13 April 2017

Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson!

The more I learn about the founding of the US, the more of a Straussian of the Jaffa school I become, or that explains an aspect of my admittedly imperfect understanding of the founding of the US.

The radical, eternal, idea is that all men are created equal.

Now, this leads to all sorts of misunderstanding, but it's misunderstanding that, in my opinion, stems more from willful ignorance than just pure ignorance.

First, let us understand that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are incomplete and imperfect. But, try to understand what was trying to be said.

Now, I do subscribe to a mostly originalist perspective when it comes to reading the Constitution as law. My main justification for this is that it's the closest thing that's grounded in an objective reality. That is, if it's a living document that just gets interpreted however the hell you want, then it doesn't really mean anything. With originalism, you can at least try to understand what they were trying to write, and you have something you can analyze and argue about with a whole jurisprudence and history to back it up. Don't like what was meant? Change it. You've been given the tools. For instance, John Yoo over at NR schooled me in my lack of understanding about what declare war meant back in the day, and the precision with which the founders used language to allow us to disambiguate certain things.

My take was the Syria Tomahawk chop was unconstitutional, because only Congress had the power to declare war. Well, turns out back then, declaring war was more of a diplomatic thing that officially signaled times, they are a changing. Initiation of hostilities, combat, etc., was often, nay, usually, undertaken without formal declarations of war. The power Congress had was over the formation of the military. If Congress didn't like what Executive was doing, they just defund the military. Read Yoo's piece for more.

Now, as far as the Declaration goes, I will be a skosh hypocritical, perhaps, in my originalist approach, and submit that, we may and should read "men" as "people".  So, we have:

... all people are created equal ...

This really isn't that much of a stretch, and I'd bet that it would be an easy sell to TJ back in the day, if only it sounded right to his 18th century ear. It actually *is* what he meant, but that's just not the way you talked back then. Originalism is about what it meant then, not how it reads in any time.

Now, the second part that gets folks gummed up is "equal". This really should be as self-evident as self-evident can be, but the power of willful ignorance and delusion is, well, powerful. Equal in this context does not mean "capably equivalent" or "indistinguishable from". This is intuitively obvious to any kid who has had the pleasure of spending recess organizing into teams to play some sport. The two kids who had it the roughest was the third best athlete and the worst. The best and second best were the captains. Third best wasn't picked captain despite thinking they should and the worst kid was picked last. Brutal in its way, but it made sense to everyone, and no one thought anyone was "equal" in ability, focus, commitment, empathy, honor, skill, etc.

No, equal means equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Playing the hand you're dealt, but getting to play it.

Compare this to the divine right of kings and all of the might makes right of most of human history.

Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson!


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