Articles

“The Picture Was Made for the Apple”

In Politics on June 17, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , ,

Secularists often seem embarrassed by the Declaration of Independence, what with its references to at least some sort of divine providence and natural law. They seem to want to ignore it as any sort of governing document and rely solely upon the Constitution, which makes no direct mention of God. As atheist apologist Austin Cline opines (typically):

The purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to make a moral case for dissolving the legal ties between the colonies and Great Britain; once that goal was achieved, the official role of the Declaration was finished.


George Athan Billias, Jacob and Frances Hiatt Professor of History at Clark University summarizes here why, in his view, arguments like Cline’s fail. I don’t wish to re-hash the argument. However, it is interesting to note that the Declaration has often served as crucial bedrock support for the growth of freedom in America. For example, much of the debate over Missouri’s admission to the United States centered upon the tension between the two documents. At issue was the applicability of the Declaration’s principle of equality to practical political questions regarding Congressional power and the extension of slavery to new states. Of course, this dispute was not definitively resolved, as evidenced by the Missouri Compromise and the Dred Scott decision.

Abraham Lincoln’s views on this subject are particularly noteworthy. A manuscript fragment of Lincoln’s thoughts, written (most likely) in the early days of the Civil War, addresses the question in words that play with a figure from Proverbs 25:11: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” To Lincoln, the image illuminates the distinction between the picture and the frame. In his reading, the Constitution is the frame that contains the golden ideal — that all men are created equal — advanced by the Declaration.

“The assertion of that principle, at that time [of the Revolution], was the word, ‘ fitly spoken’ which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple — not the apple for the picture.” (These words are cited and discussed here). This concept appears again in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, wherein he rhetorically asks whether a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” can endure.

Accordingly, those who would advance a republic built entirely upon secular grounds argue against Lincoln, seeing the Constitutional picture frame as being designed to conceal or destroy the golden apple of the Declaration and the equality it upholds for all.

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6 Responses to ““The Picture Was Made for the Apple””

  1. “Secularists often seem embarrassed by the Declaration of Independence, what with its references to at least some sort of divine providence and natural law.”

    Embarrassed? Not at all.

    When declaring one’s independence against a monarchy that’s based on the divine right of kings, it only makes sense to use semi-religious terms in response.

    Our equality comes from the simple nature of our existence. Biologically we are equal, or at least have the potential to be so. And we strive to uphold that equality. If you want to think of it in religious terms, you’re welcome to do so.

  2. I appreciate your lack of embarrassment, but what evidence suggests to you that we’re in any way equal? It seems to me that all the evidence points in the other direction. Accordingly, we believe in and accept equality as a concept in order to acheive other, better ends.

  3. We are not equal in a literal sense. We are equal in the sense that we choose to consider each others equals in terms of rights, responsibilities to shared governance and so forth.

    The declaration of independence is great. It’s an egalitarian document. It’s not perfect. I contains the word men, and it contains the word creator. But out of place with a more modern conception.

    It was important to replace the authority of the king as the entity who defines what rights citizen have with another entity. Already in Locke’s writing we see how it is justified that God created all equal hence we should have an equal government.

    This is as much a way to justify away the monarchy as it is theology. In fact the theology may well be instrumental here rather than spiritual.

    But ultimately I don’t need the DoI to tell me that I’m equal to other people in terms of rights and responsibilities, everything else would be racism/sexism/classism/x-ism. And I don’t need to be told that I should want to live free and happy.

    Basically the DoI indeed states things that are, to a free person, self-evident (except for the men and creator parts!)

    Certainly the DoI is not a governing document. It is the document that declares the separation from the British empire. The founders had ample time to write the governing documents. Some of them, like Jefferson and Madison were geniuses. The first amendment is so solid that even religious fanatics have a hard time unhinging freedom.

    This is a nation how many secular people want it. Freedom of Religion and freedom from religion, per choice. And a marketplace of ideas so even opinions that powerful religious lobbies don’t like can have a place.

  4. That statement can be made true by suitable defining what “to be” means. In that case it becomes a tautology and has no content.

    But of course my argument doesn’t require that clause at all, nor do I see how it addresses your original claim, that I addressed directly, how secularists view the Declaration of Independence.

    Finally you will hardly find much push against this except for it’s tendentious wording:

    “Accordingly, those who would advance a republic built entirely upon secular grounds argue against Lincoln, seeing the Constitutional picture frame as being designed to conceal or destroy the golden apple of the Declaration and the equality it upholds for all.”

    Noone says that the founders had no “non-secular” values. But they founded a completely secular state. All documents that define what state is and does are secular. Secular does not mean without religion everywhere, secular just means that religion does not define/influence/interfere/be intertwined with government. There is no state mandate/support for religion nor is there religion that structurally is embedded with the government and defines law. Law is made through democratic processes and not through clerical or scriptural mandates.

    And of course Lincoln would cite the Declaration of Independence during the Civil war. Equality is the prime argument to abolish slavery. However note that “the creator” is not necessary for that argument. Lincoln just happens to quote verbatim the text. In fact he, in the christian sense was the reason why people fought for slavery. After all the bible said slavery is OK.

    The rejection of slavery end the embrace of “egalite” is the achievement of the liberal enlightemnent and the basis for democracies where votes all count the same. And it is one of the main tinges on the original constitution to have slave trade passages in the original text. It needed reference to DoI to rectify that.

  5. […] to All In Politics on June 30, 2010 at 10:36 am In comments here, Hitch argues the following: Secular does not mean without religion everywhere, secular just […]

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