Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Marshall on political liberty, the Declaration of Independence, and Jefferson's 1801 inaugural address

A recent reading of some of John Marshall's correspondence provides grounds to doubt both the standard narrative of the American Revolution offered in the Declaration of Independence and the counter-narrative offered by Christopher Ferrara in Liberty, the God that Failed: Policing the Sacred and Constructing the Myths of the Secular State, from Locke to Obama

The contents of the Declaration of Independence, including its recitation of a "long train of abuses and usurpations," should be well known.

Here is Ferrara describing his counternarrative:

In the final decades of the 18th century radical coteries in America and France, guided by the thought of Hobbes, Locke, and the philosophes of the "moderate" Enlightenment, and animated by a burning antipathy toward monarchs and institutional religion, employed propaganda, the exploitation of popular grievances, and political theater to incite a small segment of the populace, almost entirely in key urban areas, to revolt against existing authority. (Ferrara, Liberty, the God that Failed at 8)

To the extent that Ferrara's counter-narrative captures some aspects of the American Revolution, it captures more of a Jeffersonian strand than to represent the thought and actions of individuals like George Washington and John Adams. This counter-narrative thus shares a Jefferson-centric way of thinking with the standard narrative rooted in the Declaration of Independence.

Writing to Edward Everett in 1826 to acknowledge his receipt of Everett's oration on the fiftieth anniversary of independence, John Marshall described the Declaration of Independence as more of a public-relations piece than an account of the true reason for the American Revolution, even while insisting that "[t]he war was a war of principle." Here's Marshall:

Allow me to express the peculiar satisfaction I felt at reading your statement of the causes in which our great revolution originated. Our resistance was not made to actual oppression. Americans were not pressed down to the earth by the weight of their chains, nor goaded to resistance by actual suffering. "They were not slaves rising in desperation from beneath the agonies of the lash; but freemen snuffing from afar 'the tainted gale of tyranny.'" This view of the subject is not only more consistent with the fact, but is more honorable to the intelligence of those virtuous patriots and sensible men who dared to lead us into the mighty conflict. The long list of tyrannical acts which is found in our declaration of independence, and which swells the papers of the day, was judiciously inserted as tending to produce unanimity, and was justified by the irritated feelings of the moment; but the time is arrived when the truth may be declared, and it is most honorable to our ancestors to declare it. The war was a war of principle, against a system hostile to political liberty, from which oppression was to be dreaded, not against actual oppression. (John Marshall to Edward Everett, August 2, 1826)

Twenty-five years prior, a Marshall letter to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney on the day Marshall administered the oath of office to Jefferson reveals the distance in political philosophy between Marshall and Jefferson. Marshall wrote:

To day the new political year commences--The new order of things begins. Mr. Adams I believe left the city at 4 OClock in the morning & Mr. Jefferson will be inaugurated at 12. There are some appearances which surprize me. I wish however more than I hope that the public prosperity & happiness may sustain no diminution under democratic guidance. The democrats are divided into speculative theorists & absolute terrorists: With the latter I am not disposed to class Mr. Jefferson. If he arranges himself with them it is not difficult to foresee that much calamity is in store for our country--if he does not they will soon become his enemies and calumniators.

4 OClock

I have administered the oath to the President. You will before this reaches you see his inauguration speech. It is in the general well judged & conciliatory. It is in direct terms giving the lie to the violent party declamation which has elected him; but it is strongly characteristic of the general cast of his political theory.

(John Marshall to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, March 4, 1801)



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