In summary, the American political tradition arose from several elements mixed together over three or four centuries-Puritanism, English common law, classical republicanism, gentleman statesmanship, God-given natural rights, and the Madisonian constitutional republic. In large measure, the history of the American way of life consists in the playing out of these various traditions, with one or another predominating at different periods.
Over the long term, however, the natural rights principles of the Declaration of Independence have become the dominant tradition. Whether that predominance is for good or for ill is a matter of heated debate. While some scholars like Michael Zuckert and Thomas West think that it is a moral triumph, and others think it creates moral problems (I include· myself in this latter group), one cannot deny the correctness of Zuckert's historical analysis demonstrating the dominance of natural rights over the other traditions, creating a hegemonic Natural Rights Republic. Zuckert's proof is simple, but powerful: All of the other traditions have absorbed natural rights principles (often unaware) and have been transformed and overpowered by them.
For example, the Puritans of colonial America, who began as staunch theocrats led by "visible Saints," gradually incorporated natural rights-social contract language and principles into their political theology. By 1744, a minister such as Elisha Williams could write a lengthy pamphlet on "The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants" in which he simply equates the Protestant idea of sola scriptura with Locke's right of conscience, affirming "a Christian's natural and unalienable right of private judgment in matters of religion." In similar fashion, William Blackstone's new codification of the English common law in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, which appeared in four volumes from 1765 and 1769, incorporated Lockean ideas into a common law framework. Blackstone defended traditional powers of king-in-parliament (the sovereign legislative power) and the protection of the "absolute rights" of individuals. Following along the same lines, the American founding fathers, who were quasi-aristocratic gentlemen politicians in their personal lives, dedicated themselves to regime principles based on natural rights and republicanism, rather than on aristocratic exclusivity ("the aristocrat as democrat" is how the American historian Richard Hofstadter describes Thomas Jefferson, with both accuracy and irony). Similarly, the opponents of the U.S. Constitution, the anti-Federalists, used the rhetoric of classical republicanism to state their case, appealing to the small, virtuous, participatory republics of the ancient world against the idea of the large, more centralized republic of the Federalists. Yet, the anti-Federalists finally settled on the promise of a Bill of Rights attached to the Constitution as the price of their support, indicating that their highest priority was the protection of rights.
One may therefore conclude that the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution together ·produced the natural rights republic; and this combination of ideas has predominated over the other strands of the American political tradition (although the Lockean conception of natural rights was transformed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by statesmen such as Abraham Lincoln and by modern, mainly German, philosophy into the neo-Kantian human rights of present-day America).Note above that Dr. Kraynak told us he and others think that America's natural rights republic "creates moral problems." One of the most notable "others" includes Professor Patrick Deneen who has a new book out that touches the matter entitled, "Why Liberalism Failed." The book caught the attention of President Obama who said, "I don't agree with most of the author's conclusions, but the book offers cogent insights into the loss of meaning and community that many in the West feel, issues that liberal democracies ignore at their own peril." Likewise I don't fully share Dr. Deneen's worldview or prescriptions, but agree the book contains valuable insights.