Jaffa-ite Interpretations of Declaration of Independence

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    Hi Prof. McClanahan,

    I apologize if this question would be better asked in the Constitutional History forum, but because you recently sent an email out regarding the Forrest Nabors book I thought you might have some insight on this question.

    Generally, my understanding is that lots of libertarians, particularly those in the legal realm, see lots to like in the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence in terms of natural law, freedom of men, etc. Recently, Randy Barnett wrote a long law review article titled “The Letter and the Spirit” basically suggesting that when the Constitution’s text falls short in a particular dispute, judges should interpret the text according to the ‘spirit’ and ‘purpose’ of the clause in question – with that interpretation informed by a libertarian spirit that animates the Declaration of Independence.

    I understand that you strongly disagree with any imputation that the principles found in the Declaration of Independence are the ‘founding principles’ of America or that the U.S. Constitution is an expression of those principles. However, from one perspective it could seem a rather convenient and superficially plausible way to read a libertarian bias into the Constitution in this manner, so I was hoping you might be able to offer some counterarguments to this approach.

    After watching Prof. Gutzman’s lecture on the Declaration of Independence, his main objections seem to be that the assembled Congress did not possess the authority to outline an American ‘founding philosophy’ and had it possesses such authority, John Adams would never have given such an important task to a political rival like Thomas Jefferson. Can you help expand or supplement that critique?


    Barnett’s argument and the West Coast Straussians’ do indeed overlap, but they are not the same. Since we produced the constitutional history course, Barnett has published a new book, which I reviewed with particular attention to precisely the questions in which you are interested here:

    Not Your Founders’ Constitution


    This is reading the Constitution and the founding the way Lincoln interpreted it in the Gettysburg Address, a process that Gary Wills said “revolutionized the Revolution.” In other words, you cannot interpret the Constitution–or the AOC–through the Declaration. That is an ideological position and at odds with American government, principally federalism.

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