As part of our mini-vacation in Philadelphia last week, we treated our girls to a twilight “Ghost Tour” of Olde City and Society Hill. A jovial guide led us around the narrow streets of these, among the oldest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, pointing out historical locations such as cemeteries where ghosts have been reported in the past. And, because this is Philadelphia, the guide was able to slip in some historical information as well, not only about the Powel House but also about public health in the 18th century (which was just as scary as any ghost story I can think of).
We didn’t see any ghosts on this tour, but I was reminded that the idea of ghosts, whether you believe in them or not, seems to be something encoded in the human consciousness. Ghosts are not merely spectres, a metaphor for our desire for an afterlife, but a metaphorical reminder that the past infuses the present. In Philadelphia, whether you’re on a ghost tour or not, you’re constantly reminded that you’re walking the same streets as generations past have walked, reaching back not merely to the Revolutionary War and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but also to the Quaker community that founded Philadelphia upon a set of ideals that were the product of Reformation and finally Enlightenment thinking.
At about the same time as we were lollygagging around on the lush green lawn of Independence Mall last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an Evangelical Christian and conservative, unveiled a new “Commission on Unalienable Rights,” snatching up a phrase that was incorporated into the Declaration of Independence in 1776; he also appointed Mary Ann Glendon as the chair of that commission. Glendon is described by Politico as “a social conservative who has been a prominent anti-abortion voice, which could lend credence to the concerns among human rights activists that the commission is a ploy to undercut LGBTQ and women’s rights under the guise of religious liberty.” Somehow I doubt that Pompeo and Glendon ordered up Simone Weil’s study of rights and obligations, The Need for Roots, during Amazon Prime Day.
In announcing the commission, Pompeo said something that gave me considerable pause. “Is it in fact true, as our Declaration of Independence asserts,” he said, “that as human beings we — all of us, every member of our human family — are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights?” It may be that the commission was established merely as a rhetorical platform through which the U.S. can condemn the human rights abuses of other countries. But it also sounds like the commission is seeking, one way or another, to define what those rights are: to legitimize some claims to a political right (say, to gun ownership and the inviolability of private property) and delegitimize others (say, to abortion, free expression of speech and religion, and the ability to define one’s own sexual and gender definition, and hence one’s own inmost identity and conscience).
Shelves of books have been written about how the Founding Fathers and other Americans defined “our creator” or “rights” in the 18th century, and Pompeo’s confidence that he and his commission will be able to ascertain precisely those definitions is just a bit delusional. But what is certainly true is that the Founding Fathers believed it was not the role of governments to bestow those rights on its citizens; it was the role of governments to protect them. Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and the rest of them did not create these rights out of thin air. They intended instead to conceive of a form of government that would most adequately lay out the basis of political governance in the context of the natural law philosophies of John Locke and others, which themselves had their origins in a study of the Western liberalism represented by certain strands of thought going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans (not to mention, in some opinions, the Apostle Paul and St. Augustine) — in short, to conceive of a government appropriate to the 18th century Age of Enlightenment. In Europe, at about the same time, Kant was doing the same thing in his investigations into moral philosophy and the idea of the Categorical Imperative.
In the 1920s, Progressive Era historians like Charles Beard and Carl Becker dismissed all this; it was a muckraking time, and the Founding Fathers were the muck that they raked, charging that the stated ideals of the framers of both the Declaration and the Constitution were so much lip service to their genuine concerns, which were the preservation of their own property rights and economic self-interest. Later studies by people like Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and Pauline Maier, however, established that many Americans of all persuasions and classes shared the ideals of the framers: that, indeed, Americans of the time, including the framers, meant what they said.
Among the ghosts that I thought I saw in Philadelphia last week, I’m afraid, were the ghosts of those ideals, which are becoming thinner and thinner in the Trump era. Rights, in Pompeo’s conception, are to be given and selectively protected by governments, not by God or nature, and in the end, what difference does it make anyway? As Russian President Vladimir Putin said at around the same time as the creation of Pompeo’s commission, “[Liberals] cannot simply dictate anything to anyone just like they have been attempting to do over the recent decades. The liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.” Of course, Putin, as usual, was sowing discord, deliberately conflating the long history of Western liberalism with annoying contemporary politicians who call themselves liberal by contemporary ideological standards. But most Americans — especially those who support Trump — may not care about the distinction. Which is the best way to whittle the memory of those ghosts to nothing.
See also: Trump Fatigue