The Declaration of Independence and the American Awakening that Woke the World
Progressive Americans today assume they are intellectually alert, awake, and enlightened — that’s why they are proud to call themselves “woke.”
According to them, to be “woke” is to be educated, erudite, and philosophically enlightened; to be “woke” is to not be naive, not be gullible, and to accept reality for what it is and see things for what they truly are rather than what others pretend they are. (These are the same folks for whom being “woke” means believing a woman can be a man and vice versa.)
The key criticisms woke progressives level against the American Founding is that the Founders were not “woke,” the ideas the Founders championed in their own Declaration of Independence were not enlightened, and neither was the Constitution they later adopted.
As evidence, they trot out the fact that some Americans during the Founding period, and later, owned slaves. They also point out that some Americans at the time of the Founding held racist opinions, either assuming that black people did not have sufficient intelligence and virtue to govern themselves, or questioning whether they did.
“Who in their right mind,” progressives ask rhetorically, “would consider a group of 18th century racists to be woke, awake, enlightened, or even intelligent?”
The 1619 Project is perhaps the most prominent example of the “woke” critiques of the Founding, which should not be lightly dismissed or ignored by those who care about the cause of freedom in America. The “woke” have a terrible purpose: They want to undermine the credibility of the Founders in order to undermine the credibility of the Founders’ principles and the Constitution they wrote and ratified.
WOKENESS IS NOT NEW
“Woke” is the simple past tense of the verb “wake,” as in: The loud noise outside woke him from his nap. In recent years, it has come to mean much more politically and culturally.
The term “woke” is now a summation of political and cultural progressivism, including social justice, identity politics, transgenderism, and critical race theory.
These categories and subjects of modern progressivism, however, are nothing new. Each can be distilled down to special perks, privileges, and “rights” for politically preferred groups of people that almost always require government confiscating wealth from those who are not politically preferred and giving it to others who are.
That kind of domestic cultural and political tribalism is not merely old, it is ancient. It’s been around as long as human nature and crony favoritism have been around.
Further, woke progressives have transformed our government into an unconstitutional administrative state that has more in common with a medieval monarchy than a constitutional republic: Regulations issued by unelected bureaucrats are effectively the same as royal edicts issued by kings.
The “woke,” therefore, are not leading us toward something new. They’re taking us back to something old and not worth revisiting.
Here it is fitting to invoke Calvin Coolidge. On the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, in 1926, President Coolidge offered some observations that are perfectly tailored for woke progressives in 2022:
About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern.
But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter [the Declaration of Independence]. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these 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, toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people.
Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.
Coolidge was right.
A REAL AWAKENING
The American Founding could rightly be called the American Awakening. By thinking through the good principles they discovered, thought through, and enshrined in their own Declaration of Independence, the Americans questioned important things — including important wrongs — the rest of the world took for granted and did not think much about.
In this sense, the American Founding was a moral and political pivot. Like a hinge, the Founding represented a swing from one way of living and looking at the world to a way of living and looking at the world that was strikingly different and resonates with us to this day.
When progressive critics of America, the Founding, and the Declaration of Independence complain that full justice was not achieved all at once, they not only fail to account for how the world was, prior to the Founding, and the historic change marked by the Founding, they usually don’t understand that their own critiques rest on premises introduced to the world by the very American Founders they’re criticizing!
In this case study, we will examine four subjects — monarchy, property, religious liberty, and slavery — about which the Americans woke the rest of the world and opened their eyes to the real injustices that had gone unchallenged for centuries, even millennia in some cases.
In 1776, as Americans were declaring their independence from the British Empire, monarchies and other forms of royal and hereditary regimes were the common form of government around the globe.
Virtually everyone took idea of kingship for granted. “Of course there has to be a king,” many people at that time would have responded if asked. “There’s always been a king! How could there not be a king?”
The only republics of which the Founders knew were historical, all of which had been conquered or destroyed by civil wars long ago. The number of successful, self-governing, constitutional republics — dedicated to protecting the equal individual rights of citizens — operating at the time of the American Founding was precisely zero. There were no republics in 1776.
If the Americans could somehow secure victory in their revolutionary war against the British, the next challenge would be to demonstrate, in the words The Federalist Papers #1, “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
This was no small task.
Still, at a time when the world was dominated by monarchies and other forms of royal regimes, the American Founders established the most interesting and impressive constitutional republic the world had ever seen.
The Americans created a model of republican self-government. After the American Founding, and based on the principles of the American Founding — the idea of universal human equality, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, according to which no one has any natural right or natural authority to govern others without their consent — it became clear to growing numbers of people that living under the rule of an unelected king is simply wrong, and unacceptable.
The American Founding sparked revolutions and political transformations around the world. In barely more than a century and a half after the American Founding — after thousands of years of monarchs, princes, and other royal figures lording political power — few kings could be found, anywhere.
Most of the world today finds the idea of living under a king to be ridiculous, even laughable. To whom is credit due for that change in political understanding? The American Founders.
How’s that for being enlightened and awake?
Throughout most of human history, most human beings were not secure in their own property rights.
The greatest thieves, typically, were their own governments. Pharaohs, Caesars, Kings, and other tyrants with fancy political titles — and armies — would steal money, physical property, and labor from the subjects they ruled and controlled.
The result was that very little new wealth was created because very few people had an incentive to be creative, inventive, or innovative. Why invent something new and valuable when it’ll be taken away? Why work more efficiently when the one doing the work doesn’t get to keep what he produces?
The total global amount of wealth, therefore, for thousands of years, was small and remained relatively constant. The primary way of acquiring wealth, over the course of millennia, was to launch wars of conquest, conquer neighboring kingdoms, and steal the relatively little wealth they had.
While governments were warring on each other and stealing wealth from each other, the vast majority of mankind remained mired in poverty with no clear way out. Thomas Hobbes’s description of human life — solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short — was apt for most people throughout most of history.
The American Founders wanted to solve, or at least mitigate the problem of poverty. And they did just that as they discovered the idea of private property and enshrined it in law, including the 5th Amendment of the Constitution, which commands “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
The Founders offered a big, philosophic concept of property that included not merely physical property, but a person’s mind, body, and labor as well. According to the Founders, YOU are your first form of property. As James Madison wrote in 1792:
In its larger and juster meaning, property embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage.
In the former sense, a man's land, or merchandise, or money, is called his property.
In the latter sense, a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them.
He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.
He has a property very dear to him in the safety and liberty of his person.
He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them.
In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.
With property rights protected by law, growing numbers of people acted on the incentive to be creative, inventive, and innovative. After the American Founding, the total amount of wealth in the United States (and in the Western world) skyrocketed. By the end of the 19th century, successful entrepreneurs and business owners created fortunes that eclipsed anything the greatest princes and kings of medieval Europe had ever seen.
And it was not only the few who improved their lives. Millions of Americans, native born and immigrant alike, created wealth for themselves by producing value for others, and became middle-class citizens enjoying comfortable lives.
The contrast between the world as it had been for six thousand years of recorded history — a history in which virtually no one other than tyrants and despots had any legal property rights — versus the world created by the Americans — a world in which the property rights of all citizens, whether rich or poor or in between, would be protected by law — is almost breathtaking.
The work of the American Founders, being among the first to discover and think through the full idea of property, and then enshrining that idea in law and using the power of government to protect rather than violate personal property rights, improved more lives in a shorter period of time than, arguably, anything in the annals of human history.
Religion was the single greatest problem plaguing Europe for fifteen centuries prior to the American Founding.
The union of church and state, and the resulting conflicts, were unending. Historians to this day do not know for sure how many millions of people were slaughtered in religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, Christians and non-Christians, Popes and Kings.
So long as legitimacy was bestowed upon governments by churches, then it became a matter of foremost political concern which church people attended and supported.
A non-Catholic in Catholic France, for example, living under the French King, was more than a mere dissenter in his religious beliefs. His refusal to support the Catholic Church suggested that the Catholic Church was not the one, true Church — that it was not the medium connecting human beings to the one God of the Bible.
If large numbers of people started to agree that the Catholic Church was not the one, true Church, then it would follow that the Church has no divine authority to designate and coronate a King of France. Not believing in the Catholic Church, in other words, undermined the legitimacy of the French government.
That is why governments authorized by churches — or churches that exercise the political powers of government — engage in constant persecution, forced conversation, and worse. Religious dissent is politically unacceptable to those wielding political power over others.
The American Founders solved the problem of religious persecution and endless religious wars by creating the first regime of full-blown religious liberty in all of history. No one had ever attempted such a thing. No one had likely ever dreamt of such a thing. The American Founders, yet again, were doing something far outside the norm. They were moving the Overton Window far beyond were it was for the rest of the world in 1776.
A simple and short letter from President George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, Rhode Island, perhaps best illuminates the deep meaning of the religious liberty the American Founders introduced to the world.
Before the Founding, no non-Jewish executive officer or head of state had ever welcomed Jews as full and equal citizens. Yet, President Washington did. In 1790, he wrote:
The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
…May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
For centuries, Christians had proven effective at using government power to threaten, force, and persecute fellow Christians and non-Christians. The American Founders, however, brought religious persecution to an end. They established a regime of religious liberty, unlike anything the world had ever seen, and created a space for men and women of Christian and other religions to practice their faiths safely while being protected by law in their liberty and property.
That brings us to the subject of slavery.
When “woke” progressives today criticize the American Founders for being racists, their premise, clearly, is that racism is wrong. But we should ask: Where did they get the idea that racism, or racial injustice, is wrong?
Virtually no one, throughout recorded history, thought racism or related phenomena such as xenophobia were wrong. Prior to 1776, there was no widespread understanding that every human being possesses the same, equal individual natural rights as all other human beings.
So where did modern woke progressives learn that racial injustice is wrong? Answer: They learned it from the very people they criticize, the American Founders.
Racial injustices, including race-based slavery, are wrong precisely because the self-evident truths in the Declaration of Independence are, in fact, true and right and good. Racism is wrong because equality is right. And for that philosophic and moral insight, we have the American Founders to thank.
This radical idea of universal natural human equality was no mere incidental thought. The Founders featured it prominently in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
They not only wrote and talked about this idea, they took decisive actions.
Before the ink was dry on the Declaration of Independence, growing numbers of Americans were coming to the understanding that slavery is a gross wrong that needs to be righted, a terrible injustice that has to be abolished. That is striking when one considers that throughout history, most people, most of the time, assumed slavery was customary, traditional, inevitable, and right. Americans came to see that slavery was a terrible wrong, a terrible problem to be solved, while much of the world remained too lazy to think about whether slavery was right or wrong.
The Americans came to realize that the same natural rights they have, slaves have too, and so does every other human being, everywhere. That understanding — that “awakening” — launched the greatest anti-slavery movement in history. If that’s not “enlightenment,” then what is?
This is the real meaning of Independence Day: It was not only a break with the British Empire, and it was not merely a statement of moral, political, and philosophic principles, it was the beginning of a new world, a new way of life, a better way of life, a more just way of life.
It was a novus ordo seclorum (new order of the ages), something modern woke progressives have never achieved and never will.
These are lessons to remember and share this Independence Day.
- Did the American Founders have an obligation to do what they did? Did they have an obligation to do good things — like replacing monarchy with a republic, protecting property, solving the problem of religious persecution, and sparking the greatest anti-slavery movement in history — that no one else had ever done?
- Can you explain how woke progressives today are actually using the philosophic, moral, and political premises created by the Founders?
- If anyone scolds the Founders for doing too little or acting too slowly, to whom are they comparing the Founders? Who, in history, did more good and did it more quickly than the Founders?