Streetwise Professor

July 7, 2010

Obama Does the Declaration

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 7:48 pm

When writing my post on the Progressive interpretation of the Declaration of Independence, I was curious at what, if anything, Obama would say on the 4th of July.  He spoke, and he didn’t disappoint.  By not disappoint, I mean that he made remarks that effectively confirmed what I’d written, not that I concur with what he said.

Speaking casually dressed from the White House balcony, here’s what Obama said:

“We celebrate the principles that are timeless, tenets first declared by men of property and wealth but which gave rise to what Lincoln called a new birth of freedom in America — civil rights and voting rights, workers’ rights and women’s rights, and the rights of every American,” he said. “And on this day that is uniquely American we are reminded that our Declaration, our example, made us a beacon to the world.”

The remarks are revealing, and contradictory; indeed, they are revealing because they are contradictory.  They are contradictory because the last sentence is directly at odds with the first statement that the Founders’ principles as set out in the Declaration are “timeless.”  Indeed, the “but” in that sentence makes it clear that Obama distances himself from the Declaration as originally written and understood, while he embraces various social rights that would have been alien to the Founders.

Let’s break it down.  First, Obama takes a typical Progressive swipe at the Founders: “men of property and wealth.” They wrote down some principles (unstated), but these were defective because they reflected the interests of the wealthy. But Lincoln corrected these deficiencies:  in a “new birth of freedom,” he gave life to the Progressive rights that are really important.

The conscription of Lincoln into the Progressive cause was quite common in the 1930s.  Leftists routinely claimed Lincoln as a proto-Progressive: perhaps the most memorable example is naming of a group of leftist–and largely Communist–Americans who fought for the Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War the “Abraham Lincoln Brigades.”  The leftists mischaracterized Lincoln then, as Obama does today.  It is ahistorical, and extremely so, to view Lincoln as a devotee of the kinds of social and economic rights that Obama praises.

The contradiction in Obama’s formulation deserves emphasis.  Those voting for a break from the King, and for the Declaration of Independence, had a conception of liberty and freedom that was primarily negative: they wanted freedom from tyrannical government action.  What Obama praises–the alleged product of Lincoln’s midwifery–is quite the opposite.   It is a justification for the intrusion of the state into every nook and cranny of people’s lives.  The allegedly “timeless” principles of the Founders have been discarded–properly so, in Obama’s view–and replaced by something quite different.  Arguably something quite the opposite; so much for timeless.  The contrast between what Obama praises and what the Founders endeavored to achieve is best characterized by what the British musicians played during their surrender at Yorktown: The World Turned Upside Down.

Looking at Obama’s speech, and the broader political debate, it is clear that your view of what happened 1776-1789 is highly correlated with your current political stance.  Obama and other Progressives are not well-disposed, to say the least, towards the ideals of the Founding.  In stark contrast, Obama’s most intense political opponents repeatedly invoke an originalist interpretation of the Constitution, and conspicuously wrap themselves in Revolutionary symbolism–such as the Gasden (“Don’t Tread on Me”) Flag.

If the Civil War was the Second American Revolution, we may be on the brink of the Third.  Not that it will break out into armed conflict, but there is a yawning philosophical and political gap that will spark intense and ugly political strife.  And on either side of that gap stand people with diametrically opposed interpretations of the Founding and its meaning.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by R, R. R said: Prof Craig Pirrong breaks down Obama's 4th of July speech. A must read: Obama Does the Declaration #tcot #teaparty […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Streetwise Professor » Obama Does the Declaration -- — July 7, 2010 @ 9:28 pm

  2. I figure I’m with Obama on this one. I mean I do support stuff like women’s suffrage, child labor laws, disability benefits, etc…

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — July 8, 2010 @ 1:41 am

  3. That seems a very obtuse reading of what is surely Obama’s main thrust in that first sentence. The obvious construction is to read it as referring to Lincoln’s helping to realise the ideals of the founders for all Amercians, black and white. That’s why he leads with ‘civil and voting rights’. This then laid the foundations for the right of women to vote, etc.

    The ‘timeless’ principles of the founders were not entirely manifest at the time, what with slavery (remember that?), women not having the vote, etc.

    You seem determined to mis-characterise whatever he says. Reds under the bed and also on the balcony. With that attitude you’re unlikely ever to be ‘disappointed’.

    Comment by Gaw — July 8, 2010 @ 3:12 am

  4. I’m still trying to find where in the Constitution the Chief Exceutive is empowered to confiscate my property and confer it upon others he dees more worthy to own my property in the name os “redistribution of wealth.”

    Comment by Charles — July 8, 2010 @ 8:58 am

  5. Obtuse is right. The “but’ is a “yet” How lame.

    This is a fairly conservative statement by Obama.
    Lincoln and the Founding Fathers had an understanding of Principals which are timeless by definition. And so the point of the statement is that those Principals, due to their timeless and universal nature, give rise to certain freedoms no matter the background of the people who attempted to put them to paper all those years ago.

    Your ignorance and blind hatred of Obama have the better of you. Read some Aristotle.

    Comment by john — July 8, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

  6. Aristotle, Aristotle was a beggar for the bottle.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 8, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

  7. +++understanding of Principals+++

    That’s ‘principles’. And no need to capitalize.

    Comment by LL — July 9, 2010 @ 11:24 am

  8. When you have no argument, pointing out the spelling mistakes is a good strategy.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — July 9, 2010 @ 11:53 am

  9. Our host has the better of the interpretation here. If you don’t read the code of “worker’s rights”–which as Obama uses it emphatically does not mean what it meant to the Founders or Lincoln–as a subtle repudiation of the liberal order you aren’t paying attention.

    Comment by srp — July 13, 2010 @ 7:51 pm

  10. @srp–yes . . . you speak Prog 🙂 If you know the code, you know what he meant, and you apparently do. I remember hearing a recording of an interview he did with the Chicago NPR station before he had achieved national prominence. He spoke Prog perfectly in reference to the Founders. He said they, and the Constitution, emphasized “negative” liberties and he advocated positive rights. Very revealing.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 13, 2010 @ 7:56 pm

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