I just read a report at reason.com about a New Jersey High School principal who apologized for allowing senior prom tickets that urged students to “party like it’s 1776.”
The article points out that “the prom will take place at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center,” which goes a long way toward making sense of the 1776 theme. But the article affects to criticize that justification. It suggests that “given that the Constitution wasn’t actually created in 1776 — that would be the Declaration of Independence — perhaps Perry should have suggested his students ‘party like it’s 1787,’ the year the Framers finished drafting the Constitution and submitted it for ratification.”
The Constitution was ratified in 1788, after the ninth state approved the draft, as required by its provisions. The choice between 1787 and 1788 presents a chicken-or-egg dilemma. In the principal’s defense, one might ask what reason we would have to celebrate if the Constitution had never been ratified? If not ratified, our Constitution could not have been effective. If not well-drafted, it would not have endured, to prove, by our nation’s success, the wisdom of ratifying it.
We should consider the possibility that Perry was familiar enough with the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention to remember that the “principles of the Revolution,” epitomized in the Declaration, provided the standard for prudential judgment commonly evoked during the Framers’ discussions and debates. They felt it their duty to establish a government for the United States that respected the understanding of rights, rooted in obligations to God’s justice, which some Americans had pledged and given their lives to vindicate. That understanding was, in fact, the reason for eschewing monarchy and establishing a democratic republic — constrained to represent and preserve the God-endowed rights and consequent goodwill of the body politic as a whole.
Unfortunately, given Perry’s letter of apology, I doubt that this reasoning occurred to him. He had to deal with the tendentiously anti-American criticism of unnamed “members of our school community.” They were relying on the absurd notion that what he terms “African-American” students had no reason to celebrate what happened in 1776, because many of them have ancestors who were, in that year, held as slaves in Great Britain’s American colonies.
Perry did not take note of the tragic illogic of this assertion. He simply ignored the fact that the ideas and language the Declaration contains have inspired people battling for human rights and dignity, in Africa, Asia, South America, and indeed, throughout the world. These facts go to prove that he has no sense of the historic significance of the Declaration, not just to black Americans, but to all humanity.
He apparently disdained to remember that some black Americans fought and died for the hopes inspired by the principles of the Declaration. Black anti-slavery activists like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass depended on its God-reliant logic to appeal, on premises of universal justice, to the enslaved and God-fearing Americans of all kinds. Many of them courageously responded.
Americans fought the bloodiest war in our history to bring slavery to an end because President Lincoln ultimately framed the contest in terms of the Declaration’s premises of right. Despite annual celebrations of Martin Luther King day, Perry seems oblivious to the fact that Martin King’s moving denunciations of racial segregation and discrimination relied on consciences informed by the Declaration’s logic, which upheld the security of God-endowed rights as the chief aim of just government.
The premise of all our self-government derives from the Declaration’s recognition that the just powers of government flow from the common will of those determined to do (exercise, enact, carry out) what is right, according to “the laws of nature and of Nature’s God.” This is the transcendent standard of all lawfulness that Martin Luther King evoked in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Susan B. Anthony evoked it to decry the injustice of denying women the vote. Albeit perhaps unbeknownst to themselves, “Black Lives Matter” activists implicitly rely upon it to refute the notion that material poverty, physical race or the achievements of wealth, fame and power simply eclipse the intrinsic worth and worthiness of human lives.
Anyone who has fought, or means to fight, in the future to secure respect for the intrinsic dignity of all, has an ally in the logic of the Declaration. The only people who should logically want black Americans, or any Americans, to disremember and reject what happened in 1776 are those who scheme to return humanity to the wasteland of elitist oppression dominating the landscape of most of humanity’s history. These scheming elitists hate the appeal to God and transcendent right. They want to return humanity to the standard of power (might makes right): the intrinsically evil notion that there is no standard of worth but material victory, no tribunal of justice but the stronger power, the stronger will, whatever its malign intentions.
It’s a testament to the utter degradation of American education that Principal Dennis Perry saw no “teachable moment” in the challenge to repel the attack on “1776,” despite the fact that he would probably have been defending the pro-American sentiments of students and other members of the school community who helped organize the Prom. His surrender to those who denigrate the Declaration suggests that he is unfit to lead or manage a school in the United States of America. It suggests that the forces controlling the school over which he presides have joined the ranks of the elitist tools now bent on overturning our nation’s self-government, of, by and for the people.
Such elitist minions work to turn untutored generations against the thinking that gives even the powerless an indefeasible claim to prove, by the righteousness of their actions, their God-endowed worth. Right understanding of 1776 refutes the assumption that being bereft of power means they have no right to denounce and defy injustices that abuse their persons, despoil their familial and other human belongings and otherwise violate their humanity.
Without the moral and spiritual conviction that justifies human resentment against injustice, where are the oppressed and powerless to find the moral strength to look beyond what seems like a hopeless material condition, to claim respect for themselves and others like themselves, unjustly exploited by ruthless power? Feelings come and go, often overpowered by fear. But true conviction, armored in the less visible, less tangible fortresses of heart, mind and spirit may be sustained. They are like hidden embers. Some passing breath of truth may cause them to flame. It may carry their sparks from place to place, inflaming others.
America’s schools should light and nurture, in the hearts of all oncoming generations, such embers of decent liberty. God provides the kindled sense and disposition to cherish right and resent injustice. The breath of the Declaration’s self-evident truths can light this kindling, as they have throughout the world. Only those who mean to do us harm will encourage us to fear and resent the generation that upheld, affirmed and fought for the Declaration, whatever their faults.
Like the aristocrats in medieval times, these would-be-tyrants seek to make us fear and hate the very thing that rouses our spirits, arms our minds and encourages our aspirations to leap beyond the servile fate they are always seeking to re-impose upon us. As for me, I think its good advice to “party like it’s 1776”. I wish we had such a party (pun intended). For it would be tinged with sober vigilance, fully aware of the challenges that continually lie ahead, if we are to vindicate and preserve for good what we rightly commemorate with joy.
Dr. Alan Keyes is a political activist, prolific writer, former diplomat, and the founder of LoyaltoLiberty.com
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.