don’t be confounding those bureaucrats that way, Larry Arnn. Dr. Larry Arnn, a great send-off to the election cycle of the next 96 hours. Thank you. I will talk with you on Wednesday when most of the smoke, if not all of it, is cleared and we’ll decide whether or not the country has lived up to the Declaration that began it. Dr. Larry Arnn from Hillsdale College,

End of interview.


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