The overarching theme of Kendall and Carey’s book, The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, stands out quite a bit.  It runs against the grain of what is currently called traditional history.  Instead of the story of a nation founded on the ideas of equality and civil rights, it tells the story of a forgotten tradition.  A tradition that did not start with the Declaration of Independence but with the first established colonies in the 17th century.  This tradition was one of consensual self-government and Christian traditions.  As stated in the original preface, “Briefly stated, this thesis holds that we have moved away from the unique and defining principles of our founding fathers, those associated with self-government by a virtuous people deliberating under God. In their place, it is contended, we have embraced a new, largely contrived, “tradition” derived from the language of the Declaration of Independence with “equality” and “rights” at its center” (Kendall & Carey, 1970, p. 10). It certainly places The Basic Symbols of The American Political Tradition in a unique position when thinking about American political history and thought. 

Chapter one begins by exploring when the American political tradition began.  For many people, 1776 is the de facto start of American Politics, and extraordinarily little discussion is had regarding the century and a half which proceeded it.  They make a strong case that the American political tradition stretches back to a previous century and that its philosophical DNA is inherited from British common law and in Christian Natural Law Theory. 

To ignore this, as Kendall and Carey pointed out, is to miss the entire lead up and the motivation for the American Revolution.  It sets the stage for failures in analyzing The Declaration of Independence and later the Constitutional Convention and its purpose.  The point of discussing when the American political tradition began is related directly to the subject of equality in every sense.  Based on Kendall & Carey’s position, it is obvious the Declaration of Independence was referring to justice under the application of the law and not economic or social equality.  It makes a big difference because many decisions are affected by this erroneous application of the term equality.  Supreme Court justices for all intent have rewritten sections of the Constitution by using the term equality in a manner never intended.  There are few weaknesses in this position, if any, at all.

These underlying philosophies can be seen clearly in such documents as the Mayflower Compact, Connecticut Fundamental Orders, and the Massachusetts Body of Liberties.  These three documents all have a few essential traits in common.  The first of these is that men have a right to self-government and rely on the idea of consensual government.  These documents are created with the understanding that the vast physical distance between the colonies and Britain could not be easily overcome.  Effectively, it ruled out direct governance from Britain and left the colonists to their designs.  In this light, the Declaration of Independence was not a unique document, and it followed the pattern established earlier by previous documents, including the tradition of containing signatures of those pledging to live up to the compact.

The second aspect these documents had in common was the belief in Christian justice and morality.  Many of the colonists were religious refugees and wished to establish a Christian society in America.  A community where injustice could be avoided.  It meant no cruel and unusual punishments, seizures of property or loss of liberty without the due process of law conducted by peers, the establishment of a peaceful society, and the establishment of a culture where Christian values where how one measured justice.

“The Massachusetts Body of Liberties 2 describes itself as a “further establishing of this Government” -that is, as a rounding-out of a constitution already in existence. And it gives us at once a new symbol, namely, that of the “liberties, immunities and privileges … due to every man” -or, as it calls them a moment later, “freedoms,” which does indeed begin to sound like individual rights. Certain freedoms, it affirms, are called for by “humanity, civility [the “civil body politic” of the Mayflower Compact], and Christianity.” The “free fruition” which we may take to mean the continued expansion of these liberties or freedoms “hath ever been and ever will be the tranquility and stability of Churches and Commonwealth,” just as their “denial or deprival” brings both “disturbance” and “ruin” to both Church and Commonwealth” (Kendall & Carey, 1970, p. 78).  So, for Kendall & Carey, the key points are consensual self-government and Christian justice.  Equality is only relevant to how it is related to legal justice.

Equality is precisely where the discussion turns to Lincoln.  What Kendall & Carey call the Lincoln Heresy and Lincoln’s misinterpretation of the clause, “all men are created equal” is the heresy.  First, he has elevated the Declaration of Independence to a constitutional status (Kendall & Carey, 1970, p. 88).  Lincoln does, however, state that the Declaration is the purpose of the Constitution and is a continuing commitment that should be honored.  The Lincolnian view of the Declaration as a hermeneutical tool for the Constitution turns it on its head.

Kendall & Carey’s position is that the facts do not support Lincoln’s opinion about the importance of the Declaration of Independence.  One crucial point is that Lincoln arbitrarily picked that document, which originated in 1776 as the founding of the American nation.  He had no facts to back up the decision to choose that time and far better reasons for picking the year the Constitution was ratified.  Kendall & Carey say just that, “In other words, a claim could be made that the adoption of our Constitution essentially marks our beginning, for at this juncture we did through deliberative processes – far more deliberative, candid, and sober than those surrounding the adoption of the Declaration – set forth our supreme symbols” (Kendall & Carey, 1970, p. 89).  Another point is that the Declaration of Independence did not create a new nation but instead created 13 new sovereignties from the old colonies. 

The result is that the two traditions have come to exist. One tradition is of negative liberties as listed in the Bill of Rights, and the other has come to signify positive rights in the form of social justice, economic justice, and political justice (Kendall & Carey, 1970, p. 94).  It has created two conflicting views of America’s founding principles.  It has led to opposing interpretations of the Constitution, and a severe divide between one group calling themselves progressives and a second group who are more conservative in their views.  Kendall & Carey make a strong case for the second argument, which is based on the more solid factual ground.  There are no real weaknesses in this position if one is interested in a fact-based discussion of it.  On the other hand, if one is interested in equality specifically at the expense of freedom, then the Lincolnian position will be the preferred one.


Kendall, W., & Carey, G. W. (1970). The basic symbols of the American political tradition (1995 ed.). Retrieved from

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