A headline in a news story caught my attention the other day. It reads: “Louisiana now requires the 10 Commandments to be displayed in classrooms. It’s not the only terrifying state law.”  The column appears in The Independent, July 1, 2024, and is by one Gustaf Kilander.

Notice that the author uses the word “terrifying” to characterize the public display of one of, arguably, the bedrock documents that shaped the formation of the American nation and the thinking of its Framers. Indeed, to read the debates leading to the adoption of the Constitution is to plainly understand how deeply influenced the Framers were by not only the Ten Commandments, but by the weight of Christian and Western tradition. (See Elliott’s Debates, a compilation of the debates over the new Constitution).

A brief survey of the writings of such distinguished historians and researchers as Barry Alan Shain, Forrest McDonald, M. E. Bradford, and George W. Carey, plus a detailed reading of the commentaries and writings of those men who established the nation, give the lie to the claim that those men assembled in 1787 sought to outlaw individual state religious tests or establishments.

They did not.

Many of the original thirteen states had religious establishments and tests, including Massachusetts (Congregationalist), Virginia (Anglican/Episcopal), and North Carolina (requiring office holders to be Protestants, and after 1835 up until the War Between the States, only Christians). The US Constitution clearly acknowledged this, and only forbade the establishment of a “national” church. But even then, the Framers assumed that the new nation would reflect its Christian roots, going so far as providing for paid chaplains in the Northwest Territories at the same time they were formulating the Constitution.

Yet, this fundamental misunderstanding characterizes much of modern American thinking, both on the part of liberals AND conservatives.

And thus this 4th of July, I think it helpful to look once again at the 1776 declaration, which preceded the Constitution by eleven years, what exactly it is and what it is not. For far too many Americans confuse the two documents.

We celebrate July 4th each year as the anniversary of America’s declaration of independence from Great Britain. The day we set aside commemorates when representatives from the thirteen colonies took a momentous step that they knew might land them on the scaffold or suspended by the hangman’s noose. They were protesting that their traditional rights as Englishmen had been violated, and that those violations had forced them into a supreme act of rebellion.

For many Americans the Declaration of Independence is a fundamental text that tells the world who we are as a people. It is a distillation of American belief and purpose. Pundits and commentators, left and right, never cease reminding us that America is a new nation, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Almost as important as a symbol of modern American belief is Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It is not incorrect to see a link between these two documents, as Lincoln intentionally placed his short peroration in the context of a particular reading of the Declaration.  Lincoln bases his concept of the creation of the American nation in philosophical principles he sees enunciated in 1776, and in particular on an emphasis on the idea of “equality.”

The problem is that this interpretation, which forms the philosophical base of both the dominant “movement conservatism” today – neoconservatism – and the neo-Marxist multicultural Left, is basically false.

Lincoln’s opens his address, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth …” There is a critical problem with this assertion. It was not the Declaration that “created” the new nation; the Declaration was a statement of thirteen colonies, announcing their respective independence from the mother country, binding themselves together in a military and political alliance. It was the Constitution, drafted eleven years later (1787), after the successful conclusion of the War for Independence, that established a new nation. And, as any number of historians and scholars have pointed out, the American Framers never intended to cobble together a nation based on the proposition that “all men are created equal.”

The Framers of the Constitution were horrified by “egalitarianism” and “democracy,” and they made it clear that what they were establishing was a stratified republic, in which most of the “rights” were left to the respective states (with their own particular arrangements), and in which serious restrictions and limitations on voting and participation in government were considered fundamental. A review of The Federalist Papers confirms this thinking; and a survey of the correspondence and the debates over the Constitution add support to this anti-egalitarianism.

Obviously, then, Lincoln could not found his “new nation” on the US Constitution; it was too aristocratic and decentralized, with non-enumerated powers maintained by the states, including the implicit right to secede. Indeed, slavery was explicitly sanctioned, even if most of the Framers believed that as an institution it would die a natural death, if left on its own. Lincoln thus went back to the Declaration of Independence and invested in it a meaning that supported his statist and wartime intentions. But even then, he verbally abused the language of the Declaration, interpreting the words in a form that its Signers never intended.

Although those authors employed the phrase “all men are created equal,” and certainly that is why Lincoln made direct reference to it, a careful analysis of the Declaration does not confirm the sense that Lincoln invests in those few words. Contextually, the 1776 authors at Philadelphia were asserting their historic — and equal — rights as Englishmen before the Crown, which had, they believed, been violated and usurped by the British government, and it was to parliament that the Declaration was primarily directed.

The Founders rejected egalitarianism. They understood that no one is, literally, “created equal” to anyone else. Certainly, each and every person is created with no less or no more dignity, measured by his or her own unique potential before God. But this, egregiously, is not what most contemporary writers mean today when they talk of “equality.”

Rather, from a traditionally Christian viewpoint, each of us is born into this world with different levels of intelligence, with different areas of expertise; physically, some are stronger or heavier, others are slight and smaller; some learn foreign languages and write beautiful prose; others become fantastic athletes or scientists. Social customs and traditions, property holding, and individual initiative — each of these factors further discriminate as we continue in life.

None of this means that we are any less or more valued in the judgment of God, Who judges us based on our own, very unique capabilities. God measures us by ourselves, by our own maximum possibilities and potential, not by those of anyone else — that is, whether we use our own, individual talents to the very fullest (recall the Parable of the Talents in the Gospel of St. Matthew).

The Founders and, then after them, the Framers understood this, as their writings and speeches clearly indicate. Lincoln’s “new nation” would have certainly struck them as radical and revolutionary, a veritable “heresy.” Even more disturbing for them would be the specter of modern-day neoconservatives — that is, those who dominant the conservative movement and claim to rigorously defend the Constitutional republic against the abuses of the “woke” multiculturalist left — enshrining Lincoln’s address as a basic symbol of American political and social order.

They would have understood the radicalism implicit in such a pronouncement; they would have seen Lincoln’s interpretation as a contradiction not only  of the meaning of the Declaration, but also an undermining of the fundamental document of the American nation, the Constitution of 1787; and they would have understood in Lincoln’s language the content of a Christian and millennialist heresy, heralding a transformed nation where the Federal government would become the father and mother and absolute master of us all, and where a weaponized Executive and its judicial arm could engage in fanatical “lawfare” against any opponent of its goal of totalitarian control.

Thus, as we commemorate the declaring of American independence 248 years ago, we should lament the mythology about it created in 1863, and recall the generation of 1787, a generation of noble men who comprehended fully well that a country based on egalitarianism is a nation where true liberties are imperiled.

This nation is dying a painful death because it has ignored and rejected what our forefathers brought forth.

Boyd Cathey

Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations.


  • Lisa says:

    This is an exceptional summation to which I will refer in the future, it covers all of the basic points in a clear and profound way… thank you sir.

  • Matt C. says:

    Appreciated the article. Thank you, Mr. Cathy.

    “…God, Who judges us based on our own, very unique capabilities. God measures us by ourselves, by our own maximum possibilities and potential…” Point understood, but the judgement is going to be a bit more about what Pilate said: Matthew 27:22 “…What shall I do then with Jesus…?…”

    “…they would have understood in Lincoln’s language the content of a Christian and millennialist heresy…” Initially, I wasn’t absolutely certain what you meant there, but I’m thinking you’re referring to a post-millennial view or philosophy Lincoln was espousing. I tend to agree. And, the post-millennial view is in fact error.

  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    “None of this means that we are any less or more valued in the judgment of God…”
    I always am amazed that the Lord offers forgiveness to everyone—even Yankees. Clearly, He is a merciful God.

  • David Yelle says:

    Very insightful. We have a blind and ignorant public that has been raised on nationalist lies. The only, and let me repeat only, disagreement I have with Dr. Cathey is that we are NOT a nation. I try point out to anyone who says we are a nation that the founders created a federal republic. This gives me opportunities to explain what was created, and what the Constitution really means and how far we’ve strayed from it. Is it really that we have strayed, or has the true meaning of the Constitution been deliberately stolen from us? I say stolen, and, yes, most-certainly deliberately and knowingly stolen!

  • Mark B says:

    Excellently done! Thank you. Paul Graham gives more details of Lincoln’s manipulation of history in the Gettysburg Address in “Nonsense on Stilts.”

  • William Duncan says:

    “God measures us by ourselves, by our own maximum possibilities and potential, not by those of anyone else — that is, whether we use our own, individual talents to the very fullest (recall the Parable of the Talents in the Gospel of St. Matthew).”
    Not sure that is a theologically correct statement. The parable is about Israel having been given the Sinai Covenant and then did not stay faithful and grow. It’s not about God “measuring individuals. I agree with your premise about men not created equal in giftings but this is not the scripture to use for this.

    • Matt C. says:

      Right. The parable of the talents in Matthew 25 concerns Israel. But, it looks toward the kingdom of heaven on earth, it’s not looking back. This parable is about how the “little flock”will function while Christ is away, “occupy till I come.” The remnants faithfulness and constantcy will be put to the test. Again, the context of Matthew 24 and 25 is the 70th week and the messianic kingdom. Currently, that kingdom program is in abeyance.

  • Hugh Mcdanel says:

    I see the Declaration of independence as a group of individuals who asserted their rights as granted by their creator. Independence day is a day we remember annually, when we declare we are sovereign citizens not beholden to king, prince, or potentate. Unfortunately the United States has evolved into a socialist collective. Most people do not guard their natural rights and choose slavery.

    • Paul Yarbrough says:

      “Most people do not guard their natural rights and choose slavery.”
      I don’t think it is a choice. I believe it is acceptance. Their “guard” was no more than verbal blather.

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