George W. Bush has said he wants to change things in Washington. On this President's Day, we find him attempting this change in a most profound way. President Bush is to be commended for his recent Proclamation of National Sanctity of Human Life Day, in which he reminds his fellow citizens of the true principles of free government. But those principles today are usually ignored, or scorned. By taking up the challenge of defending these principles, President Bush aligns himself with the greatest President of our nation's history.
"This nation was founded," President Bush wrote, "upon the belief that every human being is endowed by our Creator with certain 'unalienable rights.'" The President, in using the exact language of the Declaration of Independence, including the archaic "unalienable," has expressed the conviction that "the laws of nature and of nature's God" furnish the moral foundation of constitutional government. "President Jefferson's timeless principle," he wrote, "obligates us to pursue a civil society that will democratically embrace its essential moral duties..."
The President's proclamation is intended to give heart to, and rightly does give heart to, the Right to Life movement. It does so by identifying the right to life of the unborn with the first of the rights mentioned in the Declaration. It does so as the free soil movement and the Republican party, in the antebellum United States, had identified the right to liberty in the Declaration as the principled ground of its opposition to slavery. Then it was understood that the principle of equal rights for all in the Declaration of Independence was, as Lincoln said it was, "the apple of gold in the picture of silver" that gave life and meaning to the Constitution. Then it was understood that the original intent of those who framed and those who ratified the Constitution was to "secure these rights," the rights that defined the moral order which the legal order was to implement.
That moral order, we know, encompasses, beside the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, many other rights, as for example the right to the free exercise of religion, to freedom of speech and of the press, and to freedom of association. These are rights antecedent to the political process-rights that do not depend upon majority will-rights that majorities may not violate. They are all features of the moral "laws of nature and of nature's God." Clearly, the implications of the President's endorsement of the idea of a moral order, antecedent to all positive law, including the law of the Constitution, go far beyond the debate over abortion.
The President's Proclamation is in direct contradiction of the legal positivism reigning in the legal profession, a positivism held no less tenaciously by conservatives than liberals, a positivism that denies all constitutional status to the principles of the Declaration of Independence. The contrast between the President's Proclamation and this positivism reveals a profound alienation from the principles of the American Founding among our nation's intellectual elites. In two recent books, Original Intent and the Framing of the Constitution (1994) and Storm Over the Constitution (1999), I took as prototypical of this alienation the following from Mr. Justice Rehnquist's celebrated essay on "The Notion of a Living Constitution":
[I]f...a society adopts a constitution and incorporates in that constitution
safeguards of individual liberty, these safeguards do indeed take on a
general moral rightness or goodness. They assume a general social
acceptance neither because of any intrinsic worth nor because of any
unique origins in someone's idea of natural justice but instead simply
because they have been incorporated in a constitution by the people.
If "safeguards of individual liberty" do not have "any intrinsic worth," then neither does individual liberty. And if individual liberty has no intrinsic worth, neither does individual life. It is impossible to imagine a more complete denial of President Bush's proclamation of the sanctity of human life, or of his assertion of an "essential human dignity attached to all persons by virtue of their very existence." This is not only legal positivism, it is nihilism. It is not only a denial of any moral foundation of constitutionalism, it is a denial of any moral foundation of political community.
By the principles of the Declaration of Independence, majority rule in a free society is not an end in itself, nor is it a source of the purposes served by free government. Majority rule exists to secure the rights with which all human persons are "endowed by their Creator." The recognition of the origin of these rights, in God and nature, comes before any action of any majority. Only as we all recognize that "the just powers of government" exist to secure the equal rights possessed by every human being, whether in the majority or minority, can tyranny be prevented.
The President's proclamation is a mighty blow against the legal positivism that infects our legal establishment, and the moral relativism that pervades our society. But this can only be the beginning of a far greater struggle than that against the physical danger of terrorism. It means taking up once again the burden Lincoln bore, in reasserting the truth of the Declaration, against the "positive good" theory of slavery, and against the still more deadly theory that majorities, and not the difference between right and wrong, should decide the future of slavery.
In this struggle President Bush will find, like Lincoln, and like one who came before Lincoln, that "a man's foes will be those of his own household." However hard and long it might be, this battle must be borne. For what is at stake is nothing less than the future of our entire civilization.