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The American Personalist Paradox

6:00:00 AMJosh Merlo

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Those who enjoy speaking of such things as personal rights - and who also enjoy endlessly invoking the American Founders - usually will make statements like the following: “So many of our laws today don’t respect what the Founding Fathers understood: inalienable rights! The Founders saw these as inseparable from persons; modern America is simply in the wrong when it doesn’t!” First, let it be noted that personalism and persons are here being spoken of in a general sense, not the proper philosophical sense. As a second point, elaboration is due to what exactly these inalienable rights are. Typically, those listed are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, a direct quote from the Declaration of Independence. These are but derivations from Locke’s fundamental rights, which he mentions in his Second Treatise on Government. In Chapter IX, he writes, “And ‘tis not without reason, that [man] seeks out, and is willing to joyn in Society with others who are already united, or have a mind to unite for the mutual Preservation of their Lives, Liberties and Estates, which I call by this general Name, Property.” (1) Now, Locke continues with the following statement: “The great and chief end therefore, of Mens uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of their Property.” (2) If life, liberty, and estate (or the pursuit of happiness, for the distinction between these two is, at the moment, irrelevant) are alienated, then men will quit society, destroying it. Society cannot act against these rights without robbing itself of a reason to exist. This being stated, we can advance into the problems of personalism in American politics.

We must start with a fundamental assertion that many will find problematic: the Declaration is not a political document, insofar as it does not provide the means to govern a society. The Declaration does not set forth parametres and guidelines for ruling; it is simply a well-prepared legal brief, a reasonable explanation of why the colonies intend to break with the British empire. This is a crucial point, though, as it leads to the paradox above-referenced. The language of personal rights is absent in the actual political document prepared by the Founders, the Constitution. Inalienable rights that are endowed in men by a creator are only spoken of in the Declaration, a document that has no force of law behind it nor constructive (in the sense of actually constructing a systematic government) purpose for it. In essence, the personalism and the rights language associated with the Founders only appears in their rhetorical writings.

For the defenders of the “principles of the Founders”, the above paragraph is a travesty. The Declaration, they will argue, is fundamental to the American experiment. They forget that the sentiments of the Declaration led to the Articles of Confederation which, in and of themselves, nearly provided for the premature death of the American experiment. Only by developing a sovereign centralized government did the states provide for their continued existence and coexistence. By the developing and implementing of such a system, the flowery personalist promises of the Declaration were largely overthrown. For the price of these principles, however, a country was wrought.

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Certainly these claims need backing. It will be provided through an analysis of the injuries listed in the Declaration, and the applicability of said injuries to the central government of the United States, with one caveat: all injuries listed occurred under the rule of the Founders themselves. Shocking that it might be to some conservative historical revisionists, the Founders actually did the exact same things the tyrannical George III did. Why did they do them? Quite simply, because they valued the state and its benefits over individual personal rights. Now, as for the injuries: “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance … For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us … For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world … For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments …” (3) This is most definitely a small sample of Jefferson’s litany of offenses. However, did not Washington erect a cabinet, one that ended up sending forth various officers to collect taxes under Hamilton’s blessing? Did not Washington raise an army to quell the Whiskey Rebellion? Did not the Constitution nullify all standing trade agreements individual states had with foreign countries? Did not the Constitution also change fundamentally the sovereign states into federal entities subject to a central government? If all of these are true, how can the Declaration be claimed to be in any way something equal in stature to the Constitution? How can the Founders be said to have valued the personal rights of the Declaration above governmental functioning?

The paradox alluded to is not difficult to apprehend: the personalist (again, in a broad sense) language of the Declaration is at odds with the Constitution. Said paradox is also easily resolved. The Constitution is the law of the land; it usurps the Declaration handedly. Perhaps more difficult to resolve is how preconceived notions of the importance of the Declaration and personal rights can be said to be fundamental to the thought of the Founders and the very structure of America.
  1. John Locke, Second Treatise on Government, 350.
  2. Ibid., 350-351.
  3. Declaration of Independence
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