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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Friday, July 24, 2020

A very perceptive view of US politics

David Shor is an electoral data analyst who used to work for a firm called Civic Analytics.  In late May, during the George Floyd protests, he retweeted  a study indicating that historically, nonviolent protests have had a better impact on the electorate than violent ones.  A few days later he was fired.  This week a friend of mine sent me a long interview he did with New York magazine.  He refused to discuss his firing at all, but he said a great many things that have kept me thinking ever since. I will try to summarize.

One thing I took from the piece, even though Shor didn't put it exactly this way, is that the political elite of both parties is dominated by people who are much more ideological than the electorate at large.  People become Republican operatives because they care a gret deal  about deregulation or low taxes or  stopping abortions; they become Democratic operatives because they care about their own demographic's rights, or perhaps about  economic issues.  The country has become better educated and the media more ideological, and thus, such causes might now command the support of about 30% of the electorate (or more than half of one party.)  But many voters in the middle--of which more later--may not care about the same issues that the elite does, or may differ from them.  And the elite operatives, Shor says, want to believe that the public cares about their issues. Hillary Clinton, he says, stressed social issues in 2016 partly because her campaign's polling techniques didn't reach enough working class voters who would have responded more to economic issues.  This year, of course, the Democratic activists are obsessed with racial issues--including ones like cutting back police funding--and we don't know how potential swing voters will respond to them.  A lot,Shor seems to think, will depend on how much violence occurs surrounding those issues, and exactly how they are presented.

More specifically, Shor says, education is becoming the single biggest marker for political allegiance.  Educated people are more and more likely to vote Democratic; those without college are more likely to vote Republican--and that includes less educated  Hispanics and black people.   More of them, of course, still vote for Democrats, but they have trended slightly Republican in each of the last two elections.  This is a sad commentary on how far the educated elite has moved away from the rest of the country on social issues.  Ironically, as he points out, in mid-century America the educated elite was much smaller and it dominated both major parties.  It did not hold distinct, differing views on social issues and it maintained a relatively calm tone in our politics.  Now most of the edcuated elite is Democratic and convinced of the rightness of its views, while the Republican part of iot panders shamelessly to popular prejudice.  

The educated elite and party activists also hold pretty coherent sets of views.  Others do not.  Moderate voters, Shor says, are not middle of the roaders.  Instead, they straddle the views of the two parties, depending on the issue. Many pro-lifers favor higher taxes, for instance; many people worry about health care and immigration at the same time.  The latter group, he says, was more likely to vote Democratic in 2012 when health care was a major campaign issue, and less likely to do so in 2016 when immigration took up much more space. 

On another point, Shor is very pessimistic.  He thinks that racial resentment was more important than economics in turning significant numbers of Obama voters to Trump in 2016.  Since those voters had voted for a black man at least once, I have always found this hard to believe (I would be more inclined to thinks sexism played a role), but he has good evidence for it.

Shor's analysis suggests to me that Joe Biden has already made one mistake by committing to a female running mate.  This is something that many Democratic activists do care very much about--especially if the candidate is also black--but which is unlikely to have much resonance with voters in the middle, who might have been more impressed with Andrew Cuomo's handling of COVID-19, for instance.  Shor thinks Biden should focus on things like the minimum wage and health care.  If the recession keeps worsening, some kind of jobs program might work as well.  

It also suggests, sadly, that the Trump campaign is thinking about some similar issues.  The Administration, I think, is sending federal agents to Portland and Seattle, at least, to try to provoke more violence, and there's plenty of reason to believe that they will succeed.  And that could help them.  Shor does think, however, that scenes of police treating demonstrators roughly tend to arouse sympathy for demonstrators, too.  We can't tell how this will play out.

This election, in a rational world, would inevitably end in a landslide. Donald Trump has proven again and again that he is incompetent, corrupt, and divisive.  No American who takes government seriously (admittedly a shrinking number) should vote for him.  He is well behind in polls as I write.  But I still wonder if Biden will be able to persuade key voters that there lives will change significantly for the better if they elect him.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Our new oligarchy in action

I have mentioned before in this space that my most ambitious book, Politics and War (1990), looked at four periods of general war in Europe (1559-1659, 1661-1713, 1789-1815, and 1914-45) to shed light on the development of European politics.  In the first period, monarchs tried vainly to subdue an all-powerful European aristocracy that often made alliances across frontiers against the monarchs.  In the second, Louis XIV manged to tame his own aristocracy, and used his foreign policy to build up his fellow monarchs as well.  In the third, new monarchs, led by Napoleon, used the ideas of equality before the law and career open to talent to make state more powerful than ever.  In the era of the two world wars, European states tried to create huge empires all over the world, and to make themselves ethnically homogeneous--and expanded the scale of conflict to the point that they could not compete with two non-European powers, the US and the USSR.  History has written a new chapter in the thirty years since 1990.   The era of the strong national state seems to be over, and a new international oligarchy is taking charge.

How all this is working in the United States emerged this month from two New York Times articles--the kind of articles that appear much less frequently than they used to, but which show that even in the midst of our obsession with identity, traditional journalism still lives.  Both articles carry the bylines of Michael LaForgia and Kenneth Vogel, and one also includes Hailey Fuchs. The first, on July 6, focused on a particular lobbyist, Michael Urban, who happens to be a West Point classmate of the Secretaries of State and Defense, Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper.  and he had become friendly with President Trump by the time of the 2016 campaign, in which he served.  Urban has been a registered lobbyist since 2002, but he has nearly tripled his revenues--to $25 million in 40 months--since President Trump took office.  He intervened most dramatically to get Pompeo to reverse a Congressional ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia--imposed after the murder of Jamal Kashoggi--on behalf of his client Raytheon, which then proceeded with huge new sales.  The article identifies seven other lobbyists whose business has exploded under Trump, including two, Brian Ballard and Jeff Miller, who had never lobbied at the federal level before.  The same group of lobbyists has raised $8 million for Trump's re-election campaign since last year.  The article doesn't explain how each of these men got close to Trump, but it explains that they stepped into a vacuum after a failed developer and reality TV star parlayed his national image into the Republican nomination, in defiance of the Republican establishment.  The King in our system remains the American people, who elect a new one every four or eight years, and Trump in 2016 emerged, by the narrowest of margins, as the King's new favorite, outflanking the Bush and Clinton families that had dominated their respective aristocracies for decades.   Anyone who could get close to the new favorite could benefit handsomely, and they have done so.

The second article, on July 13, tells a slightly different story.  Michael B. Williams was before Trump's election the general counsel of the American Suppressor Association, the trade group of firms that make silencers for guns.  While moviegoers associate silencers with hit men, they are also used by the military, since they make it harder for enemy targets to tell where gunfire is coming from.  For this reason, the federal government as for many years banned their sale abroad, where they could fall into the hands of enemies of the United States and help to kill American troops.  Apparently seeing an opportunity, Williams in 2016--when he was 30--joined the Trump campaign, and then managed to join the Office of Management and Budget under former Tea Party Congressman Mick Mulvaney.  In 2019 Mulvaney became White House Chief of Staff--a position which he held for only a year--and Williams became a "counselor and deputy assistant to the president."  He continued daily contacts with his brother Knox Williams, the director of the American Suppressor Association, and he had now passed the two-year period in which government officials are prohibited from working on issues of interest to their former employers. This month, the State Department lifted the ban.  Since Mulvaney's departure from the White House, Williams has gone to work at the Department of Housing and Urban development.  Many expect him eventually to return to a lucrative position in the firearms industry.

Now stories like these have been part of Washington lore for many decades now, but at least until the 1980s, lobbyists pushing for policy changes that would help their clients had to contend with other priorities.  The vastly expanded federal government that Franklin Roosevelt put in place was trying to meet the needs of the American people and defend freedom abroad.  The Trump Administration does not care about either one of those objectives.  It represents a hostile takeover of our civic institutions, which Trump and his allies are milking for their own private purposes to the maximum extent possible. With Trump threatened with defeat, this process is likely to accelerate in the next six months.  Congressional Republicans, with rare exceptions, are now deeply implicated in it as well.

Meanwhile, the New Yorker has an excellent profile of Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, by  Sheelah Kolhatkar.  Mnuching's career, it turns out, has been intimately connected to the turmoil in the US economy in the last twenty years or so.  His father Robert, from the Silent generation, worked for many years at Goldman Sachs, and pioneered some new, innovative and very successful trading strategies there before retiring in 1990  Steven went to Yale, like his father, became the publisher (according to the New Yorker) of the Yale Daily News, and graduated in 1985, just as things were really opening up on Wall Street.  He immediately joined Goldman Sachs, where his father had worked as well, and became heavily involved in another new innovation, mortgage-backed securities.  He left Goldman in 2002 and joined up with a college roommate in ESL Investments, which specialized in buying debt-ridden companies, reorganizing them, and often, liquidating them.  They handled the merger between K-Mart and Sears, which promptly put K-Mart out of business, and has not allowed Sears to survive either.  Sears Creditors have now sued ESL for stripping the company of its assets. He was working with another investment firm when the financial crisis hit in 2008. Although Mnuchin had no banking experience, he joined a consortium of other heavy hitters to purchase a failed bank, IndyMac, that had originated thousands of hyper-risky mortgages and had to close its doors.  The F.D.I.C. gave them extraordinarily favorable terms, the new group, renamed, OneWest, turned billions of dollars in profits on the deal as the F.D.I.C. covered a billion of the previous losses.  OneWest also foreclosed on 36,000 homes.  I remember a brilliant article by Theodore Draper in the late 1970s pointing out that politicians and bureaucrats who had supported the Vietnam War never seemed to have paid any price for doing so, while those who had opposed it never earned any reward.  In the same way, many of those who wrecked the economy in the 2000s seem to have emerged stronger than ever and still hold our economic future in their hands.

Joe Biden, if he is elected, will restore a civil tone in the White House and try to take some steps on behalf of the American people. I do not know however if he will be able to reverse the trend towards aristocratic power.  He is the Democratic nominee today because Barack Obama chose him as Vice President in 2008 and thus gave him unmatched name recognition and access to the aristocrats who make the biggest donations to the Democratic Party.  His selection as Vice President will benefit in 2024 from the same kinds of connections, whoever she may be.  It has taken decades for us to sink to where we are, and it may well take more decades seriously to reverse the trend.   

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Postmodernism in the mainstream

The great crisis that the United States is passing through has many different elements.  Politically, for more than three years, an incompetent, almost illiterate demagogue has occupied the White House, showing that he is in every way incompetent to function as President of the United States.  The Republican Party has done nothing about this because he has given it so much of what they wanted. Medically we face the worst epidemic since 1918, and our initial success in cutting down its spread is now threatened in large part because of the President's incompetence.  Economically we have had an economic collapse without parallel in its rapidity, and we really have no idea of how we shall get out of it.  It is an intellectual crisis, however, which I want to talk about today, because I think I provide some understanding of how we got where we are today.

Reading the first fifteen inaugural addresses and 46 state of the union addresses of the Presidents--the source material for the book I am now writing--has brought home to me clearly that the United States was founded as an Enlightenment experiment.  Our founders were not starry-eyed idealists.  They had grappled first hand with the most serious political issues, they had fought a revolution that was in part a civil war, and they had watched the British constitution--which they had valued as the most enlightened government on earth--try to impose tyranny upon themselves.  They had also read histories of ancient Greece and Rome and knew how early republics had become tyrannies. Attempting to establish a government based upon complete political equality among the citizenry--an entirely new experiment in the western world at that time--they spoke frequently of the dangers of the abuse of power.  They also understood that only an educated citizenry that was alive to the dangers of too much passion in politics could make the new nation work.  

This heritage is threatened now on both sides of the political spectrum.  Nearly 20 years ago, a high official of the George W. Bush Administration--generally thought to have been Karl Rove--placed that administration in opposition to what he called the "reality-based community." "We're an empire now," he said, "and we create our own reality."  Now our president recreates reality to satisfy his own unconscious several times a day, and his whole staff and an entire television network bow, scrape, salute, and go forth to preach the new gospel.  Yet things are not that much better on the other side of the political fence.  I want to illustrate this by discussing two letters that were published this past week. Then I want to draw on my own experience as an academic to try to explain where new views, increasingly in the ascendant, originated.

The first letter, signed by about 150 journalists, academics, and artists, was published early last week on the web site of Harper's magazine. While applauding recent protests for racial and social justice, they reject "a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity." They specifically cite a number of specific newsworthy incidents without mentioning any names. "Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes." "This stifling atmosphere," they continue, "will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes."  The signatories include some of the best-known names in journalism, the arts, and literature, including Margaret Atwood, David Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Francis Fukuyama, Linda Greenhouse, Randall Kennedy, Mark Lilla, Winton Marsalis, George Packer, Orlando Patterson, J. K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem, Gary Wills, and Fareed Zakaria.  The list, as you can see, is very diverse with respect to both race and gender.   On the other hand, although I do not have the time to look everyone up, the list does not, sadly, seem to be very diverse with respect to age.  The vast majority of signatories come from the Silent and Boom generations.

Before turning to the reply, I want to talk about the developments in academia over the last forty years or so that lie behind it.  

During the 1980s, new views of reality, language, and the nature of intellectual life became popular.  Their most important exponent was probably the French historian Michel Foucault, and they rapidly came to dominate both gender studies and racial and ethnic studies.  They held, to begin with, that language was the ultimate reality and the medium through which politics took place.  It always seemed to me quite understandable that that principle became popular in academia, because it does quite accurately describe academic reality, though not reality out in the real world.  At any given moment in disciplines like history and literary criticism, certain ideas and approaches are particularly popular, and careers are indeed made, and occasionally broken, by choices to go with the flow.  The exponents of the most popular ideas hold academic power.  What academics often forget, however, is that the citizenry at large often knows little and cares even less about their intellectual flavor of the month, because they live in their own world.

The second key aspect of postmodernism was the identification of power--expressed through language--with particular demographic groups.  This was not new.  Marxists had long argued, with some justice, that economically dominant classes more easily got their messages across than poorer ones.  The new categories, however, turned on gender and race, not wealth.  Straight white males, the new orthodoxy came to argue, had dominated intellectual discourse--and had used this dominance to advance their own interests at others' expense.  Meanwhile, the voices of women, nonwhites, gays, and (later) transgender folk had been "marginalized".  It is very clear, I think, why this world view became so popular among academics who were not straight white males--to the point where very few straight white males dared to speak out against it or to put forward any alternative views of what history or literary criticism should be.  For many (though never all) female or nonwhite academics, the new orthodoxy not only defined the problem, but prescribed the cure: to hire them, allowing them to correct a centuries-old power imbalance by "giving voices" to their own groups.  Their perspective deserved more space because it had had so little in the past--and no straight white male had the right to question it, since to do so would simply try to maintain the previous power balance.  And every perspective was equally valid, regardless of the relative numbers of people belonging to a particular demographic.  

Being myself a straight white male who has spent his life writing (mostly, although not exclusively) about the doings of other straight white males, I have to take a moment now to put forth an alternative view.  My books were never about unified attempts of straight white males to dominate women or other racial groups (although imperialism played an important role in some of them.)  They were about arguments, struggles, and wars among different white males, who often had very different views of what the world should look like and what appropriate decisions in certain situations might be.  That dynamic, it seems to me, has shaped far more of the history of the western world than conflicts between demographics.  That view is now directly threatened, however, especially with respect to the history of the United States.  The New York Times's 1619 Project, which I wrote about at length in an earlier post, argued that slavery and the oppression of black people was "central" to the American experiment from the beginning.  Now slavery was already central to society in the southern colonies, but it certainly was not central to the issues that led the colonies to fight a war for independence. In addition, as I pointed out just last week, the founders made sure that it was not central to the new Constitution, by refusing even to mention it explicitly or to give it any permanent legal sanction.  It is time now, however, to return to the issue at hand.

A reply to the Harper's letter, also signed by about 150 people, appears to have been published yesterday.  The signatories include many academics, writers, and journalists, who are much less well known.  That is, in a sense their point. Their argument is a perfect representation of the ideology that I described in the last three paragraphs.

"The signatories," they write, "many of them white, wealthy, and endowed with massive platforms, argue that they are afraid of being silenced, that so-called cancel culture is out of control, and that they fear for their jobs and free exchange of ideas, even as they speak from one of the most prestigious magazines in the country."  This sentence, I must remark, exemplifies another aspect of postmodernist scholarship that I have encountered many times: when you check their footnotes, the original source doesn't say what they claim it does.  The original letter never says that its signatories fear being silenced themselves or losing their own jobs.  It pleads the case of much younger people who have lsot their jobs and advocates freedom of expression in principle.  The response, however, in good post-modernist fashion, has to deny that any such thing as the advocacy of free expression in principle even exists.  In its view, no one ever advocates for speech except on behalf of their own demographic or class.

The next paragraph is equally revealing:

"The letter was spearheaded by Thomas Chatterton Williams, a Black writer who believes 'that racism at once persists and is also capable of being transcended—especially at the interpersonal level.' Since the letter was published, some commentators have used Williams’s presence and the presence of other non-white writers to argue that the letter presents a selection of diverse voices. But they miss the point: the irony of the piece is that nowhere in it do the signatories mention how marginalized voices have been silenced for generations in journalism, academia, and publishing."

The quote from Thomas Chatterton Williams is designed to discredit him.  Any good postmodernist now thinks that racism is systemic, structural, and bound up with white and black identities to an extent that none of us can possibly escape.  The last sentence is key: because, in their view, "marginalized voices" have been silenced for generations--a statement which would have surprised a long list of black and female writers going back for over a century that I could make--no one else can be allowed to complain about infringements upon other speech untl the balance has been redressed. How many years, decades or centuries that will take, they do not say.  I am struck, by the way, by the letter's failure in this paragraph to refer at all to marginalization based on gender.  This reflects the current moment. The controversy over the death of George Floyd has definitely put gender equality on the back burner.  

Continuing, the reply argues that the original letter is really concerned about something else entirely. In truth, Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people — particularly Black and trans people — can now critique elites publicly and hold them accountable socially; this seems to be the letter’s greatest concern. What’s perhaps even more grating to many of the signatories is that a critique of their long held views is persuasive."  This, of course, is projection:  obseesed themselves with racial and gender identities (although not, once again, with simple femaleness), they assume that the men and women who signed the letter--despite their racial diversity--are simply standing their own obsessions on their head.  They aren't.

Then comes the other key postmodernist word:

"The content of the letter also does not deal with the problem of power: who has it and who does not. Harper’s is a prestigious institution, backed by money and influence. Harper’s has decided to bestow its platform not to marginalized people but to people who already have large followings and plenty of opportunities to make their views heard. Ironically, these influential people then use that platform to complain that they’re being silenced. [To repeat: no, they didn't.] Many of the signatories have coworkers in their own newsrooms who are deeply concerned with the letter, some who feel comfortable speaking out and others who do not."

One more paragraph makes clear exactly what is at issue.

"The letter reads as a caustic reaction to a diversifying industry — one that’s starting to challenge institutional norms that have protected bigotry. The writers of the letter use seductive but nebulous concepts and coded language to obscure the actual meaning behind their words, in what seems like an attempt to control and derail the ongoing debate about who gets to have a platform. They are afforded the type of cultural capital from social media that institutions like Harper’s have traditionally conferred to mostly white, cisgender people. Their words reflect a stubbornness to let go of the elitism that still pervades the media industry, an unwillingness to dismantle systems that keep people like them in and the rest of us out."

The idea of integration by race and gender originally was to open up various fields of endeavor to more candidates to let them show the world what they could do and secure appropriate reward for their talents.  Today, however, the signatories of the reply letter would denounce what I have just said as pure straight white male elitism, designed to keep the values of people who look like me in power.  Not only do we have an obligation to give women, racial minorities, and different gender identities more positions--straight white males have no right to question anything that they may say, or how they choose to say it, or even to say anything themselves that nonwhitemales find hurtful.  A New York Times editor, as the original letter pointed out, had to resign because he approved an op-ed by a US Senator that black staffers said made them feel unsafe.

The reply then runs down and identifies the six examples to which the original letter referred.  With respect to one of them--a professor fired from a research firm because he tweeted a summary of an academic paper arguing that violent protests did not, historically, advance racial justice--they agree tht such a firing would be "indefensible" but claim that it was "anomalous."  With respect to Tom Cotton's op-ed in the Times, they argue that he has enough of a platform already to justify the Times leaving him out--a principle that could have application indeed.  In the other cases, they argue either that members of dominant groups got away with something members of marginalized groups could not, or that they deserved what they got.  They then attack various specific signatories of the letter on specific grounds, and claim that all the signatories have "reinforced the actions and beliefs of its most prominent signatories, some of whom have gone out of their way to harass trans writers or pedantically criticize Black writers."

"The intellectual freedom of cis white intellectuals has never been under threat en masse," they conclude, "especially when compared to how writers from marginalized groups have been treated for generations. In fact, they have never faced serious consequences — only momentary discomfort."  Thus, they end by not only marginalizing, but erasing, the large numbers of black and female signatories of the original letter--but also by reaffirming, once again, the critical principle of postmodernism. Individual liberty, the foundation of our institutions--and a concept freely open to all--is meaningless to postmodernism. We are all defined by race, gender, and sexuality, and we cannot escape.  We were--in effect--born without freedom of thought.

These ideas have been mainstream on college campuses for decades, and lie behind the many controversies that have roiled campuses in recent years.  It occurs to me, indeed, that it's probably fortunate for higher education that the current eruption of protest took place when campuses were all closed, since it would have renewed attacks on all sorts of traditional targets.  Now, they apparently dominate the thinking of many of the younger people not only in academia, but in journalism and the arts.  I thank the signatories of the original letter for protesting, and I am glad that I still feel the freedom to do the same.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

On the Fourth of July

"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. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."

Today, as we observe the 244th anniversary of the signature of the Declaration of Independence, a substantial body of activist Americans prefers to emphasize the hypocrisy, as they understand it, of these words.  Because their principle author and an actual majority of the signatories of the Declaration owned slaves, they regard them as empty.  Others have raised a parallel objection to the words "all men," since they do not explicitly include women, and one could also demonstrate, I am sure, that they did not recognize a right to same-sex marriage.  At best, therefore, many would argue this is not a document for our age. At worst they would characterize it as an instrument of oppression.

While many of the same people would also criticize the whole enterprise of western civilization as racist and oppressive, I believe on the other hand that their views reflect a particular pitfall of that civilization: a tendency to judge human affairs against a paradise which our brains can imagine.   The story of the Garden of Eden and the fall is based upon this, since Adam and Eve recklessly disobeyed orders and lost earthly paradise forever.  Christianity over the centuries has also inspired many visions of heaven on earth.  And the same tendency dominates many irreligious revolutionary movements, including anarchism and Marxism-Leninism.  It burst forth more than half a century ago on college campuses where students found the world of mid-century America falling well short of their imagination, and it is very influential on campus today. A year ago, at a panel of contemporary campus activists, one young woman concluded her talk by calling on her fellow students to rely upon their imaginations to picture a more just world. For half a century, more and more of us have been encouraged to define ourselves by our demographic, and the temptation to ascribe any personal misfortune or frustration to one's demographic has grown.  Only some new social order, many feel, can redress the balance.

Thus, I would argue, the real historical meaning of the declaration has been lost. That meaning can only emerge from a look at what it meant at the time, relative to what had come before.

The "truths" that Jefferson and his fellow signatories held to be "self-evident" were, in the 18th-century context, revolutionary, a complete departure from the principles not only of European civilization at that time, but of every civilization about which we know much of anything in history.  Nearly every society we know of--and certainly every relatively advanced one, intellectually and economically--was divided into legal orders with strict barriers between them.  People were endowed with such rights as they could claim not be their "creator," but by their status at birth.  Even in an irreligious age, European governments claimed their powers from God, not from "the consent of the governed," and only a few of them regarded their primary task as that of securing their subjects' rights. And none would have agreed with the immediately following words of the Declaration, that the people enjoyed a right to remove and replace a government that persistently abused their rights.  That is why, of course, that right had to be proven out in five more years of armed combat to become a reality.  And that victory became a symbol of what was now possible, first in Europe, and eventually in every continent.

The signatories certainly knew that slaves within the colonies did not enjoy those rights, and that women lacked the same political rights as men.  Some were genuinely troubled by these contradictions, although others probably would have tried to explain them away.  Critically however, they in no way tried to preserve those contradictions within the Declaration itself--or within the founding documents that followed it.  The articles of Confederation, our first national constitution, included a provision giving all citizens of any member state the privileges and immunities of any state to which they migrated.  Delegates from South Carolina proposed to insert the word "white" between "all" and citizens."  That provision was voted down.  In the  same way, the Constitution not only took great care not to mention, and thereby sanction, slavery explicitly within its text, but it did not even use the word "man."  "Person" was the founders' word for the citizens of their new nation.  Slavery, they knew very well, existed within certain states in 1787, but many of them hoped to see it disappear, and most of them did not want explicitly to make it part of the new Republic.  That was why slaves could, and did, sue successfully for their freedom if their masters brought them into free states from 1789 all the way up to the Dred Scott decision in 1857, when Taney overruled all these precedents.  That in turn set off the Civil War four years later, because the North would not accept slavery as a national and permanent feature of the Republic.

No one, of any ethnicity of sex, could claim equal rights under the law until some one had defined the concept and written it into fundamental law.   We would not be better off today had we delayed putting that idea into fundamental law until we were ready to give it equally to every one of us.  As it was, those words have inspired subsequent generations of those originally left out to secure those rights, and they have done so.  Last week, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argued that we erect monuments to men like Washington and Jefferson not to commemorate them personally as human beings, but to thank them for the ideas and institutions they left to us.  I agree.

And thus I return once again, as I have in previous years, to another text from Jefferson, perhaps the very last letter that he ever wrote.  It was the spring of 1826, and he (like John Adams) had only one ambition left: to live to the 50th anniversary of the Declaration.  They received invitations to attend a commemoration in Washington, which Jefferson declined for reasons of health.  This is what he said.

The kind invitation I receive from you on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration of the 50th. anniversary of American independence; as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. It adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day. but acquiescence is a duty, under circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to control. I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view. the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them."

The founders and their immediate descendants also knew very well that avarice and ambition had destroyed Republics in earlier ages, and they counted on a calm, reasoned and virtuous population to maintain ours intact.  They would not have been surprised, I think, to find nearly 250 years later that we have waged a continual battle to establish the precise meaning of their words and to extend many rights in light of cultural change.  We have come as far as we have, I think, because of the foundation which they laid.  Without it, we shall sink into despotism, tribalism, and ignorance.  We have always fallen well short of perfection and we always will--but no other nation has a better foundation on which to build.