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Dr. Larry Arnn On Hamilton, Lincoln, Coolidge And The Declaration

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HH: On this Good Friday and Passover, I’m pleased to welcome my friend, the president of Hillsdale College, Dr. Larry Arnn, to talk a little bit about the founding principles of the United States, because it’s really a great day for religious diversity in America. I’ve been wishing people a blessed Passover and a Happy Easter and a solemn Good Friday. And Dr. Arnn, very few countries in the world have the ability to have so many people celebrate such important religious holidays in peace and mutual respect as ours do.

LA: Isn’t that a wonderful thing? You know, I was once in Jerusalem with the great and late Sir Martin Gilbert when, on one of those years when Passover and Easter corresponded. And I went to a thing in the middle of Jerusalem, and they were being celebrated simultaneously, but in slightly different parts of the city, and in peace. But that’s rare, and it doesn’t always happen, and it’s not always allowed in that part of the world anymore.

HH: It’s very rare even in other parts of the world. And that’s why I thought we would spend this week and next focusing on first the principles that animated the founding, and then the character of the American people. And of course, the wonderful Kyle, your right arm, sent me an outline that I couldn’t get done in eight weeks, much less two weeks. But he sent me the seven principles that you have identified as crucial for people to understand, or actually seven illustrations of the principles that animate this beautiful republic. So I just want to walk through them today, and next week, we’ll cover the character of the American people. But the first principle that you cite is the one elucidated in the answer of the Council of Massachusetts to Governor Thomas Hutchinson in 1773 that begins, “Supreme or unlimited authority can, with fitness, belong only to the sovereign of the universe.” So much for this being a secular republic.

LA: Yeah, there you go. So you can find that same principle in the Declaration of Independence. God is there four times, and He appears as each branch of government among the four. And the lesson is obvious that you can’t, that we are not the kind of being that can do without government, and we are not the kind of being that can be trusted with arbitrary power over one another. And so that, the structure of the universe, which is also, incidentally, necessary to understand what we mean by human equality, the obvious thing about human beings is they’re not equal. Every one you see is different from every other one you see. And so what does equality mean? And it springs to sight, and it becomes clear when you think yeah, there are other kinds of beings than us, and then when you look at the order of nature, you see that some are below us, and that anything that was perfect would be above us. And God is the perfect thing. So in the same stroke, by comparing us to God and beast below, we come to understand what we are, and also that we can’t trust one another with other power over others of us.

HH: An important first principle. It brings to mind as well, though, if you’re going to appeal to God, you have to understand what that means. I know you are about building a chapel.

LA: Yes.

HH: And I have been on your campus as recently as the depths of winter in January, because I’m only invited when it’s below zero there.

LA: (laughing) You’re too good a friend to come in the good weather time.

HH: And there are, of course, an abundance of religious practices on the campus of Hillsdale College. And all faiths are represented, and all are welcome. But when you build a chapel, you’ll have to accommodate all that. How do you think that through? I think Ransom is the fellow who started your college, right? There’s that beautiful painting of him picking out Hillsdale. How do you accommodate so many faith traditions, but one supreme being?

LA: Well, the college, first of all, has a special claim to Christianity. The articles say the teaching of the Christian faith by precept and example shall remain a conspicuous aim of the college. And it was founded as a Christian college. But it was sort of like America in another respect, and that is the first line of the college’s founding document says that we celebrate civil and religious freedom. And that means that every human being has a right to follow his conscience as it explains through reason and faith how he ought to behave. And so that means that we’ve always, we’ve never required a faith statement to attend. The college is overwhelmingly Christian, always has been. We expect it always will be, and we regard ourselves as having a duty to make it so. And others are welcome. And so we have Jewish students, we have had some Muslim students. And we provide a place for them to worship. And they may worship as they please, of course, as long as we’re all respectful of the mission of the college.

HH: Now when you go about building that church, I don’t know if you’re going to have one donor or two or 5,000 donors, but I am reminded of Robert Schuler, who died yesterday, a great American, and I think you probably knew him. I knew him.

LA: Yeah.

HH: When he built the Crystal Cathedral, which is now the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Orange County, he allowed for public participation. He had people buy stones and things like that. They wanted to be part of the building of a great church. Are you doing to do that? Or is it going to be one donor or two donors for your chapel?

LA: No, there’ll be, so we have one lead donor that’s given us, we’re over halfway there, and have a line on some more. But there will be, and the parents of the college, by the way, have said, pledged, of the students in the college now, the current students, have pledged more than $2 million dollars for this project. And so there’s a lot of them, and they are giving heavily. And yeah, we want, it’s a Christian chapel, and it is kind of like the Crystal Cathedral in this respect. It’s, first of all, it’s very classical, it’s a beautiful building, going to be, but the architect who is a famous man named Duncan Stroik from Notre Dame, tells us that there hasn’t really been a building built this big in this style for two generations anywhere in the world, because it’s got to be big enough to hold 1,400 people, which is how many we are, and you know, really standing, I won’t make any comment about obedience to the fire marshal, but we really need to get 1,600 there, and there’s a way to do that. And so we will all be able to gather for academic/religious ceremonies, most of which are called convocation at Hillsdale, and happen four times a year. And so we’ll all be able to gather for that, and it’ll also be a really great place for music, and I expect that there’ll be many hundreds of people who’ll give money for it.

HH: You know what amazes me is that there, I don’t know how many churches have been built on college campuses in the last 50 years, but I’ll bet you, you can count them on one hand.

LA: Yeah, and this is, yeah, there are a few, and they tend to be, you know, modern, of course. Everybody knows to build really modern buildings. You know, I know of a college, I won’t mention its name, where there was some delay in building a chapel, because the witches demanded some representation. And it took a while for it to get past that. I think they got past it. And we’re not going to recognize the witches at the Hillsdale College chapel. But it’s meant to be like the college was meant to be. The college is a beautiful college, and its original building where those great things happened to help save America and advance the cause of liberal learning, its original building is built in a, it’s called Italianate Renaissance, and it’s derived from the federal architecture that makes Washington, D.C. so beautiful when it is beautiful, or, say, Mount Vernon or Monticello. So the college architecture is an echo of that. And this chapel preserves that, and it’ll be actually the biggest single building on campus.

HH: You know, it’s going to be, this is a little off topic, but it’s going to be hard for you, because as the culture collapses, more and more people are going to want their children to be educated in a place like Hillsdale. And you’re not making it bigger. You’re making it better all the time, but you’re not making it bigger. The pressure must be growing to make it bigger, because more people want what you’re educating people in.

LA: Liberal arts education in America is collapsing, and the number of people who are applying is collapsing, and our applications are up. And yeah, that’s right. And so the strategy is this. You, Hugh Hewitt, are appointed in nature to help us make the college bigger in the way we can make it bigger. And that is we look for ways so that everyone who wants to learn from us, we will find a way to teach them. And that’s why charter schools, and that’s why online courses, which you know, now are more than a million registrants for those, and that’s why the Hillsdale Dialogues.

HH: And that’s why Imprimis. I see Heather MacDonald gave a speech on immigration which I have not yet read. I went over to and have not yet read this. But if you are not yet a subscriber to Imprimis, it is absolutely free. You need only go to You can make it an Easter gift to all of our loved ones. You can actually be as beneficial, you want to, as many people as you want by signing them up at All the Hillsdale Dialogues, by the way, 100 hours plus of them available at, including this one. When we come back, instructions from the committee from the Province of Pennsylvania to the representatives in the assembly met, 1774. I am overcoming a deep, deep disregard for Pennsylvania by citing this as one of the principles of the American founding when we return. But so we will return with Dr. Larry Arnn.

— – – —

HH: Among the missives sent to me by Dr. Arnn to reflect on before we got going were instructions from the committee for the Province of Pennsylvania, the representatives in assembly met, 1774. Now of course, I was aware of the rare Pennsylvanian, like Ben Franklin, who was a man of wisdom and intelligence. I was aware of convocations, of course, in Pennsylvania of great significance to this country. I was unaware of a gathering of native Pennsylvanians who had actually produced a literate document until this point, however. And so this was news to me, and it’s really, do you think they imported someone from New York to ghost this?

LA: Yeah, yeah, you always make fun of Ohio, I mean, you always love Ohio and make fun, but I will say that these guys, there were some fantastic Pennsylvanians, and of course, they did their main work in Pennsylvania, but they were not Steelers fans.

HH: They were not. This predates them. But this is a remarkable statement. Do you have it in front of you, or do you want me to read it?

LA: Read it.

HH: “And in fact upon considering the primitive state of man, it appears most certain that the Appalachians of sovereigns and subject, master and slaves, are unknown to nature. Nature has made all of us of the same species, all equal, all free and independent of each other, and was willing that those on whom she has bestowed the same faculties should have the same rights. It is therefore beyond doubt that in this primitive state of nature, no man has of himself an original right of commanding others, or any title to sovereignty. There is none but God alone that has of himself an inconsequence of his nature and perfections a natural, essential and inherent right of giving laws to mankind, and of exercising an absolute sovereignty over them. This liberty and independence is therefore a right naturally belonging to man, of which it would be unjust to deprive him against his will.” This is two years before the Declaration, and it’s from Pennsylvania.

LA: Yeah, well, there’s a lot of injustice done to the founders of America, and it really has two parts, this injustice. One is they, you can’t find any leader in the American Revolution who did not condemn slavery. There were slaveholders among them, of course, Thomas Jefferson a big one, and what they thought was this is, if it talks, it’s a human, right? If it has the gift of speech, my great teacher, both of my teachers have died lately, Harry Jaffa, kids who are undergraduates come into class and argue that dolphins could talk just like us, and so it was wrong of us to do whatever we were doing to them. And Professor Jaffa would always say the same thing. The minute one of them asks for the vote, you’ve got to give it to him.

HH: (laughing)

LA: And that’s because that’s the human gift, the respect in which we’re created in the image of God. And that means that those people were not defenders of slavery. Indeed, they destroyed it in more than 60% of the Union right away. And so they didn’t get rid of it fully, and there’s blame to go around for that, true enough. But the miracle is not that they were slaveholders and hypocrites. The miracle is that a bunch of slaveholders articulated the principles that they did and thought that they were bound by them.

HH: And that is what takes me out of order to Lincoln’s letter to Henry Pierce of April 6, 1859. “All honor to Jefferson, to the man who 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 and abstract truth applicable to all men at all times, and do so embalm it there that today and in all coming days it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.” That’s really quite beautiful in so many ways.

LA: Yeah, you know, and by the way, a farmer and a self-educated country lawyer. Isn’t that wonderful?

HH: It is.

LA: In Scottsdale, Arizona, you provoked me to say, asking me questions, isn’t a miracle, Abraham Lincoln? And if that can happen, any great thing can happen. And that thing that he said there, see, that’s the stubbornness of nature, right? It’s just true that every time, you know, I was just at Good Friday service, and I’ve hired a new guy who’s a graduate of Hillsdale College and a PhD from Claremont, and he’s got the cutest two kids I’ve ever seen. And he’s just moved to town to start his work here, and I saw him in church, his little girl, Emma, is the most delightful thing you’ll ever see. And Emma is born a human. And everything that’s born like that is going to talk and be responsible for itself, and has a right to, see? And you know, I was going to say a minute ago about this word nature that the essential nature of the human being is reason and speech. But the operation of the nature of the human being is, as is all over the American Revolution, is that we grow up in families. And it takes us a long time to grow up. And so our well-being has so much to do with the fact that they don’t have to do it. But the people who give rise, birth to us, have to spend a long time taking care of us. And then when we get old, our children have to spend a long time taking care of us in return.

HH: And that is why Robert Putnam, the great Harvard academic, I believe a man of the left and a secularist, has this new book out titled Out Children, which is just so depressing, because the collapse of the family has left a generation of wandering people who have not been so raised and are not so equipped as a result.

LA: And listen, and you know, there’s a good article by Nick Eberstadt lately. And see, these questions of religious freedom and the family are all wrapped up in public affairs right now, and in the political controversies. But just think fundamentally about it, right? It, human beings, who are the freest things born in nature, for some great purpose of God, take a long time to raise, more than other kinds of creatures. And then in our decline, we need a lot of help. And those attachments are the nature, and remember, the word, well, I’ll tell you, the word nature comes from the Latin words that means to birth, to bore, to be born, to be begotten. And so that collapse that’s going on all over the world, and it seems to have, by the way, transcend the fact that there’s also a difference of principle about what constitutes the family now among many people. But everywhere there’s good measurements, that there’s measurements that that’s a disaster. And so this, these natural rights that we have, that means that nobody can own us, are connected to our nature, which is the way we come to be and grow up. And if we discard the one, then oddly enough, then the next thing you know, there’s lots of differences of opinion about the other.

HH: Yeah, and the collapse of…

LA: And that is characteristic of the age in which we live.

HH: That’s the crisis.

LA: Yeah.

HH: And we will come back after break and talk a little bit more about the first crisis with Jefferson and Hamilton, contributing to our seven principles. Don’t go anywhere except to Constitution 101 has reopened. You can sign up at any time to do that. They also have terrific courses on the Federalist Papers, on the progressives, and every one of the Hillsdale Dialogues, extending back two and a half years now, available at, and Imprimis can be signed up for free at Stay tuned. Dr. Arnn returns on this Good Friday and Passover right after this.

— – — – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, the indefatigable Kyle sent me two wonderful excerpts – Thomas Jefferson, a summer view of the rights of British America. So he’s still thinking himself as a Brit. “That these are our grievances which has thus been laid before his majesty 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 it would ill beseem those who were asserting the rights of human nature. They know, and will therefore say, that kings are the servants, not the proprietors of the people.” That took some steel to address his majesty.

LA: Yeah, I just, you know, it’s worth backing up a second and talking about the drama that this particular piece of writing is part of. It does the same thing two years as the Declaration. When we get into our conflict with the king, of course he’s the sovereign and he’s very powerful, and everybody’s used to addressing him with great courtesy and deference. And so the pamphlets of the American Revolution grow firmer as they go. And then we cross a divide when Thomas Jefferson decides to write something, because he had a gift. And so I’ll just read some of those words before. This is toward the end of Jefferson’s theme, important essay, A Summary View of the Rights of British America. “Let those flatter who fear.” I mean, when you say that to a powerful man, what are you telling him, right?

HH: Yeah, we’re not afraid.

LA: We’re not that kind, right? “We Americans,” and you know that the first flag of the Revolution was a snake with the words Don’t Tread On Me under it. And so if you’re looking for a principle here, it’s that a free people is fierce in defense of its liberties, and you don’t want to fight them.

HH: Let those flatter who fear. It is not an American art. Then Hamilton comes along a year later in Farmer Refuted, and writes, and I’ve not seen this, either. “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written as with a sunbeam in the whole volume of human nature by the hand of the Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.” I’m thinking of your little girl at church today.

LA: You see, that’s right. And that means, so I’m well-known around Hillsdale College and other places for loving to teach Aristotle. And one of the things we have to teach here is this. We have to teach them that we’re not, we don’t really care about their opinion, and we don’t really care about our own opinion, and we don’t even care about Aristotle’s opinion. We’re looking for the truth. And that’s an argument. And you’ve got to work, right? And you’ve got to have an idea about the truth, and you’ve got to sustain it in debate and against the evidence. So the reason that’s important is these people who founded America are inventing the language that the world still talks in about freedom and consent of the governed. And what Hamilton is saying, it’s kind of a humble thing for him to be saying, is that just like we don’t have to go look up in old books what our rights are, so you don’t have to learn them from us. They are written as with a sunbeam in the whole volume of human nature by the hand of Divinity itself. And that’s an absolute thing then, right? That means king, with all your laws and your old family that places you in charge of the British empire, and you think in charge of us, that’s nothing compared to the age of the thing that I have just named, or its scope. And that’s just breathtaking. And Rick Brookheiser, who wrote a good book about several of the founders, and lately about Lincoln, he said that’s the best sentence Alexander Hamilton ever wrote. And I will add to it…

HH: Really?

LA: Yeah. Yeah, and it is, too. And I will add to it. And in the Federalist Papers, by the way, there are some wonderful sentences by Hamilton.

HH: Yes, that’s what I mean, #78 – energy and the executive.

LA: Yeah, Hamilton wrote this sentence, and Hugh, I can quote this from memory. In the first Federalist, he says it has been left to the people of this country by their conduct to decide for all time the question whether societies of men are capable of governing themselves by reason and choice, or whether they must ever depend on accident and force for their institutions. So the freedom of mankind, he’s saying, depends on what we do right here. You see? Now put those two things together, because this one is better than that, I think, if it’s possible for something to be better than that. But put the two of them together, and what do they mean? That means that in the whole order of the cosmos, there are things that we can see about how human beings are to conduct themselves and be governed. And none of us can repeal those.

HH: Not a word of it. I’ll be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College. Stay tuned.

— – — –

HH: Dr. Arnn, there are two that we have to cover in our eight minutes – Abraham Lincoln’s speech on the Dred Scott decision of June 26, 1857, and then of all things, Calvin Coolidge in Philadelphia on July 5, 1926, a good 50 years later. What is it about Lincoln talking about the dreadful Dred Scott decision, I just taught it last week, and I also taught Scalia’s essay, or his rumination on Taney’s portrait at Harvard Law School thinking about this decision. What is it that Lincoln had to say about the Dred Scott decision that you think we need to be reminded of?

LA: Well, Lincoln’s art and achievement was to remind a nation that had forgotten it that the cause of the nation, that’s to say first of all, its first action as a nation is the Declaration of Independence. And also, its final cause in the way classical writers use the term final, and what they mean by that term is the ultimate thing that you love that produces what you do, that makes you do it. And so the final cause of any human action is the thing that they love the most that this activity contributes to. And Lincoln reminded America, so in the Gettysburg address, he says four score and seven years ago, and that dates back to 1776, the Declaration of Independence, before the Constitution. That’s what made America, he says, and he reminds in the case of this terrible court case which says that under the law of America, as the founders intended, that this is what Chief Justice Taney says, the black man has no rights that the white man is bound to respect. And that means that once he’s a slave, it doesn’t matter if he gets to a free place. He’s still a slave. And in order to combat that, Lincoln arguing with the highest court in the land brings up a much higher court than that, because it’s in the laws of nature and of nature’s God that all men are created equal. And that appeal back to the beginning of America is what made the Civil War go the way it went. And it was, you know, it was brilliant. And see, Lincoln, all statesmen who are any good are like this. You have to find on any fundamental thing, you have to find a way to be absolute in principle even while you’re flexible in practice.

HH: Right.

LA: And so Lincoln achieved that, and that’s how he was able to support both the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence at the same time. And this letter to Henry Pierce is a great summary of that. And remember, what it does, by the way, it says that we’re never going to be perfectly in service to the Declaration of Independence. But it’s always going to be there.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And we can’t get, and that’s how we live.

HH: He says that in the speech as well on Dred Scott. He writes, “The assertion that all men are created equal was of no practical use in affecting our separation from Great Britain, and it was placed in the Declaration not for that, but for its future use.” That’s quite a tip of the hat to Jefferson.

LA: Yeah, and see, by the way, it’s the opposite conclusion from the same fact drawn by John C. Calhoun, who was the great apostle of slavery and the cause of positive good of slavery, South Carolinian, and a student of a Friedrich Hegel, a believer in historicism.

HH: Now I’ve got to finish, I’ve got to finish with Calvin Coolidge, because I hadn’t read this, either.

LA: Yeah, okay.

HH: And I want to make sure I read it. Coolidge gives a speech, it’s got to be one of those July 4th occasion speeches…

LA: 150th anniversary.

HH: 150th anniversary of the day after, July 5th. And why don’t you read this if you’ve got it in front of you, Arnn.

LA: Yeah, I do. I found all that now. Kyle sends you more than he sends me. “About the Declaration, there is a finality that is exceedingly restful.” By the way, don’t you know that we live in an age, and it was beginning in Coolidge’s time that we think that everything old has been superseded, right?

HH: Right.

LA: Coolidge is, by the way, the first president ever to give a speech on the radio.

HH: Oh.

LA: “…finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since ’76, that we’ve had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can’t be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with unalienable 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 propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient than those of the Revolutionary fathers.”

HH: You see, that is closure.

LA: Yeah.

HH: When he said if all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with unalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. It’s a rebuke. He’s living in the progressive era. It’s a rebuke, by the way, of the people running the country today. They’re trying to say that these are not final, but they are.

LA: Read the controversies today about religious freedom and about the nature of the family and all that, and you’ll hear famous people saying that the founding fathers, they use their authority to support the idea that America is the land of progressive unfolding of law and of human nature. And Calvin Coolidge says no, read the Declaration. What in fact does it say?

HH: Well, and in that, it’s an excellent rebuke. Dr. Larry Arnn, thank you, as always. A very Happy Easter to you and yours, and the college, I assume, is in recess at least until Monday?

LA: We quit today at Noon. We let them out to go to a Good Friday service, but we tortured them right up to the last possible moment.

HH: And then they can relieve and enjoy more fully the passion of the Christ. Larry Arnn, Happy Easter to you and yours, we’ll talk again next week.

End of interview.


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