Fortnight For Freedom: John Paul II on the Declaration of Independence

Fortnight For Freedom 2014

On December 16, 1997, Pope John Paul II in receiving the credentials of Ambassador Lindy Boggs made some very perceptive remarks on our Declaration of Independence:

The Founding Fathers of the United States asserted their claim to freedom and independence on the basis of certain “self-evident” truths about the human person: truths which could be discerned in human nature, built into it by “nature’s God.” Thus they meant to bring into being, not just an independent territory, but a great experiment in what George Washington called “ordered liberty”: an experiment in which men and women would enjoy equality of rights and opportunities in the pursuit of happiness and in service to the common good. Reading the founding documents of the United States, one has to be impressed by the concept of freedom they enshrine: a freedom designed to enable people to fulfill their duties and responsibilities toward the family and toward the common good of the community. Their authors clearly understood that there could be no true freedom without moral responsibility and accountability, and no happiness without respect and support for the natural units or groupings through which people exist, develop, and seek the higher purposes of life in concert with others.

The American democratic experiment has been successful in many ways. Millions of people around the world look to the United States as a model in their search for freedom, dignity, and prosperity. But the continuing success of American democracy depends on the degree to which each new generation, native-born and immigrant, makes its own the moral truths on which the Founding Fathers staked the future of your Republic. Their commitment to build a free society with liberty and justice for all must be constantly renewed if the United States is to fulfill the destiny to which the Founders pledged their “lives . . . fortunes . . . and sacred honor.”

I am happy to take note of your words confirming the importance that your government attaches, in its relations with countries around the world, to the promotion of human rights and particularly to the fundamental human right of religious freedom, which is the guarantee of every other human right. Respect for religious conviction played no small part in the birth and early development of the United States. Thus John Dickinson, Chairman of the Committee for the Declaration of Independence, said in 1776: “Our liberties do not come from charters; for these are only the declaration of preexisting rights. They do not depend on parchments or seals; but come from the King of Kings and the Lord of all the earth.” Indeed it may be asked whether the American democratic experiment would have been possible, or how well it will succeed in the future, without a deeply rooted vision of divine providence over the individual and over the fate of nations.

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Indeed it may be asked whether the American democratic experiment would have been possible, or how well it will succeed in the future, without a deeply rooted vision of divine providence over the individual and over the fate of nations.  Well, Saint John Paul II hit the nail on the head with that sentence didn’t he.

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  1. The near-contemporaneous Declaration of the Rights of Man (26 August 1789) uses remarkably similar language. The National Assembly does not enact but, rather, “recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen…”
    It goes on to declare that “The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.”
    It is not impossible, of course, that the later document borrowed from the earlier, although the possibility seems to have escaped the French jurists.

  2. Many of the French Revolutionaries initially looked to the American Revolution for inspiration. A pity that it quickly became in Dickens’ phrase: “Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death; — the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!”

    President Washington in a private letter on October 13, 1789 saw clearly enough what was likely to come:

    “The revolution which has been effected in France is of so wonderful a nature that the mind can hardly recognize the fact. If it ends as our last accounts to August 1st predict, that nation will be the most powerful and happy in Europe.

    But I fear, though it has gone triumphantly through the first paroxysm [seizure], it is not the last it has to encounter before matters are finally settled. In a word, the revolution is of too great a magnitude to be effected in so short a space, and with the loss of so little blood.

    The mortification of the king, the intrigues of the queen and the discontent of the princes and nobles, will foment divisions in the National Assembly, and they will unquestionably avail themselves of every faux pas in the formation of the constitution, if they do not give a more open, active opposition.

    Great temperance, firmness, and foresight are necessary. To forbear [prevent] running from one extreme to another is no easy matter, and should this be the case… rocks and shelves, not visible at present, may wreck the vessel and give a higher-toned despotism than the one which existed before.”

  3. Influences flowed both ways. Montesquieu was certainly an influence on both Revolutions.
    An English version of his De l’Esprit des Lois [Spirit of the Laws] was being advertised in Annapolis as early as 1762 and the New York Society Library purchased a copy in 1773 and any number of quotations appeared in the local Gazettes. Blackstone, of course, cited him with approval and Blackstone was a standard text-book in America
    According to Donald S Lutz, Montesquieu was the most frequently-cited author in political writings in the period 1760-1805, accounting for 8.3%, followed by Blackstone with 7.9% Locke musters a mere 2.9%.
    Actually, the best (and least read) part of the work is his history of the fief. Later scholarship has only confirmed his findings on this very obscure area of legal history.

  4. “In a word, the revolution is of too great a magnitude to be effected in so short a space, and with the loss of so little blood.”
    In the American Revolution, when the war ended, the war ended. George Washington and Francis Marion and others went about rebuilding the new nation, and refusing to settle grievances resulting from the war effort, even against the Tories, those loyal to England. The terrible price of the war ended.
    In France, those who took power, exercised it unlawfully after the revolution ended. They took vengeance. I do not agree that France looked to the American Revolution to rebuild France.

  5. “Our liberties do not come from charters, for these are only the declaration of preexisting rights.” unalienable human rights endowed by “our Creator” into the rational, immortal, human soul made in the Divine Image. Atheism is unconstitutional as it “prohibits the free exercise thereof” of man’s free expression of himself in his relationship with his Maker, his conscience and his patriotism. The atheist must be tolerated until he, the atheist, finds his way to God.
    If there are dissenters, they must change the First Amendment and have three quarters of the states ratify their opinion before their opinion may become the Law of the Land.

  6. Mary De Voe

    “The terrible price of the war ended.”

    The commanders of the army of Sambre et Meuse, Kléber, Moreau, Reynier, Marceau, and Ney, of the army of the Rhine, Hoche, Desaix, and St. Cyr, of the Apennines, Masséna and, above all, Bonaparte, not only defended the republic and carried the war to victory, but rebuilt, not only France, but Europe.
    They gave a code of laws to a continent and restored the concept of citizenship to civilisation.

  7. “They gave a code of laws to a continent and restored the concept of citizenship to civilisation.”

    Somehow I think the Spaniards who rose up against the occupying French already knew that they were Spaniards without any lessons on the subject of citizenship being taught to them at a very high blood tuition by the French.

  8. Napoleon’s invasion of Spain helped to trigger the independence movement in Spanish Latin America. It would have happened anyway but Napoleon spurred it on. The Louisiana Purchase was mostly land held by Spain that Napoleon swindled and sold to fund his war effort.

    St. John Paul II was certainly a wise man, wiser than his critics (usually radtrads) give him credit for. I haven’t been registered at Fr. Z’s blog for some time after he reset all the registrations. There is an item today (7/3) about a comment made by an Islamist terrorist (that Obumbler let go) who wants to conquer Rome. Three times one particular fellow posted the same item – JPII asking St. John the Baptist to pray for Islam. This, and the kissing of the Koran at Assisi in 1996, were certainly mistakes – kindness being shown to a bunch of fanatical heretics. JPII had put up a painting of John Sobieski’s charge with the Hussars after the 2001 terrorist attacks and reinstated the Holy Name of Mary on September 12 in the Novus Ordo calendar. Of course, the radtrad missed that. They will be mad forever for the excommunication of Lefevbre, who ordained Williamson.

    I adore traditional Latin Catholicism. Internet radtrads never fail to be obnoxious.

    JPII was keenly aware of the assistance received by Solidarity from the US Government and certain American NGOs during the 1980s. Much of the assistance was funneled through the Church to Poland to keep Solidarity alive. This occurred during a time when a real man occupied the White House, one who dearly believed in freedom and saw assistance to the Polish nation as part of a debt due to them for being abandoned to Stalin. Most of of Western Europe was fine leaving the Iron Curtain where it stood. Not Reagan.

  9. So Bonaparte ‘carried the war to victory’, did he? The famous victories at Leipzig and Waterloo?

  10. Michael: “They gave a code of laws to a continent and restored the concept of citizenship to civilisation.”
    The Reign of Terror did nothing to establish a concept of citizenship. Maybe I have the wrong war?

  11. Donald R. McClarey

    Hegel remarks somewhere that “Napoléon could no more coerce the Spaniards into freedom than Philip II could force the Dutch into slavery.” Allowances have to be made for the national character.
    Monarchies survived, but the feudal despotism of the nobility everywhere received a death-blow, from which it never recovered, to be replaced with parliamentary governments, lip-service, at least, to the Rights of Man and reception of the Civil Code. In other words, the momentum created by Revolution was irreversible.
    The great Catholic historian, Lord Acton, was very perceptive, when he wrote, “The hatred of royalty was less than the hatred of aristocracy; privileges were more detested than tyranny; and the king perished because of the origin of his authority rather than because of its abuse. Monarchy unconnected with aristocracy became popular in France, even when most uncontrolled; whilst the attempt to reconstitute the throne, and to limit and fence it with its peers, broke down, because the old Teutonic elements on which it relied – hereditary nobility, primogeniture, and privilege — were no longer tolerated. The substance of the ideas of 1789 is not the limitation of the sovereign power, but the abrogation of intermediate powers.”

  12. John Nolan

    You might have gathered from the names and dispositions of the commanders I listed that I was referring to the Wars against the First & Second Coalitions, concluding with the Peace of Amiens

  13. “Napoléon could no more coerce the Spaniards into freedom than Philip II could force the Dutch into slavery.”

    Except of course that Napoleon was not trying to coerce Spaniards into freedom but rather into being a permanent satellite of France. Napoleon did ironically help spread the better ideals of the Revolution but I think rather by the national resistances that his heavy hand inspired than by any positive actions of his. I think it was one of Napoleon’s marshals who best summed up the way in which the French army in practice transmitted the ideals of the Revolution when he told some local officials in a German principality that they were free now, but that they shouldn’t let this go to their head, and that if they made a move without his say so they would be shot!

  14. What John Paul said. Brilliant. I am so blessed to be both Catholic and American. Joh. Paul had great generosity of heart. His insights and correlation about rights, RESPONSiBiLITIES, and happiness should be re-read.
    I also like his reference to the ongoing necessity of a commitment to build (free society ). This treasure from our forefathers is not something to be received and treasured from the pet, but it also prompts us in this generation to understand and make our own the moral truths and renew our commitment to build. Not just receive , but to preserve and maintain
    Great great post – thank you

  15. The pope’s words surpass the Declaration of the Rights of Man with a meditation that includes human response to rights and responsibility. The French Revolution went off the rails having forgotten a basic premise of Life, the communist ones having forgotten the happiness quotient. …John Paul recognizes the American Declaration as he refers to the pursuit of happiness and the opportunity to participate in promoting the common good. And Of Course, religious liberty is what went missing in those revolutions that only ended up being revolting,

  16. Anzlyne: “And Of Course, religious liberty is what went missing in those revolutions that only ended up being revolting, ”
    It was the rejection of God, their refusal to acknowledge the Supreme Sovereign Being. Their heresy resulted in the rejection and refusal to acknowledge man’s religious liberty, upon which human right, all freedom is predicated.

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