The Declaration of Independence is a revolutionary manifesto framed in Platonic language.
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.
The argument begs the question of “why are these truths self-evident” and the answer is “because they looked self-evident to the Founding Fathers”. Then the question arises “what else looked self-evident to them”? The answer would be: “that the Rights women, children and non-Europeans are not as ‘unalienable’ as those of ‘all men’”.
The revolutionary shows up in the next paragraph.
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.
Should the Founding Fathers be viewed as philosophers in Plato’s Republic, leading by their ability to discern timeless Truth from the shadows of history? Or they rather be Hegelian heroes, leading in change by their ability to discern the Zeitgeist and seize historical momentum?
Two examples, one from the civil war, the other from the civil-rights movement, will help define the question. “Reverend Devereux Jarrati, an Anglican priest, represented the widespread view that slaves… were born to a certain station and role in life by God’s design”1. Devereux’ God was the God of the Declaration of Independence, because he was “the God of nature”2 who gave all men the Right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Slavery was the natural state of blacks, just as liberty was the natural state of “all men”. It was their own way in the pursuit of happiness.
Moreover, as the “God of nature” was the watchmaker of Newton and Paley, and nature itself was understood as an intricately perfect mechanism, any change in the natural order, slavery included, was harmful to humanity and rebellious toward the Creator.
Lincoln, on the other hand, issued the Proclamation of Emancipation with a note at the God of history. “God has decided this question in favor of the slave”3. He did not infer timeless truth from the unchanging ways of nature. His was the argument of the prophets in Israel: God speaks through war. History was to Lincoln what nature had been to Jefferson: the milieu of truth. Yet this time truth was not self-evident unless brought home by canons and blood.
It is noteworthy that Charles Darwin published his findings about the same time. He put an end not only to the concept of timeless nature, but also to that of timeless truth. “Read monkey for preexistence” was his answer to Plato. Lincoln did not probably have time to read the Origins of Species, but he certainly captured the Zeitgeist.
The conflicting views will persist through the civil rights movement, one century later. Reverend Jerry Falwell brought the constitutional separation of Church and State as an argument against the clergy being involved in the civil rights movement4. His entering the political fray in the post Roe era was not a matter of inconsistency. In both cases, Falwell abode by the letter of the Constitution, which he deemed as inerrant and timeless as that of the King James Bible. On the other hand, Martin Luther King, who followed Hegel and Gandhi rather than the Bible, turned to the “God (read the dialectics) of history”5 for new truths and rights, not embedded in the old letter. There was no self-evident truth about voting rights to the Founding Fathers. Moreover, there’s no Platonic truth about minimum wage. Yet King’s universe was no longer the perfect clock of the pre-Darwinian era. He wanted to change the world.