In 1974, spurred by the upcoming United States bicentennial, the Aspen Institute held a three-day conference to study three momentous American documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address. The conference proposed that those three documents, beautiful in their power and brevity, be regarded as the “American Testament” — the statement of the nation’s creed.
The next year, the conference’s moderators — the popular philosopher and top scholar Mortimer J. Adler, and his associate William Gorman — published a book of the same title. The book contains line-by-line analysis of the documents based on the notes and discussion from the conference. The discussion of the first sentence of the Declaration, for example, runs for seven pages. I have tried to briefly state a few notable truths and meanings that the book draws from the American Testament in the list that follows:
- The Declaration of Independence established the Americans of the several colonies as a people — a great number of persons united in pursuing a good life for all, and having the right to self-rule. (p. 25)
- The Preamble to the Constitution established that the government of the United States of America took its authority, not from the several state governments, but from the people, who are the sovereign power. (pp. 74-76)
- The Gettysburg Address reaffirmed the nation’s commitment to constitutional democracy for itself at the time, for the future, and for the world. (pp. 129-130, 136)
- The government does not reside in Washington, D.C. — it resides in the citizenry. It is just the central collection of temporary office-holders that resides in D.C. (p. 134)
- All humans, though different in many ways, are equal in human nature and in natural rights. (pp. 31-32, 34-35)
- The purpose of government is to secure — not bestow — those rights. (p. 43)
- As happiness is the ultimate aim of all humans, so the pursuit of happiness is the greatest of all rights — and all other rights are in service to it. (p.38)
- As we go through the years and centuries, more human rights come to light. We can see many of these named in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which is appended to the book). (pp. 35-37)
- A just government must promote the “general welfare,” which means the economic and other goods necessary to enable the pursuit of happiness. (pp. 108-109)
- Those goods, such as education and medical care, must be common goods — available in equal measure to all. (pp. 41, 106, 108)
The American Testament — minus the Declaration’s bill of particulars — appears below. This should make good reading for any citizen, or aspiring citizen, with 10 minutes to devote on this Independence Day.
The Declaration of Independence
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
The Preamble to the Constitution
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The Gettysburg Address
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Image credit: U.S. Post Office; public domain
Declaration of Independence “The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription” – National Archives
Preamble to the Constitution “The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription” – National Archives
Gettysburg Address Transcript of Cornell University’s Copy
Mortimer J. Adler NNDB
book of the same title “The American testament : for the Institute for Philosophical Research and the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies” – OCLC WorldCat
Universal Declaration of Human Rights United Nations
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