Every week thousands of Americans visit the National Archives in Washington, D.C., to observe with awe and reverence the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These two eighteenth-century political documents continue to express so much of what it means to be an American that some recent scholars have elevated them to the status of “sacred relics of the American civil religion” (sociologist Robert Bellah) or “creeds of the theology of the Republic” (historian Sidney Mead).

A different school of recent interpreters, who use economics to study the American past, argue that there was not just a tension but a wide gap between the principles expressed in the Declaration and those incorporated in the Constitution. They are currently issuing a call, therefore, for a new Revolution that will finally assure the triumph of the democratic philosophy of the Declaration (with its optimistic view of human nature and history) over the conservative elitism and pessimism reflected in the Constitution.

In the wake of the bicentennial celebration of our Constitution, it is important to speak out against both of these trends—one, which dangerously exalts the Declaration and the Constitution, and the other, which elevates the principles of the Declaration while debunking those incorporated in the Constitution. To understand this protest we must reexamine the relation between the Declaration and the Constitution in light of the religious and philosophical positions of the two Founding Fathers most intimately associated with each of the documents, namely, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Common Convictions

Jefferson, author of the Declaration, and Madison, “the Father of the ...

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