The Declaration of Independence begins with the assertion that “all men are created equal.” But this is a fiction, not to be taken seriously. The Founding Fathers were not serious. Russell Kirk once pointed out, “The Declaration of 1776 is simply a declaration – and a highly successful piece of immediate political propaganda.”Actually, the forefathers were quite serious, serious enough to pledge (and pay) lives, fortunes, and sacred honor in a war to win the right to rule themselves, to turn their whole world and the world of their children upside down politically, socially, and economically. But while serious, “all men are created equal” is and always has been limited by the phrase which follows, “…and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It is not, at its core, a statement about nations or even governments, but is a religious assertion about individual people and their place in God’s universe.
According to [Pat] Buchanan, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address also used egalitarian sentiment “to ennoble the Union’s war to crush the South’s fight for independence….” Other presidents have relied on democratic or egalitarian slogans in wartime, such as Wilson in World War I and Roosevelt in World War II. The past use of ideological slogans to justify a nation’s cause should not obscure the real reasons wars have been fought.
National survival and national interest, the bedrock of national patriotism, have nothing to do with ideology. Buchanan quotes from Lincoln’s letter to Horace Greeley: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not … to destroy slavery.” The slogan of “equality for all men” should never be taken seriously.
As for modern egalitarianism, the forefathers were not foolish enough to believe that all men were as tall as George Washington or as old as Ben Franklin or as good-looking as DotDot, nor did they believe that it was a result of institutional oppression that Michael Jordan makes more money than I. Instead, what they were saying, and what they were fighting for, was freedom from the idea that because some men are born into certain stations they held the right to enforce their ideas and will on men of lower estate. They were fighting against the aristocracy of blood, but they could help but put in its place an aristocracy of talent, where they knew from experience there was an innate equality based on the differing abilities and actions of individuals. That modern Americans find that hierarchy of talent oppressive is hardly the fault of the founding fathers; unlike us, they were perfectly willing to suffer the consequences of their conscious actions.
Certainly the Declaration was propaganda***, certainly it was a slogan, certainly it remained a goal rather than an accomplishment, but the fact that men like Lincoln used it without believing in it does not negate it; it simply proves that men often live by their pocketbooks rather than by ideals. Its power arises not from the vision of the rulers, but from the innate understanding of the person preached to that it is how things ought to be.
And true this ideology has little to do with national survival and perhaps national interest** but it has everything to do with the reason a nation ought to survive. Patriotism's value does not arise from my ability to say, “America is the greatest nation in the world because I was born here,” nor is its purpose to extend the life of a nation simply for the sake of continuity or history or power. Rather it is to ensure that the nation, at the end of the day, at the end of one’s life, is worthy to be passed on to one’s children, that they may enjoy the right to life, liberty, and property that is the universal gift of the Creator of the universe.
* meaning “without external constraint or incentive”
** If we define that as the leverage power of one nation over another.
*** information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.