“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival,” John Adams wrote about the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. “It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
Adams thought Americans would actually celebrate their independence on July 2, the day the Continental Congress decided to sever ties with Great Britain. The actual Declaration of Independence wasn’t adopted until two days later.
But July 2 does have significance for America nonetheless. Exactly 100 years ago today, a man who hoped to become President used a speech to launch very different fireworks: an attack on the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
On July 2, 1912, Woodrow Wilson, the governor of New Jersey, accepted the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. During the campaign, he relied on a stump speech that frankly described his principles for the revolutionary reform of America.
Wilson’s speech distilled a distinguished career of Progressive scholarship that would replace the old Constitution of individual rights and the separation of powers with an evolving, “living Constitution” of growing and virtually unlimited powers.
After all, Wilson remarked, Americans have never been “stand-patters” who resist change. And “Progress is the word that charms their ears and stirs their hearts.” Wilson would therefore “like to make the young gentlemen of the rising generation as unlike their fathers as possible.”
Wilson maintained that both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had outlived their usefulness—and their now outmoded truths. The scientific facts, Wilson concluded, called for cooperation among the parts of government, not checks against one another.
Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice. Society is a living organism and must obey the laws of life, not of mechanics; it must develop. All that progressives ask or desire is permission—in an era when “development,” “evolution,” is the scientific word—to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine.
Wilson’s Darwinian constitutionalism meant that an evolving human nature wipes away the need for the protection of individual rights by the separation of powers. Liberated from the old constraints demanded by an unchanging and flawed human nature, a government of so-called “neutral experts” would wield almost unlimited powers to deal with the new political and economic conditions of corporations and political bosses.
Wilson lamented that the Declaration of Independence was an “eminently practical document…not a thesis for philosophers, but a whip for tyrants; not a theory of government, but a program of action.” His “new declaration of independence” enables Americans to fight the tyranny of “special interests,” of political machines and “selfish business.” Whatever the ills of the early 20th century, one might ask Wilson whether replacing the Declaration and the Constitution would not lead to even worse evils.
Professor Wilson had bold ideas. Presidential candidate Wilson was bolder still. Read his entire stump speech here.
As Heritage’s Matthew Spalding writes, the Declaration has endured because “its greater meaning—then as well as now—is as a statement of the conditions of legitimate political authority and the proper ends of government, and its proclamation of a new ground of political rule in the sovereignty of the people.” Those are principles worth celebrating—this week and every week.