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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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A few miles up the road from Ground Zero, the Obama administration recently submitted its account of the United States human rights record to the United Nations Human Rights Council.  The administration’s report, the first ever submitted by this nation to that body (whose members include Libya and Cuba), was succinctly summarized by identical Washington Post and CBS News headlines:  “US admits human rights shortcomings in UN report.”

Why Obama Won't Embrace the Declaration of Independence

It’s certainly telling that the Obama administration chose to issue condemnations of America’s sins — alleged or otherwise, past or present — and to submit these to the UN. But even more illuminating is what the administration chose to omit in its report. In a 29-page overview of the respect (or lack thereof) for rights shown in America and throughout American history, the administration couldn’t find space for a single meaningful reference to the document that lays out and informs our fundamental conceptions of rights more than any other: the Declaration of Independence. This omission offers further compelling evidence to support an increasingly obvious truth: President Obama doesn’t take seriously the ideals of the American revolutionary period. Or, to state it more exactly, he takes very seriously the project of overcoming or supplanting those ideals.  

To be sure, the report discusses a wide variety of topics.  It conveys that the Obama administration supports Obamacare (surprise!), praises the “economic stimulus” package, opposes “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” promotes bilingual ballots, and is committed to the use of “smart power” in foreign affairs (employing “determined diplomacy” and “harnessing the full potential of international institutions”).  It offers self-aggrandizing statements — “Thirty years ago, the idea of having an African-American president would not have seemed possible; today it is our reality” (Did the thought of a black President really seem impossible in 1980?) — false and peculiar statements — “Our recent health care reform bill also lowers costs and offers greater choices for women, and ends insurance company discrimination against them” — and utterly confused statements:  “The recession in the United States was fueled largely by a housing crisis, which coincided with some discriminatory lending practices.”  (That’s right, “discriminatory,” not “indiscriminate.”  But not to worry:  “[T]he federal government has focused resources and efforts to determine whether and where discrimination took place, as well as to ensure greater oversight going forward”).  Yes, the Obama administration found room for all of this — as well as for a nearly 1-page-long ode to Obamacare — but essentially no space for the Declaration.   

Rather, the report declares, “[H]uman rights have not only been part of the United States since the beginning, they were the reason our nation was created.  From its adoption in 1789, the U.S. Constitution has been the central legal instrument of government and the supreme law of the land.” There seems to be something missing here. Reading this, one would assume that the United States was created in 1789, not 1776.  The Revolutionary War, too, seems to have disappeared.  

Even when it seems like it would have been hard to avoid referencing the Declaration, the report skirts it, often preferring non-American references. Immediately under the heading of the United States’s own “commitment to freedom, equality, and dignity,” the report states, “Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ and that they are ‘endowed with reason and conscience.’”

For those who are unfamiliar with it, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a document that offers statements about “rights and freedoms” like this one: “Everyone has the right to education…. Elementary education shall be compulsory.... It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”  (Who knew that compulsory education in the service of the UN was a right?)

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.”

In Common Sense, also from 1776, Thomas Paine wrote, “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices.” As if anticipating the likes of Obama, he lamented, “Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them….”

To be fair, the Obama administration did find one occasion to refer to the Declaration of Independence by name in its report. (The report also contains the phrase, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but the phrase is not attributed to its source, and the next line is, “These same rights are encoded in international human rights law and in our own Constitution.”)  Just seven words are directly attributed to the document, and here they are, in context:  “[W]e are committed to principled engagement across borders and with foreign governments and their citizens.  This commitment includes, in the words of our Declaration of Independence, according ‘decent respect to the opinions of mankind,’ and seeking always to preserve and protect the dignity of all persons.”

In that same spirit, the administration writes in the report’s conclusion, “The United States views participation in this UPR [Universal Periodic Review] process as an opportunity to discuss with our citizenry and with fellow members of the Human Rights Council our accomplishments, challenges, and vision for the future on human rights. We welcome observations and recommendations that can help us on that road to a more perfect union.” Many Americans will likely find it insulting that the United States is asking other nations, or international bodies, for recommendations on how we can be better. And President Obama will likely not understand why. 

Most Americans who believe that there is truly something extraordinary, and extraordinarily good, about this country, base much of that belief on our founding documents and the wise and beautiful ideals they express. They mark our nation as unique, as one whose fate is still “in many respects the most interesting in the world” — just as when Alexander Hamilton first penned those words. 

In marked contrast, President Obama was asked last year whether he believes in American exceptionalism. He replied, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” These words, like the U.N. report, are telling:  In his disconnection from the glorious events and ideals of America’s founding, President Obama stands disconnected from America itself.

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