5.19.2009

Miracle at Philadelphia: QOTD 3

Part 3 in a series of quotations from "Miracle At Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May - September 1787" by Catherine Drinker Bowen.

In my last post on the topic, I alluded to the fact that the members of the Convention relied on popularly held ideas that were simply accepted as obvious and thus needed no explicit statement. Of such concepts as life, liberty, and property, and their nature as inextricably tied together, Bowen said "such declarations were already cemented with their blood."

Later, on page 71, she relates the following:
The Continental Congress, composing its first Declaration and Resolves (1774), had said the colonists were entitled to "life, liberty and property." In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson altered it to read, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." If nobody knew exactly what that meant, they did not need to know. They felt it, breathed it in the Revolutionary air. To pursue happiness signified that a man could rise in the world according to his abilities and his industry. [bold added]
Recognizing the vagueness of "the pursuit of happiness," Bowen basically says that it didn't matter much at the time because it was obvious to all thinking men what was intended. In the next paragraphs, however, she hints at what was to come because of this opening -- I'd call it a weak spot in the armor caused by a contradiction never rooted out -- left by the Founding Fathers.
Here was no quarrel, as today, between human rights and property rights. Madison said that "a man has property in his opinions and the free communication of them, he has property in the free use of his faculties, in the safety and liberty of his person." ...

The Federal Convention was not interested in the redistribution of property, nor did it meet for such a purpose. Threatened with anarchy, the founders desired order, and to blame the Convention as "conservative" is to look on 1787 with the eyes of today. [bold added]
Bowen correctly identifies that there is a philosophical difference between 1787 and today, and leaves no indication of her thoughts on which is correct -- a fine course of action for a historian. However, she doesn't go further to identify exactly what the difference is.

With the benefit of Ayn Rand's insights, we can now see that the chink in the armor of the founders was the moral code of altruism. Because they had not identified that a consistent defense of the political principles of individual rights rests upon the moral code of rational egoism, they did not predict that failing to consistently and explicitly defend property rights would eventually leave us with the statist shell of a Constitution and country we see around us.

The founders took for granted that "the pursuit of happiness" implied property rights, but 200 years of philosophical assault left us with the possibility that there could be a conflict between human rights and property rights. I have previously described what I call the anti-concept of human rights, a muddled term that serves to destroy the concept of individual rights by confusing it with "positive" rights to legally loot from productive individuals. "Human rights," as a commonly held concept, means the sacrifice-by-right of the haves to the have-nots, i.e. altruism.

What the founders saw as obvious and "in the Revolutionary air" -- that liberty and property are inseparable ideas -- has been all but wiped from the public consciousness by altruism. It will certainly be an uphill battle, but what we can take away from this example is that now, armed with the knowledge we need to fully defend life, liberty, and property, we have a tremendous opportunity to pick up where the founders left off.

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