A short time back, I wrote about our support for an Arizona policy of having public schoolchildren recite daily the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. A subscriber to Precepts, who is a well-known libertarian, wrote back to us taking exception. He argued that compulsory recitation of the Declaration contradicts the spirit of the Declaration, and accused us of "undermining principle in the name of principle."
This correspondent reflects a common view today. It is the view that the freedom of the Declaration — the freedom at the core of America — is the freedom to think as we choose, even to the point of rejecting the Declaration itself. Four members of the U.S. Supreme Court embraced this idea in a recent abortion-related decision: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." If this is true, then indeed — as our correspondent suggests — the purpose of public education should be to "teach children to think for themselves," rather than teaching them what is correct to think, in the area of political morality.
Let us consider this argument in terms of the Declaration itself. The Declaration begins with an acute observation of human nature: "all men are created equal." Next it defines this equality: human beings possess certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Third it derives political principles from this equality: government's only legitimate purpose is to protect its citizens' equal rights, and it must operate on the basis of the consent of the governed.
According to the Declaration then, our liberty is grounded in the fact that we are equally human. Some of us may be smarter or prettier or stronger, but none of us are gods and none of us beasts. Thus our liberty is ordered or limited. We are not free to trample the rights of our fellow citizens, or to use the powers of government to do so. Nor are we free to surrender our rights to other citizens or to the government, acting in the manner of obedient and dependent dogs towards their human masters.
Our correspondent, who in the name of liberty opposes the policy of daily recitation of the Declaration by Arizona schoolchildren, holds to an idea of liberty that is un-moored from the Declaration's observation of our shared human nature. His is a radical understanding of liberty that invites us back to the time when it was accepted as legitimate for some men to choose to become kings or tyrants, and for others, whether by choice or not, to be subjected or enslaved.
The building of bridges requires architects who understand the laws of physics. If they substitute their own opinions of mass, weight, and gravity, their bridges will fall and people will die. Similarly, the sustaining of democracies requires citizen-governors who understand the "laws of nature and of nature's God" that underlie human freedom. If we teach our children to substitute their own opinions about men's relationship to God and to each other, our democracy will fall and die.
This argument goes to the heart of the Claremont Institute's enterprise. As a small but significant measure of our progress, I am proud to report that just last week, our web site on the Declaration of Independence, founding.com, was named an official resource by the Arizona Department of Education.