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Dr. Matthew Spalding on the Declaration of Independence on Memorial Day Weekend

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HH: That music means it is the last radio hour of the week, and that means the Hillsdale Dialogue. All things Hillsdale available at All of these conversations with Dr. Larry Arnn or one of his colleagues, today Dr. Matthew Spalding, the leader of the Kirby Center in Washington, D.C., are collected at There is a new Constitution series up, by the way, at And you’ll be redirected from HughforHillsdale for a moment to the new Constitution series, so I want you not to be surprised by that. Dr. Spalding, good morning, Matt, it is good to have you.

MS: Good morning, Hugh, how are you? Good to be with you.

HH: Good. I’ve got to give you some headlines first. Horrific attack in Egypt this morning, 20 Copts machine gunned on a bus in Southern Egypt, Philippine terror attack yesterday, Manchester bombing on Monday, and Jeremy Corbyn of the British Labour Party has attacked the West for these terrorist incidents, and indeed is getting slammed, according to the Times of London this morning, for politicizing the bombings. What do you make of both the bombings and this Marxist, crazy attack on the West for causing them?

MS: Well, I mean, look, I think the fact that the President is in the Middle East and making inroads in this battle, I think, is an immediate push to, for the extremists to attack back more. This is what happens when you start fighting these types of battles. I think, I haven’t read the details of what exactly the guy said criticizing the West, but that is not at all, not at all surprising. That’s an extreme version of what the Obama administration’s position was in many ways, right? The West and its hard line is to blame for what other individuals are doing. These are the two worldviews, right? One is let’s be nice to the world and hope the world is nice to us, and we are the, we should not be aggressive. We should back away. We should lead from behind, if you recall that. That’s clearly not what this president is doing. I think that’s not what the long tradition of American foreign policy suggested. And there’s been a turn. I think this trip represents a turn, an announced turn in that foreign policy, especially concerning the Middle East.

HH: It is quite a turn. I think that’s well and truly put, Matt Spalding. Earlier today, former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was on, and he condemned as somewhat rabid attacks on Donald Trump. He thought that comparisons with Watergate were ridiculous. That’s a direct quote. He was there. He saw it. These others, there are no there there, yet, as to charges of collusion. But he also went on to say that sure, the Russians attacked us, and that President Trump was “exactly on the mark” in criticizing NATO for underfunding defense, and that it’s utterly nonsense for attacking, for the attack of critics saying he should not have done it when they were standing there. What do you make of Rumsfeld’s critique of the critics?

MS: Well, I think he’s absolutely right, especially on the speech to the NATO allies. I mean, look, what the President did, he went to these nations, starting by going to the locations of the great revealed religions, and then going to NATO, was a brilliant move. And he in each one of those places gave very important remarks showing this turn, but he also went to the NATO, very important, and he established two things. One is you guys have got to get into the fight, and you’ve got to fight terrorism. So he didn’t neglect the alliance. But then he said you’ve got to put up. He’s campaigned on that. He’s made that very clear. But that’s what an alliance is about. It’s about obligations and responsibilities. The idea that he called them on that in an important speech, I think, is not only legitimate, but the right thing to do. And it fits very clearly with his laying out of this idea of interests on the one hand, and a sense of justice on the other. What he was laying out there, I think, in all of these speeches is a, reviving ideas of American interest, which some say is unseemly, but combining it with a larger argument about what’s, what is right. If you recall in Riyadh, right, this is a battle between good and evil. So this wasn’t merely kind of narrow American interests. He’s got a larger view in mind.

HH: Yeah, I believe that the President’s speech in Riyadh is going to be memorable, especially for one line when he appealed to the religious leaders. And this is what he said.

DT: Religious leaders must make this absolutely clear. Barbarism will deliver you no glory. Piety to evil will bring you no dignity. If you choose the path of terror, your life will be empty, your life will be brief, and your soul will be fully condemned.

HH: Dr. Spalding, your soul will be fully condemned, I believe, is going to be a defining line, because he has moved the terrain of the argument to religious leaders demanding that the make the argument to their fanatical followers that they’re going to hell. I don’t think we’ve done this before.

MS: We haven’t done it very recently, that’s for sure. No, here’s that turn. So on the one hand, I think that speech was very powerful in the sense there was a great sense of moderation. It was very presidential. It was not the same kind of rhetoric, but he made very clear where he was going, right? He talks about our friendship, he talks about the Islamic faith. But right before that quote you gave me, he refers to the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamic terror groups it inspires. But then he turns, and he uses the religious argument, a pro-Muslim argument, to show that that’s not, he doesn’t condemn Islam per se, doesn’t directly go after it as he’s sometimes accused, but he doesn’t ignore the problem. He turns it and makes it a religious argument against terrorism, and appeals to them on religious grounds. That not only was a wonderful, powerful rhetorical move, but I think strategically, in turning those tables, was extremely important, and I think you’re right to point to that passage.

HH: And an update to the horror of the morning, 26 people have been killed, 35 wounded, in the attack on the Coptic Christians in Southern Egypt underscoring what we’re talking about here, the importance of the President’s trip. Secretary Rumsfeld said one other thing, Matt Spalding. He said some of the critics of Donald Trump seem rabid. And it does seem to me that every single day the attempt to turn the Macron handshake into a slight, you know, when he veered off to shake hands with Merkel, which you do first. You think to yourself, I should shake hands with the longer-serving and the woman, and then move my say down the line so as to not ignore anyone. And they tried to make that into a thing. They tried to make into a thing that he went to his assigned spot past the president of Montenegro. Everything, it is rabid. It’s crazy, in fact.

MS: No, they’re looking for every little possible thing, and I think that if this were turned around and this were a different president from a different party, most of this would be ignored. I think the problem is that there is such disagreement with what he’s trying to do and where he wants to go, and they don’t want to engage on those at that level. They want to engage on this, you know, the facile level, I think. And that isn’t going to get them very far. There’s not much substance to it. And so when he comes back with this speech like he did in Saudi Arabia, which is a serious speech, and I think you’ll see the first initial layings out of a, what kind of a Trumpian foreign policy argument would be, very similar in interesting ways to, I think, an argument going back to or alluding to your continuing discussion about the Declaration of Independence. There’s an argument being laid out there about America’s role in the world, about protecting our interests, an American interest, and yet appealing to our friends on a ground of justice. That’s a very powerful argument, and I don’t think they want to engage that, because they just can’t imagine having a serious conversation with this president in particular about this direction of foreign policy that’s being laid out here. I don’t think they want to go there. They don’t want to give him any ground and suggest there’s any legitimacy to this presidency, especially in terms of where it might be going in terms of policy.

HH: I want you to listen to President Obama. We will return to the Declaration of Independence after the break, but this is former President Obama in Berlin yesterday, cut number one:

BO: And it’s not always easy, because for example, look at a place like Syria where despite our best efforts, and this is something that Angela and I worked on a lot, you still have a vicious war taking place, you still have millions of people displaced, hundreds of thousands killed, and it is going to require, I think, everything we can do to recognize that what happens on the other side of the world or these other countries, whether it’s in Africa or Asia or Latin America, that it has an impact on us, and that we’re going to have to be invested in trying to help those countries achieve peace and prosperity, and as president, I did not always have the tools that I wanted to affect those kinds of changes, but at least we tried. And part of the goal here is to, if you try long enough, eventually what President Abraham Lincoln called the better angels of our nature, I think, can win out.

HH: At least we tried, Matt Spalding. 30 seconds, at least we tried. What do you think of that?

MS: Well, I think it’s an admission of a failure. He’s not thinking through the implications of foreign policy that plays out in the world, and I think they’re going a different direction now, showing that that policy didn’t work, especially in the Middle East.

HH: When we come back, the Declaration of Independence on Memorial Day eve with Dr. Matthew Spalding of Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center.

— – – — –

HH: Matt Spalding, it’s wholly appropriate we talk about and finish our conversation, as I’ve been having with Dr. Arnn, about the Declaration of Independence. 4,435 new Americans died in the Revolutionary War. 6,188 were wounded. It is actually the first war of America, the war for American independence, and it had its first people who gave their last full measure right up until today. An American serviceman died in Syria today. That is being reported as we speak. And so from 1775 to May 26, 2017, some people have given their last full measure, and I appreciate what Hillsdale has done here.

MS: And George Washington introduced the Purple Heart. He invented it himself during the Revolutionary war, sewing a small piece of fabric onto a soldier’s uniform.

HH: I did not know that. When we left off with Dr. Arnn last week, we had gotten to this part, and I want to continue through so people hear the rest of it. About King George, the Declaration continued, he has abdicated government here by declaring us out of his protection and waging war against us. He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns and destroyed the lives of our people. He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages and totally unworthy of the head of a civilized nation. That’s got to sting.

MS: That’s got to sting. So remember, after the battles of Lexington and Concord, George Washington moves his troops up to New York. He wants to defend after the Boston Siege. Before July, going into, you June and July, August, the British have started transporting massive numbers of troops to America heading towards New York. There are already ships out off of New York looking at the American troops there trying to decide whether they’re, when they’re going to invade. They know something is happening, and the British king is sending a bunch of mercenaries, Hessians, the Germans, under pay, to help him suppress this rebellion in America. So this is the turning point in this list of things against the king. He has turned on us, the final moment. He has abdicated government here. He’s declared us out of his protection and waging war against us. That’s an important turn here. The American argument is that you know, they’re not declaring this against the Parliament. The subject here is the king, right? He’s their last connection to the compacts, and he’s their last protector. But he’s done all these things. He’s failed to protect us. And in doing so, it’s the king who has rebelled, and this is the final straw.

HH: There are more straws.

MS: Right, and he’s going against us.

HH: He has constrained our fellow citizens, taken captive on the high seas, to bear arms against their country, to become the executioners of their friends and brethren, or to fall themselves by their hands. That is, that’s pretty tough, too, to make that…

MS: So they’re impressing, they’re capturing Americans, who the British, of course, consider their citizens, and impressing them to serve in the British Navy. But in both of those passages, look at the language here. They make a distinction between the barbarous ages and the head of a civilized nation, and then the one you just quoted about friends and brethren, right? And then further down, it’s going to refer to the king himself as becoming a tyrant, a prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant as unfit to be the ruler of a free people. This alludes back to the beginning of the Declaration. We’re a people. We are a free people. The British are becoming barbaric because of their actions. They’re tyrannical. And since the king is not protecting us, he is not doing his duty because of our obligations and his obligations to us. He himself is taking on the character of a tyrant.

HH: That’s…

MS: And that’s not a leader of free people.

HH: That is, I think, that is the key here, is that when you morph from a king, a just form of government into a tyranny, an unjust form of government, the right of revolution becomes obvious and necessary. I’ll be right back with Dr. Matthew Spalding, head of the Kirby Center of Hillsdale College.

— – – —

HH: Matthew Spalding, let me conclude the Bill of Particulars against George III. He has excited, continued the Declaration, domestic insurrections among us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions. That is another damning, he’s gone out and gotten the Indians to attack with ferocity everything about the frontier.

MS: Right. I mean, like the earlier reference to mercenaries, and here, the Americans are worried about being attacked around on all sides. Remember, the French were also to go and appeal to the Indians as well to attack the Americans. But to the underlying distinction here, I think I’d point out again is this reference to them being merciless and their known rule of warfare, undistinguished destruction. These are, they’re making moral distinctions here between civilized ways of life and uncivilized ways of life. And the British, by what they’re doing, are getting on the wrong side of this question. And that’s what’s leading inevitably toward this conclusion in this last indictment before they start moving into their conclusion.

HH: And the conclusion is three paragraphs long. Here’s the first. In every stage of these oppressions, we, the Americans, have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms. Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant is unfit to be the ruler of a free people. They want it known by the world they tried.

MS: Yeah, they’ve tried as humble, repeated injury. Remember earlier, they talk about the long train of abuses. And Hugh, you’re a lawyer, so you’ll appreciate this, right? This is a, it’s kind of, think of it also as a common law doc. There’s a preamble, there’s a statement of principle, indictment, and now they’re driving towards the conclusion. Every stage of this, we have been humble in our terms. We’ve gone and answered only by repeated injury. Remember, there was an olive branch petition right before this, and the king put out a royal proclamation, rebellion, treating them as traitors, wanting to bring them to justice. The break has been made. This is their conclusion. And then they add, this is a broad, general statement. This is not particular. This applies to anybody at any time. A prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, that’s as true today as it was then, right?

HH: Yeah.

MS: They’re unfit to be the rule of a free people. That’s a clear, clear distinction, and this is the way in which the Declaration, I think, still guides us in our understanding of the world and how we look out in the world in terms of our particular circumstances, but also these broader, universal principles that we uphold.

HH: It is also a recipe for how to go about establishing legitimacy in revolution. And they include this second penultimate paragraph to explain to people how that is. Nor have we, the Americans, been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity. And we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They, too, have been deaf to the voice of justice and consanguinity. We must therefore acquiesce in the necessity which denounces our separation and hold them as we hold the rest of mankind – enemies in war, in peace, friends.

MS: Another powerful paragraph, and in a certain sense, it repeats the charges, right? It’s a summing up. This is the lawyer summing up of the argument. But there’s important, some important words here, right? We have warned, we have reminded, we’ve appealed, but also, think about the movement. The beginning of the paragraph, it refers to our British brethren, our brethren, our brothers, right? In the middle of it, it talks about our common kindred. But they have, these things have fallen deaf to the voice of justice, but also consanguinity, the blood relationships, right? They have broken, they have severed that tie. We are no longer the same people. We are a different people. By their actions, they have severed that tie. And they have not heard the voice of justice. So now, necessity, right, the great equalizer, if you will, in world affairs, necessity drives us to this separation. But now they hold out something else here, a very important, again, a universal statement that we can use to guide us today, right? We’re going to hold them as the rest of mankind, not our brethren, not our blood relatives. We’re going to hold them enemies in war, in peace, friends, first use of that term friends in this document.

HH: I want to go back as well…

MS: That’s a distinction we can make between friends and enemies, very important.

HH: Matt, there is, this is one of the more obscure lines, because it requires that people know a little American history that would have been on the mind of the framers. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. That is not explicit, but what is the implicit argument of that, Matt Spalding?

MS: Well, remember what they appeal to. So they have, one of the things they have appealed to are all these compacts and contracts with the king that allow them to establish colonies here.

HH: Yes.

MS: Those were royal contracts. That was their last connection to the king, which is why they’re appealing to him and not to Parliament, right? They reminded the king of that. You should protect us, o king. And he has not done so. So that is an important thing that has been severed here, in addition to which, early in the Declaration, it refers to how the king has prevented further emigration and further settlement. So that has been broken in an important way. That’s one of the key things that he has not continued. And then when you add to that the fact that they’ve, we’ve appealed to their broader justice and magnanimity, and we’ve gotten just injuries over and over. We go on this long train of abuses, right?

HH: And if I could make it a modern, a modern translation, we had a deal. We relied upon this.

MS: That’s right.

HH: We have, we have sacrificed much and many in order to execute our side of the deal, and you have breached your deal.

MS: Key thing here, right? He breached it. We didn’t. He breached the deal. Because he breached it, we have to appeal to other grounds. And those other grounds are a grounds of justice, which points us back to the beginning about well, we’re going to base our nation, this people, on something different, namely human equality. And we’re going to build a different government appropriate for that people, and our understanding of justice.

HH: And also which points us back to the beginning, but also leads us to the end.

MS: Exactly.

HH: The last paragraph of the Declaration. We therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in general congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do in the name and by the authority of the good people of these colonies solemnly publish and declare that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved, and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may have right do, 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 fortunes, and our sacred honor.

MS: Powerful conclusion, powerful conclusion. Lots of things in here we should make note of. First one is they begin by appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world. This is, this paragraph includes two more references to God – the Supreme Judge of the world at the beginning of the paragraph…

HH: Yes.

MS: …and His Divine providence at the end, right? This document has references to God as the three forms of government. You’ll recall the laws of nature and of nature’s God, he’s the lawmaker, he’s the Creator endowed with rights, he’s an executive, and now he’s a supreme judge. So he’s all three branches of government, and he’s Divine providence.

HH: Well put. I hadn’t even, I had not realized that before. They made a triune, yeah, how interesting.

MS: It’s all there. We also learn that now these people who are a separate people are a good people, the good people of these colonies. Now in the middle of that, when you started that these united colonies are, all the way up to ought to be totally dissolved, that in the middle, right, that is actually Richard Henry Lee’s motion of June 7th.

HH: Oh.

MS: That is the technical declaration. Everything else written around this document, everything we’ve been talking about for days, is not the original motion. Everything around that is meant to justify and explain the motion. That…

HH: How interesting, Matt.

MS: That, in the middle of that paragraph, is the motion.

HH: So Lee rose and said that these united colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states, and that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved.

MS: That was the motion. That was it.

HH: That was it. Wow.

MS: He also called for foreign alliances, which leads to the French alliance, and designing a form of government which leads to the Articles of Confederation. But independence, that was the motion. That’s on June 7th. It’s passed on July 2nd. And then they spend the next two days debating the Declaration, the document.

HH: Why the month gap there, or almost a month gap?

MS: Well, remember, when he first introduces it in June 7th, there is not the votes. This is where John Adams’ great statesmanship comes into play, right? He works it and works it and works it, including convincing Thomas Jefferson to write the thing, right? Adams refuses. I’m from Massachusetts. Everybody hates me. You, you’re from Virginia, and you’re a great writer, right? He actually writes him a letter to that effect and convinces him to do it. All that maneuvering gets us to being able to pass it on July 2nd.

HH: When we come back from break, we will talk with Matt Spalding about the aftermath of the publication of the Declaration of Independence as we head into the Memorial Day weekend. What a great conversation to be having with the director of the Kirby Center in Washington, D.C.

— – – — –

HH: And I just got a wonderful tweet, Matt Spalding. You’re not on Twitter. I can’t believe that. But Jim Williams writes, thank you for your weekly Hillsdale interviews, always informative and inspirational. And I replied they inform and inspire me as well. They’re all collected at And I’m never, it never ceases to amaze me, Matt Spalding, how the American people are hungry for understanding where they came from. It’s why the David McCullough book, 1776, or as Adams’ biography, or the Hamilton theatrical success actually resonates. It’s because these are very courageous people doing very courageous things. Matt, did we lose you?

MS: No, I’m still here. You got me?

HH: Yeah, I’m sorry, you’re back.

MS: As you start studying this, what you realize very quickly is the actual story is better than the mythical story. It gets better the more you study it. And it’s just a fabulous, fabulous story, staring with that Revolution, keyed off by this Declaration. And it’s a powerful thing. And to end on the Declaration here, the one thing we didn’t mention at the very end is what they’re seeking by being one people is they wanted, as it said at the beginning, a separate and equal station in the world. And they want to do what rights, what states can do by right to do in terms of alliances, and conducting war, if necessary, what independent states may do. They want to establish what Washington talks about in the farewell address, the command of our own fortunes. There’s a certain beauty in commanding our own fortunes, of self-governing, of being the own controllers of our fate. And so not only do we look back historically and find this great story, but it turns out the ends of what we are as a people, what we stand for, are in our beginnings. And people, I think, intuitively realize that once you start getting into the motion and the dynamic of the American idea and its argument. The consequence is back there.

HH: Matt Spalding, walk us through, the war had already begun, the fighting was already underway when the Declaration issues. The breach is made final. But what happens next on the governing side? The Congress is the Continental Congress. What happens to it next?

MS: Well, the Continental Congress starts trying to organize the war, which it turns out they’re not very good at. Washington is much better at that. He’s already in the field. He’s already declared independence. He’s already at war. We also often times forget that Washington goes to Independence Hall and talks to the Virginia delegation in June right before his friend, Richard Henry Lee, introduces the Declaration motion. Washington’s very much involved. He’s going to take over the ultimate control of the war side. The Continental Congress is now going to start focusing on what do we do about governing ourselves. They’ve already called on the states to create their own constitutions, independent constitutions. Massachusetts had done that famously before the Declaration. And they’re going to do more and more of that. And they’re going to start thinking about how we govern ourselves, and that’s ultimately going to become the Articles of Confederation.

HH: And how long does it take to go from Declaration to Articles?

MS: Well, that gets very messy, because it takes them a while to figure out what to do. It takes them a while to write it. And then the thing does not get approved until 1781. This becomes a real problem, and by default, what happens is George Washington, the commander in the field with his army, becomes the de facto, but not de jury, head of state. When France wants to start an alliance with America, when we want to open diplomatic relations, do you know who they contact? They don’t contact the Continental Congress. They contact George Washington in the field.

HH: Huh.

MS: It becomes patently obvious who the head of state here is. And that movement, which is why the, why Washington’s role in eventually resigning but also passing the baton, if you will, to the Constitution, becoming the president of the Constitutional Convention, why all of that history, the military-civil relations of the American Revolution, are so interesting and so important.

HH: Matt Spalding, thank you for spending time with us this morning on a magnificent document. Again, the loss of life in defense of the country began so long ago in 1775. It continues to this very morning with an American serviceman dead in Syria. And all between, as we honor this weekend, men and women have given their utmost on behalf of the country, and there’s really no better way to salute them than by talking about that which inspired them in the first place and recommitting to those very principles. So glad you could join me. Have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend, Matt Spalding.

MS: You, too. You, too.

HH: Thank you.

End of interview.


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