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Why Obama Won't Embrace the Declaration of Independence

The administration's admission of sins to the UN is just the latest example.

12:53 PM, Aug 31, 2010 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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Elsewhere in the report, the administration asserts, “People should be free and should have a say in how they are governed.  Governments have an obligation not to restrict fundamental freedoms unjustifiably….”  People should “have a say” and shouldn’t have their “fundamentally freedoms” restricted “unjustifiably”? This doesn’t quite have the same ring as, “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…[t]hat to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” 

Yet the Obama administration mentions the UDHR five times in its report and the Declaration of Independence just once — the same number of times as the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. 

In marked contrast to another lanky president from Illinois, who spoke about the Declaration at nearly every turn, this isn’t the first time that President Obama has implied its irrelevance to the modern day, or has shown how little he takes it, or its claims, seriously.  During his Independence Day remarks in 2009, President Obama mentioned “inadequate schools,” “health care reform,” and “clean energy,” but he failed to mention — or quote from — the Declaration. In his 2010 Independence Day message, he said, “Today we celebrate the 234th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence….”  He released it on July 2. His message reads, “For Immediate Release.”  (The Declaration reads, “In Congress, July 4, 1776.”)

The night he won the presidency, Obama said in his victory speech: “I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years — block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.” In 2008, 221 years dated back to 1787, the year the Constitution was written, not to 1776, the year the nation began. In President Obama’s mind, the nation apparently didn’t come into existence until the government came into existence. 

This is not a trivial oversight. As Hadley Arkes writes,

Obama was pointing his audience to the beginning of our national life, and so he did have to make a judgment on when that beginning was.  Evidently, Obama knows little about the substance of Lincoln’s teaching [as “four score and seven years ago” from when Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg was 1776]; but he surely must recall that Martin Luther King appealed to the Declaration as the moral ground of our constitutional rights. Obama’s choice here could not have been a matter wholly of inadvertence.

Why would Obama eschew, or even dislike, the Declaration?  Because it plainly and powerfully asserts that the sole purpose of all just governments is to secure “certain unalienable Rights,” or rights that we possess by nature. Obama calls these, with some justification, “negative rights.”  Such “negative” rights are possessed by all of humanity (though they are often denied by oppressive governments or individuals) and are granted by nature or nature’s God. The Obama administration’s report to the UN, however, says that language in the UDHR “suggests the kinds of obligations — both positive and negative — that governments have with regard to their citizens” (emphases added).  Such “positive” rights are man-made, are granted by government, and can therefore be taken away by government. Moreover, they always come at the expense of “negative” rights. The Declaration only condones such taking when it’s done in the interest of protecting the natural, “negative” rights to which Obama doesn’t want his reach to be limited.

Further demonstrating this point, the Obama administration’s report explicitly praises Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech, in which FDR declared “freedom from want” to be one of “four essential human freedoms” — while undeniably implying a strong governmental role in securing that freedom.  And therein lies the tension between the Declaration (as well as the Founders writ large) and the Progressive agenda: Having government secure your right to “the Pursuit of Happiness” is not at all the same thing as having government secure your “freedom from want.”

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