Thursday, April 25, 2024

The Discovery of the Declaration of Independence by the American People: A Response to Pauline Maier

Pauline Maier's American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1997) is the best single book on the history of the Declaration of Independence.  I say that because I have learned more about the Declaration from this book than from any other.  Nevertheless, I disagree with some of her primary claims.

Here is her summary of her argument:

". . . The Declaration was at first forgotten almost entirely, then recalled and celebrated by Jeffersonian Republicans, and later elevated into something akin to holy writ, which made it a prize worth capturing on behalf of one cause after another.  The politics that attended its creation never entirely left its side, such that the Declaration of Independence, which became a powerful statement of national identity, has also been at the center of some of the most intense conflicts in American history, including that over slavery which threatened the nation itself.  In the course of those controversies, the document assumed a function altogether different from that of 1776: it became not a justification of revolution, but a moral standard by which the day-to-day policies and practices of the nation could be judged" (154).

Here and throughout her book, Maier was elaborating ideas first set forth in 1962 in an article by Philip Detweiler--"The Changing Reputation of the Declaration of Independence: The First Fifty Years."  She was also developing the arguments from people like Willmoore Kendall, Mel Bradford, Garry Wills, and the young Harry Jaffa about Lincoln's "inventive" interpretation of the Declaration at Gettysburg.

Although I agree with much of this, I disagree with three points:  her sneering scorn for the elevation of the Declaration "into something akin to holy writ," her claim that the Declaration was "at first forgotten," and her assertion that originally the Declaration did not provide a "moral standard" for government.


As suggested by her mocking title, Maier was disdainful of the religious language and rituals that treated the Declaration as "American Scripture."  She began and ended her book describing her visit to the "Shrine" for the Declaration of Independence and the other "Charters of Freedom" in the Rotunda of the National Archives in Washington.  This reminded her of "the awesome, gilded, pre-Vatican II altars of my Catholic girlhood," and she was disgusted by it all (xiv).

Well, of course, many of us--particularly, those who are academic scholars--will find this sacralization of American political documents a bit ridiculous.  But what's the harm in doing this?  Maier thought this really was harmful.  Here's the last sentence of her book:  "The vitality of the Declaration of Independence rests upon the readiness of the people and their leaders to discuss its implications and to make the crooked ways straight, not in the mummified paper curiosities lying in state at the Archives; in the ritual of politics, not in the worship of false gods who are at odds with our eighteenth-century origins and who war against our capacity, together, to define and realize right and justice in our time" (215).

But she offered no evidence to support this claim.  And a few paragraphs before this passage, Maier praised Martin Luther King for his "I have a dream" speech in 1963--the centennial of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation--delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.  King's quoting from the Declaration was part of a sermon filled with Biblical references and imagery.  And so, he was promoting the religiosity of "American Scripture."  But he did this to advocate political change to fulfill the Declaration's promise of equality of rights for all, which advanced the Civil Rights Movement, and thus expressed "our capacity, together, to define and realize right and justice in our time."


Maier said the Declaration was "at first almost entirely forgotten."  That "almost" is significant.  I agree that from 1776 to 1790, there were few prominent references to the Declaration--particularly, the second paragraph (the self-evident truths).  But even so, it was not entirely forgotten during this period.

In his critical review of Maier's book, Michael Zuckert pointed to two important references to the Declaration in the 1787 debate over the Constitution (Zuckert 1998:358-59).  First, Zuckert cited Federalist Number 40, where James Madison quoted from the Declaration.  Second, Zuckert quoted the Antifederalist writer Brutus as saying: "If we may collect the sentiments of the people of America, from their own most solemn declaration, they hold these truths as self-evident, that all men are by nature free.  No one man, therefore, or any class of men have a right by the law of nature, or of god, to assume or exercise authority over their fellows.  The origin of society then is to be sought, . . . in the united consent of those who associate."

I have a copy of a letter that Maier sent to Zuckert about his review (October 16, 1999), in which she said that this evidence actually supported her argument.  She noted that Zuckert had not actually quoted the passage from Madison, which referred to "the transcendent and precious right of the people to 'abolish or alter their governments as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.'"  She said that since this "imprecise quotation" referred to the Declaration's assertion of the right to revolution, this supported her argument that the Declaration was originally understood as declaring the Americans' right of revolution, but without giving any attention to the Declaration's assertion of equality and inherent rights and the government's duty to secure those rights.

Maier said that the passage from Brutus also sustained her book's argument.  Although Brutus's reference to "self-evident" truths echoes the Declaration of Independence, his statement "that all men are by nature free" sounds more like Virginia's Declaration of Rights adopted in June 1776 after revising George Mason's draft--"all men are by nature equally free and independent."

In her book, Maier did indeed argue that Mason's draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights had much more influence on the other revolutionary state bills of rights than did the Declaration of Independence.  But it's hard to see the point of this argument given that she had written that Jefferson's "rewriting of Mason produced a more memorable statement of the same content" (134).  If Jefferson's Declaration had "the same content" as Mason's Declaration, then it would seem that the two declarations were in agreement in their principles.

In her article in the Washington and Lee Law Review, Maier rightly noted that Zuckert had misquoted the passage from Brutus. Brutus had not referred to the Americans' "most solemn declaration" but to their "most solemn declarations" (Storing 1981, 2:372).  Brutus was surely referring not just to the Declaration of Independence but to the state declarations of rights, such as the Virginia Declaration of Rights.  But if these state declarations of rights have "the same content" as the Declaration of Independence in their statement of principles, it's hard to see Maier's point here.

Moreover, there were other clear examples of the Declaration of Independence being cited in the constitutional ratification debates that Zuckert did not mention.  An Antifederalist--"A Georgian"--referred to "our glorious Declaration of Independence" as a model for "the principles of republican liberty and independence" that should be the model for a federal constitution (Storing 1981, 5:129, 135).  In the Pennsylvanian Ratification Convention, John Smilie complained about the lack of a bill of rights in the proposed Constitution, and insisted: "Let us recur to the memorable declaration of the 4th of July, 1776."  He then quoted in full the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence (Bailyn 1993, 1:805).

Clearly, the Declaration of Independence was not "completely forgotten" during this period from 1776 to 1790.


Maier's most fundamental argument in her book is that the Declaration of Independence as written in 1776 had only one function--to declare and justify revolution--and that it was only many years later that it was transformed so that it had a second function: to provide "a moral standard by which the day-to-day policies and practices of the nation could be judged," with the most prominent principle of that moral standard being the Declaration's assertion that "all men are created equal" and endowed with equal rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (154-55).  

That "moral standard" was stated in the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence.  But Maier claimed that from 1776 to 1790, almost no one thought that opening section of the Declaration was important.  It was only later, after the Jeffersonian Republicans had transformed the interpretation of the Declaration, that the "self-evident truths" of the second paragraph became the most important part of the Declaration.

Elaborating the story first told by Detweiler, Maier said that in the early years after 1776, the Declaration was celebrated as a practical event--the effective declaration of America's independence from Great Britain--but not as a statement of theoretical principles ("We hold these truths to be self-evident").   In the annual Fourth of July celebrations, almost nothing was said about those principles.

That began to change in the 1790's.  One early sign of the change was an article in a Philadelphia newspaper published on July 7, 1792, where the writer said that the Declaration was "not to be celebrated, merely as affecting the separation of one country from the jurisdiction of another; but as being the result of a rational discussion and definition of the rights of man, and the end of civil government" (Detweiler 1962, 565).

But in 1792, talk about "the rights of man" conjured up images of the French Revolution, which was politically polarizing for Americans.  The Federalists and the Republicans had become the two major parties, and while the Federalists were anti-French and pro-British, the Republicans were pro-French and anti-British.  The Federalists were not inclined to celebrate the Declaration of Independence because it was associated with the French revolutionary spirit, and it was critical of Great Britain.  And since the Federalists were opposed to Jefferson, they could not revere Jefferson's Declaration.

Once Jefferson became President in 1801, his party gained political dominance, and the Jeffersonian Republicans began to create the new image of the Declaration of Independence as the statement of the distinctively American credo of the natural equality of man and government as securing the natural rights of man.  After the War of 1812, the Federalist Party disintegrated, and the Jeffersonian Republican view of the Declaration became pervasive.

As the American debate over slavery intensified during this period, many abolitionists invoked the Declaration's principle of human equality as a moral standard for condemning slavery as naturally unjust. while many proslavery Southern leaders denounced that assertion of equality as a dangerous falsehood.  Although Lincoln did not agree with the abolitionist demand for the immediate abolition of slavery, he did agree that the Declaration's principle of equality was morally right, and that this justified prohibiting the introduction of slavery into the western territories.

Against this, Stephen Douglas argued that the principle of popular sovereignty should allow the people of the western territories to decide by majority vote whether they wanted slavery or not, and that the Declaration was never intended to assert a principle of human equality by which slavery could be morally condemned.  For Douglas, the Declaration had only one purpose--to explain and justify American Independence from Great Britain.

According to Maier, Douglas was right about the original meaning of the Declaration: it was only a Declaration of Independence, and it was not intended to assert the moral standards for a free society, as Lincoln believed (203-206).  What Lincoln did in the Gettysburg Address--finding the national identity of America in the Declaration's principles of equality and liberty--was morally inspiring but historically false.

What Maier failed to see, however, is how the actual text of the Declaration explained and justified the Revolution through a general theory of just government (in the first two paragraphs) that also set the moral standards for judging the conduct of any government.  Michael Zuckert has made the best case for this in his essay on "Locke in America: The Philosophy of the Declaration of Independence" (Zuckert 2002, 203-234).  But as I have said in a previous post, I disagree with Zuckert on one point:  while he says that the Declaration assumes a "mythic history" of human politics beginning in the state of nature, I see that history as an empirically true evolutionary history from the state of nature of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

When the Jeffersonian Republicans directed public attention to the high moral standards for politics set in the first two paragraphs of the Declaration, they were not creating a fictional "myth," as Maier claimed, but making a true discovery of what was really there in the text of the Declaration.  As one historian of the American Revolution has described it, this was "The Discovery of the Declaration of Independence by the People of the United States" (Fitzpatrick 1924, 9-20).


Bailyn, Bernard, ed.  1993.  The Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle over Ratification.  2 volumes.  New York: The Library of America.

Detweiler, Philip F.  1962.  "The Changing Reputation of the Declaration of Independence: The First Fifty Years."  William and Mary Quarterly 19: 557-574.

Fitzpatrick, John C.  1924.  The Spirit of the Revolution: New Light from Some of the Original Sources of American History.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Maier, Pauline.  1997.  American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Maier, Pauline.  1999.  "The Strange History of 'All Men Are Created Equal'".  Washington and Lee Law Review 56: 873-888.

Storing, Herbert J., ed.  1981.  The Complete Anti-Federalist. 7 volumes.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zuckert, Michael.  1998.  "A Work of Our Own Hands."  Review of Politics 60: 355-360.

Zuckert, Michael.  2002.  Launching Liberalism: On Lockean Political Philosophy.  Lawrence, KS:  University Press of Kansas.

Monday, April 22, 2024

The Evolutionary Origins of the American People in the Declaration of Independence

                                   John Trumbull's Painting "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."

From the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, the reader must wonder about its assertion of peoplehood.  What makes a people "one people" separate from other peoples?  This is the question posed today by Trump and other "populist" leaders around the world, who claim to defend the "people" against the evil elites who are "the enemies of the people."  Does the identity of a people depend on their shared ethnicity or race, as the ethnic nationalists would say?  Or can the identity of the American people arise from their dedication to the principles of equality of rights in the Declaration of Independence, which would allow for a multiethnic and pluralistic national identity?

I have argued that Abraham Lincoln was right to root the national identity of the American people in the Declaration of Independence as the moral foundation for the Constitution.  I have also argued that the Declaration of Independence expresses the political thought of John Locke, and therefore we can see the evolutionary history of America as the symbolic niche construction of Lockean liberalism.

The best objection to all of this is that it is based on two historical myths--the myth that the Declaration of Independence is a Lockean document and the myth that the story of the American people is the story of their efforts to fulfill the principles of the Declaration of Independence.  I have answered the first charge in my response to Claire Rydell Arcenas's book on Locke in America.  But I have not yet answered the second charge, which was most fully developed in Pauline Maier's book American Scripture (1997) and in an article in the Washington and Lee Law Review (1999) that summarized the argument of her book.

I will begin in this post with what Maier identifies as the best statement of the myth of the Declaration of Independence--by Lincoln.  Then, in a second post, I will survey Maier's account of how that myth emerged in the first 100 years of the Declaration from 1776 to 1876.  Finally, in a third post, I will argue that contrary to Maier, this myth is a true myth:  it is not a fictional fabrication of American history but a discovery of the historical truth of the Lockean story of America as captured in the Declaration of Independence.


The best and most influential proponent of the myth of the Declaration of Independence that Maier wanted to debunk was Lincoln.  The most memorable statement of that myth is Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

"Four score 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."

When I was a fifth-grade schoolchild in DeSoto, Missouri, my teacher (Helen Rolfing) required all of her students to memorize the Gettysburg Address.  Each of us had to stand before the class one by one and recite it.  I remember that while the beginning and the end were easier to remember, the middle was hard--"But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate--we can not consecrate--we can not hallow--this ground."  

We were being indoctrinated in the catechism of America's political religion.  We had little understanding of what it all meant, except that it had something to do with equality, freedom, and the Civil War.  As we looked up at the wall behind the teacher, we saw two big pictures--George Washington on the left and Abraham Lincoln on the right.  We learned the stories about Washington as the Father of the County and Lincoln as the Savior of the Country in the Civil War--whose saving message was expressed in the Gettysburg Address.

We were confused by the first sentence--what's a "score"?  Miss Rolfing explained that "score" was the language of the King James Bible meaning "twenty."  So, "four score and seven years ago," calculated from 1863, when Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, would have pointed back to 1776 and the Declaration of Independence.  "Our fathers brought forth" the new American nation when it was dedicated to the principles of the Declaration of Independence--particularly, "the proposition that all men are created equal."

Many years later, as a college student, and as a college professor teaching a course on Abraham Lincoln, I saw the subtleties of the Gettysburg Address that I could not see as a fifth grader.  While the Declaration of Independence holds it to be "self-evident" that all men are created equal, Lincoln speaks of this as a "proposition."  In Euclidean geometry, which Lincoln studied, a "proposition" is a statement that is "proposed" to be true, and it must be proven to be true, in contrast to a self-evident truth or axiom that we know to be true without any need for proof.  In 1859, Lincoln had said that "the principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society" (Speeches and Writings, 2:19).  As an example of an axiom in Euclidean geometry, that two lines equal to a third are equal to one another is a self-evident truth about equality.

But that all men are created equal did not seem to be an axiomatic or self-evident truth in 1863, because Americans were fighting a civil war caused by a disagreement over whether that was true, or whether its truth meant that slavery was morally wrong.  The second sentence of the Gettysburg Address pointed to that disagreement: "Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."  But this "test" in the American Civil War seemed to be not so much a test of the truth of a proposition about equality as a test of endurance or strength in war.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was delivered at a ceremony to dedicate a cemetery for those who died in the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, which had become the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, and a decisive victory for the Union, fought near the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 1-3, 1863.  A day later, on July 4th, the Union won another decisive victory when the Confederates surrendered to General Grant at Vicksburg, Mississippi, which gave the Union complete control of the Mississippi River, splitting the Confederacy in half.  Was Lincoln suggesting that the military victory of the Union in defeating the Confederacy would "prove" the truth of the proposition of human equality in the Declaration of Independence?  If so, would that mean that might does make right?

In 1838, in his Address to the Young Men's Lyceum, Lincoln had said that the American revolutionary founders "aspired to display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better, than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves" (Speeches and Writings, 1:34).  Perhaps, then, in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln was suggesting that a Union victory in the Civil War would be "a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition"--namely, the capability of a people dedicated to popular government based on the principle of human equality to defeat a military insurrection designed to overturn that government as founded on that principle.

Surprisingly, however, Lincoln implied that both the Union and the Confederate soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed themselves to preserve the American nation.  "We are met on a great battlefield 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," Lincoln observed, we cannot dedicate this ground beyond what the "brave men, living and dead, who struggled here" have already done.  "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."

Lincoln then concluded with his longest sentence, about one-third of the length of the entire Gettysburg Address.

"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 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."

This concludes the third of the three paragraphs of the Gettysburg Address that tell a three-part story of American life and death.  First, there's birth--"our fathers brought fourth . . ."  Then, there's sacrificial death--"those who here gave their lives that that nation might live."  Finally, there's rebirth to eternal life--"a new birth of freedom," so that popular government "shall not perish from the earth."  (Doesn't this evoke the Christian story of Jesus?)

In this speech, Lincoln was speaking not only to Americans but also to all of Europe and Latin America, where people were watching to see whether the American model of democracy would indeed "perish from the earth."  Both the Union and the Confederacy had sent diplomats and special agents to Europe seeking support for their causes.  Lincoln and his Union agents had presented their cause--particularly with the promise of emancipation of slaves--as representing universal republican principles that were, as Lincoln said in 1862, "the last best, hope of earth" (2:415).  Charles Darwin was one of those British abolitionists who attentively followed the events of the Civil War in the newspapers, cheering when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and celebrating when Lee surrendered.

That the Civil War was indeed a crucial turning point in the geopolitical struggle between liberal republicanism and oligarchic authoritarianism is the argument of Don Doyle's book The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (2015).  I would say that the victory of the Union in the Civil War was a decisive turn in political evolution by cultural group selection that favored the Lockean liberalism of the Declaration of Independence.

Some of the proslavery Southerners understood this.  Before the war, George Fitzhugh had condemned the principle of equality in the Declaration of Independence as a statement of Locke's false teaching.  In 1866, Fitzhugh said that the conflict in the United States between the North and the South was a continuation of the debate in seventeenth-century England between Locke and Sir Robert Filmer.  The radical North was on the side of the Whigs and Locke.  The conservative South was on the side of the Tories and Filmer ("The Impending Fate of the Country," De Bow's Review 2 [1866]: 561-70).  The Union's victory in the Civil War was Locke's victory over Filmer.

Lincoln could see this as a vindication of what he had been saying for over ten years about how the American dedication to the Declaration of Independence had been tested in both war and peace.  In 1852, he had observed:  "On the fourth day of July, 1776, the people of a few feeble and oppressed colonies of Great Britain, inhabiting a portion of the Atlantic coast of North America, publicly declared their national independence, and made their appeal to the justice of their cause, and to the God of battles, for the maintenance of that declaration" (1:259).  This appeal to "the God of battles" is what Locke and the American revolutionaries called "the Appeal to Heaven."  Strangely, however, in both the American Revolution and the American Civil War, both of the opposing sides prayed to God for His help.

In fact, the Civil War became a theological crisis for America, because both proslavery and antislavery Americans looked to the Bible as supporting their position.  In the Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln sharply stated the problem: "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other" (2:687).  But the Declaration of Independence confidently appeals to "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" in declaring that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."

And yet the fact that the Declaration of Independence did not mandate the abolition of slavery across all of America could be cited by people like Stephen Douglas as evidence that the equality of rights proclaimed in the Declaration was the political equality of free white men in America and other free white men in Great Britain, and thus it was not understood as an equality of all men of all races.  Lincoln responded by arguing that the equality affirmed in the Declaration was really meant to be an equality of all men of all races, but it was a matter of practical necessity to compromise with slavery for a limited period of time, while working for its ultimate extinction--and in particular, the national Congress should prohibit the expansion of slavery into the new Western territories and states.

Lincoln agreed with Henry Clay that "all men are created equal" is a true statement about men in the "state of nature" before the establishment of government.  Clay had said: "If a state of nature existed, and we were about to lay the foundations of society, no man would be more strongly opposed than I should to incorporate the institution of slavery among its elements."  "Exactly so," Lincoln observed.  "In our new free territories, a state of nature does exist," and therefore, as Congress lays the foundations of a new society in those free territories, "it is desirable that the declaration of the equality of all men shall be kept in view," and the introduction of slavery into those territories should be prohibited (1:822-23). 

In his 1857 Speech on the Dred Scott Decision, Lincoln insisted that both Douglas and Chief Justice Roger Taney were denying "the plain unmistakable language of the Declaration.  He explained:

"I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects.  They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity.  They defined with tolerable distinctness, in which respects they did consider all men created equal--equal in 'certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'  This they said, and this they meant.  They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them.  In fact they had no power to confer such a boon.  They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.  They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere" (1:398).

This is the Story of America as the Story of the Declaration of Independence:  equal liberty for all is the "standard maxim" for America that is "never perfectly attained" but "constantly approximated" across American history "as fast as circumstances should permit."  

As I have argued in previous posts, those who see evidence in some of his debates with Douglas that Lincoln was a white supremacist are mistaken.  He did say "that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,--that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people" (1:636).  But notice that he is silent about what he might say in the future.  And in fact, in 1865, he endorsed a free state constitution for Louisiana "giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white, and empowering the Legislature to confer the elective franchise upon the colored man" (2:700).  

Moreover, I have argued, there are good reasons to believe that if Lincoln has been a modern Supreme Court Justice he would have supported the constitutional rights to racial intermarriage (in Loving v. Virginia) and same-sex marriage (in Obergefell v. Hodges); and he would have said that these decisions properly enforced the principle of equal liberty in the Declaration of Independence.

But was Lincoln right about the original meaning of the Declaration of Independence?  Maier argued that Stephen Douglas's interpretation of the Declaration was actually an accurate account of the original history of the Declaration; and what Lincoln presented was a mythical distortion of that history.  I will take that up in the next post.



Doyle, Don H. 2015. The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War. New York: Basic Books.

Lincoln, Abraham. 1989. Speeches and Writings. 2 volumes. New York: Library of America.

Maier, Pauline. 1997. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Maier, Pauline. 1999. "The Strange History of 'All Men Are Created Equal.'" Washington and Lee Law Review 56 (Summer): 873-888.

Monday, April 15, 2024

If Bonobos Are Aggressive, Does That Deny the "Self-Domestication Hypothesis"?

                                                Vergil, A Male Bonobo at the Cincinnati Zoo

For many years, I taught a course at Northern Illinois University on "Chimpanzee Politics," which included some comparative study of chimpanzees and bonobos, the two primate species most closely related to human beings, because all three species evolved from a common ancestor about 7 million years ago.  

Every time I taught the course, I took the students on a field trip to the Milwaukee County Zoo, which has the largest captive group of bonobos in the world (over 20 individuals).  I have also been to the Cincinnati Zoo, which has about 12 bonobos.  Of course, it would be better to study the social behavior of bonobos in the wild.  But that is hard to do because they are only found in one place in the world--in dense rainforest areas south of the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Even those biologists who go there to study them find it hard to observe them as they move through the dense canopy of the rainforest.

Chimpanzees seem to be far more aggressive and violent than are bonobos.  Male chimps attack females and other males.  Sometimes these attacks are lethal.  Male chimps also form coalitions with other males to assert a male dominance hierarchy over females and other males.  These male coalitions also patrol the borders of their community, and they can launch attacks against other communities--even to the point of annihilating the whole community in war.

By contrast, bonobos have never been observed to engage in lethal attacks on other bonobos.  Female bonobos seem to be dominant over males.  And the females form coalitions with one another to attack males and mediate their conflicts.  In contrast to chimps, bonobo communities have never been observed to go to war with one another.  Bonobos from different communities can interact with one another peacefully.  All of this peacemaking depends on mutually pleasurable bisexual lovemaking--rubbing their genitals together--females with other females and with males.  This is why the bonobos have been dubbed the "hippie apes" who "make love not war."

Comparing human beings with these two ape species in working out the evolutionary links between the three species has provoked a debate among evolutionary biologists and social scientists.  The Hobbesian scientists argue that human beings are closer to chimps, which shows that the human state of nature was a state of war.  The Rousseauean scientists argue that human beings are closer to bonobos, which shows that the human state of nature was a state of peace.

In my posts on bonobos and the human state of nature, I have argued that Locke's account of the state of nature is closer to the truth than either Hobbes' or Rousseau's, and that evolved human nature combines the natural propensities of both chimps and bonobos.  As Steven Pinker would say, our human nature has both Inner Demons and Better Angels.  Lockean liberalism constructs a cultural niche of social institutions, mental attitudes, and moral traditions that tame the Inner Demons while eliciting the Better Angels to motivate voluntary cooperation and nonviolent relationships.

But in contrasting bonobos and chimpanzees, we should not assume that bonobos are utterly peaceful.  That bonobos are often aggressive in their attacks on one another is made clear in new research by Maud Mouginot and her colleagues that was just published online on Friday (Mouginot et al. 2024).

The message from this study as reported in the press--as in Carl Zimmer's report for the New York Times--is that "male bonobos commit acts of aggression nearly three times as often as male chimpanzees do."  That would seem to deny the common view that chimps are far more aggressive than bonobos.  But if you read the article carefully, you will see that the story is much more complicated than that.

Mouginot and her colleagues employed what scientists studying animal behavior call the "focal-animal sampling" method (Altman 1974).  All occurrences of specified actions of an individual, or specified group of individuals, are recorded for a pre-determined period of time.  

For their study, they had all-day focal follow data for 14 chimpanzee adult males from two communities in the Gombe National Park in Tanzania and 12 bonobo adult males from three communities in the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  They had recorded hundreds of aggressive dyadic interactions, including contact aggression (physical contact such as hit, pull, bite, kick, or jump-on) and non-contact aggression (such as charge and chase).  They had also recorded whether the focal-male was the aggressor or the victim and whether he was interacting with another male or with a female. 

They wanted to use this data to test the "self-domestication hypothesis" of Brian Hare and Richard Wrangham.  They suggested that bonobos evolved to be less aggressive than chimpanzees just as dogs evolved to be less aggressive than wolves.  Humans selected less aggressive (or friendlier) wolves to become their companions, and over time, wolves evolved into dogs through domestication by human selection.  Similarly, if female bonobos formed coalitions to punish aggressive males, and if females preferred to mate with less aggressive males, which would tend to produce less aggressive offspring, bonobos could have been self-domesticated for being less aggressive or friendlier to one another (Hare, Wobber, and Wrangham 2012).

Moreover, Hare and Wrangham have also suggested that humans could have undergone a similar process of evolution by self-domestication to be less aggressive or friendlier towards individuals within their community (Hare 2017; Hare and Woods 2020; Wrangham 2019).  I have extended this idea of human self-domestication to explain the evolution of Lockean liberalism and the bourgeois virtues as symbolic niche-construction.

What Mouginot and her colleagues have found does not deny the self-domestication hypothesis of Hare and Wrangham, although it might require some refinement in the theory.  They found that there was a higher rate of male-male contact aggression among bonobos than chimpanzees.  And in both species, the more aggressive males had higher mating success.  But they found no evidence to contradict the observation that bonobos never kill other bonobos, while chimpanzees do kill other chimpanzees in fighting both within and between communities.

One possible explanation for why bonobo males engage in more non-lethal aggression with other males than do chimpanzee males is that since bonobo females prevent males from forming coalitions, bonobo males can attack other males without suffering reprisals from male coalitions.

As Hare told Carl Zimmer, the one dramatic difference in aggressiveness between the two species remains:  "Chimpanzees murder, and bonobos don't."


Altman, Jeanne. 1974. "Observational Study of Behavior: Sampling Methods." Behaviour 48: 227-65.

Hare, Brian. 2017. "Survival of the Friendliest: Homo sapiens Evolved via Selection for Prosociality." Annual Review of Psychology 68: 155-86.

Hare, Brian, and Vanessa Woods.  2020.  Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity. New York: Random House.

Hare, Brian, V. Wobber, and Richard Wrangham.  2012.  "The Self-Domestication Hypothesis: Evolution of Bonobo Psychology Is Due to Selection Against Aggression."  Animal Behaviour 83: 573-85.

Wrangham, Richard.  2019.  The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution.  New York: Pantheon Books.

Zimmer, Carl.  2024.  "No 'Hippie Ape':  Bonobos Are Often Aggressive, Study Finds." The New York Times, April 12.

Monday, April 08, 2024

The Natural Desire for Membership in a Society: The Roots of Nationalism in the Lockean Evolutionary State of Nature

I have argued against the claim made by people like Frank Salter and Stephen Sanderson that there is a natural desire for ethnic nationalism that is part of our evolved human nature.  But I do recognize that there is a natural desire for membership in a society, which arose in the evolutionary state of nature of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and that this natural desire for social membership can be satisfied in a multiethnic Lockean liberal nation like the United States.  

Furthermore, I suggest, the national identity of the American people can be best formulated through Abraham Lincoln's understanding of the American people as dedicated to fulfilling the Lockean liberal principles of the Declaration of Independence.  In this way, the identity of the American nation has evolved through the cultural history of Amerca and the individual history of political agents like Lincoln as a symbolic niche construction of Lockean liberalism.

I have found support for these conclusions in Mark Moffett's book The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall (2019), although Moffett would not completely agree with me.


As I indicated in my previous post, Moffett is a field biologist who has wondered whether the capacity of invasive Argentine ants to form massive supercolonies might help to explain the human capacity for living in nations with huge populations of people whose society cannot be based on individual recognition of all the members of the society.  An Argentine ant colony is an anonymous society in which membership is marked by the distinctive scent of the colony, which distinguishes us from them, so that individual ants will be accepted into the colony if they carry the colony's scent, but if they carry the scent of a foreign colony, they will be attacked.  Similarly, a human society is an anonymous society with markers of social membership that distinguish those who belong to the society from those who are outsiders; but for a human society the markers of membership are not chemical signals but shared symbols (such as the flag, the language, or the history of a society).

Here Moffett agrees with Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities (first published in 1982), which has become perhaps the most influential book on the origins of nationalism.  Moffett agrees with Anderson's claim that a nation is an "imagined community," and it "is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion" (Anderson 2016: 6).  Moffett observes: "By serving to distinguish us, those who belong, from them, the outsiders, shared imaginings are all we need to create societies that are true and tidy entities" (2019: 18).  

Moffett disagrees, however, with Anderson's claim that nations as imagined communities are artificial products of modern cultural history beginning towards the end of the 18th century.  Our shared imaginings of national identity are not "artificial," if that implies they are fanciful or unreal, because they "bind people with a mental force no less valid and real than the physical force that binds atoms to molecules, turning them into concrete realities."  Moffet also insists that the concept of imagined communities "holds true not just for modern societies, but for all the societies of our ancestors, likely from their remote, prehuman origins," and therefore human societies are rooted in nature--in our evolved human nature.

Actually, Anderson himself sometimes intimates that nations as imagined communities are not modern inventions: "In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined" (6).

In any case, Moffett and Anderson seem to agree that the social identity of human societies or nations arises as a shared mental creation of what John Locke called "mixed modes" and John Searle called "institutional facts."  As I have argued, this confirms Locke's account of how, beginning in the hunter-gatherer state of nature, human beings have created society by social consent.  The first human society was created by informal consent--collective recognition or acceptance--through language, and language itself was a social creation in which certain sounds were given symbolic meaning by a "tacit consent" (ECHU, II.2).  But this first society in the state of nature was not a political society, because there was not yet any consent to a formal government or legal system (First Treatise, pars. 86-93; Second Treatise, pars. 6-14, 25-35, 77-90).  

Although he does not mention Locke or the Lockean tradition of social contract reasoning, Moffett's survey of the evidence and theorizing from the evolutionary social sciences explaining the human capacity for living in anonymous societies supports Locke's reasoning.


Moffett's brief definition of "society" is "an enduring territorial group whose members recognize each other as belonging" (2024, 3).  He also provides a longer definition:

"A society is a group extending beyond an immediate family, capable of perpetuating its population for generations, whose members ordinarily perceive one another as belonging together and set apart from other groups (notwithstanding transfers between societies, either mutually agreeable or initially forced) and which regulates access to a space or spaces it ultimately controls, across which its members travel with relative impunity" (Moffett 2024, 13).

Societies so defined include prehistoric hunter-gatherer and horticultural groups, modern nation states, and some groups in other species.  Thus, beginning in the evolutionary state of nature, human beings have always lived in societies.  And that suggests to me that a natural desire for membership in a society is part of our evolved human nature.

Locke understood that the earliest human ancestors in the state of nature were hunter-gatherers who lived in small nomadic bands and in larger societies of multiple bands that would satisfy Moffett's definition of societies.  Locke learned this from the hundreds of books of travel literature in his library.  Particularly important were the books by European explorers of the New World, because Locke believed that "in the beginning, all the world was America."

In the two hundred years before Locke's death, for the first time in human history, a global network of trade and travel extended to almost every part of the Earth.  In the three hundred years since Locke's death, the European exploration of the many parts of the world where hunter-gatherer societies could be found has been greatly extended--to Australia and New Zealand, for example.  And since the early in the 19th century, the explorers have included scientific researchers--biologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists--so that the scientific study of human social evolution has been deepened.

Moffett's broad examination of this research in support of his general theory of human social life can verify the Lockean explanation of how societies arise by consenting to the symbolic markers of social membership, and how liberal societies arise by consenting to the symbolic principles of a free society.

Ever since the publication in 1962 of Elman Service's Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective, evolutionary archaeologists and anthropologists have assumed a developmental sequence in human social evolution--band, tribe, chiefdom, and state.  Moffett applies his idea of collective markers of social identity to each of these four stages of evolutionary development.

Each hunter-gatherer band consisted of an average 25 to 35 individuals in several unrelated families.  Each band was small enough that the individuals recognized one another from their face-to-face interactions.  But each band belonged to a multiband society consisting of several bands, and this society could have a population ranging up to several thousand individuals.  This multiband society would therefore be an anonymous society with membership based on some markers of social identity rather than individual recognition.  These multiband societies claimed an expanse of territory, and they were hostile to outsiders entering their territory.

Moffett speculates that the first marker of social membership for the earliest hunter-gatherer societies could have been a password--a vocalization distinct to each society, so that anyone uttering this sound could be identified as a member of the society.  Something similar has been identified among chimpanzees:  one of the three dozen or so distinctive calls uttered by chimps is the pant-hoot.  I remember well hearing this the first time I saw Jane Goodall.  It was at a conference in 1986 on "Understanding Chimpanzees" at the Chicago Academy of Sciences.  When Goodall came out on the stage to give her lecture, her first sound was a loud pant-hoot that reverberated throughout the hall.  This evoked more loud pant-hoots from the audience of primatologists who recognized this chimp call.  

The pant-hoot seems to be a group coordination signal that chimps use to assemble and mobilize the members of their community.  There is some evidence, although it is not proven, that they learn the same pant-hoot sound that is shared across a community, with other chimp communities having different sounds (Moffett 2019: 148-50).  This suggests the possibility that the earliest human ancestors living in multiband societies could have developed a vocal sound distinctive to each society by which they could distinguish members of their society as opposed to outsiders.  This could have been the first vocal flag of social identity.  Unfortunately, if this happened, we are not going to find any archaeological evidence for it.

In any case, the ethnographic record of living hunter-gatherer societies shows that they have had many markers of social identity--such as differences in language (different languages or different dialects), bodily appearance (such as tattoos, scarification, clothing, personal ornamentation, and hairstyles), and cultural practices (such as rituals and religious beliefs).

As an illustration of how aboriginal band societies in Australia distinguished insiders from outsiders based on cultural identity, Moffet quotes from anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt recalling a conversation with one aboriginal individual:  "'There are two kinds of blackfellows,' they say, 'we who are the Walbiri and those unfortunate people who are not.  Our laws are the true laws; other blackfellows have inferior laws which they continuously break.  Consequently, anything may be expected of these outsiders.'" (104)

What this person identified as the "laws" of aboriginal society correspond to what Locke called "the laws of nature" in the state of nature--customary norms of proper behavior enforced by the "executive power of the law of nature"--the natural right of every individual to punish those who violate the laws of nature.  And yet in the state of nature, there is no formal government or legal system, so these laws of nature are informal rules of conduct enforced by sanctions of social approval and disapproval.

Notice also that in speaking of "other blackfellows," the Aborigine shows some awareness of racial differences between the black aboriginals and the white Europeans.  But before the arrival of the Europeans, the aboriginals would probably not have seen any racial differences among themselves, and so their membership in different societies would not have been based on race.  If prehistoric hunter-gatherers rarely had any contact with different races, then racial identity would not have been part of their thinking about social membership.

Moffett agrees with Locke that formal governments and laws do not appear until the emergence of states: "We think of nations, which academics call states, as having governments and laws, and band societies have neither, formally speaking" (104).

Locke believed that among hunter-gatherers in the state of nature, "all men by nature are equal."  They were not equal in all respects because some had higher status or influence than others based on age, birth, talents, and social ranking.  But still they were equal in "that equal right that every man hath, to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man" (ST, par. 54).

Moffett seems to agree: "Certainly the dictum that 'all men are created equal' applied to egalitarian, ethnically uniform hunter-gatherer bands more than any society since" (334).  Hunter-gatherer bands displayed what I have called "egalitarian hierarchy"--there were differences of rank, but no one was permitted to tyrannically dominate others.

But even egalitarian hunter-gatherers could think of the foreigners outside of their societies as less than human.  And in rare cases, hunter-gatherers took captives from foreign societies and held them as slaves.

As opposed to multiband societies, tribal societies are clusters of villages that change their locations less often than bands.  Tribes could show even more complex ranking of individuals, with some exercising leadership, but the leaders had no authority to force their will on anyone.  In addition to hunting and gathering their food, tribal people practice horticulture (the domestication of plants in gardens), and some are pastoralists who herd domesticated animals.

Like multiband societies, tribal societies signal their social identity with linguistic and cultural markers that separate one society from another.  So, for example, the Yanomami are an indigenous tribal people (about 30,000 people in 200-250 villages) in the Amazon rainforest along the border between Brazil and Venezuela.   They have diverged into several tribal societies based on differences in their Yanomami languages.

Multiband and tribal societies are small societies (a few thousand individuals at most) that contain mostly the descendants of a homogeneous stock of people.  By contrast, chiefdoms and states are huge heterogeneous combinations of smaller societies that have merged into one.  It is hard to explain how these multiethnic societies merged into one society and how this heterogeneous society developed and maintained shared markers of social identity.

Moffett agrees with those evolutionary archaeologists--like Robert Carneiro (1998; 2017)--who argue that this merging of societies into chiefdoms and states was not voluntary but arose through military conquest.  This might seem to deny Locke's idea of government arising by popular consent.  But Locke understood the importance of military conquest in political history:

"Though Governments can originally have no other Rise than that before mentioned, nor Polities be founded on any thing but the Consent of the People, yet such has been the Disorders Ambition has fill'd the World with, that in the noise of War, which makes so great a part of the History of Mankind, this Consent is little taken notice of: And therefore many have mistaken the force of Arms, for the consent of the People; and reckon Conquest as one of the Originals of Government.  But Conquest is a far from setting up any Government, as demolishing an House is from building a new one in the place.  Indeed it often makes way for a new Frame of a Common-wealth, but destroying the former; but, without the Consent of the people, can never erect a new one" (ST, 175).

Government by conquest without the consent of the people is still in the state of nature, because legitimate government cannot be the product of pure force.  Locke did recognize, however, that the first governments arose as chiefdoms, in which someone with the skills of a war leader could be chosen by the people to lead them in war. Locke had learned this from his reading of people like Gabriel Sagard and Jose de Acosta writing about the social evolution of foraging bands and horticultural tribes in the New World (ST, 74, 94e, 101-112). 

Locke recognized the point that was elaborated some years ago by Carneiro (1998; 2017)--that the chiefdom was the single most important step in social evolution from band and tribal societies in the state of nature to civil societies with formal governmental and legal institutions.  Until ten thousand years ago, all of our human ancestors lived in small bands and tribal villages. The turning point in this evolution was the appearance of the first chiefdom in Mesopotamia around 5,500 BCE.  When the Europeans began exploring the entire globe after 1492, they discovered hundreds or thousands of chiefdoms around the world.  But by the end of the nineteenth century, most chiefdoms had disappeared, and almost all human beings lived in states with large populations.

Carneiro agreed with Locke that chiefdoms originated through war.  Men renown for their military skills become temporary war leaders during time of war, and they could lead an alliance of many villages against their enemies.  But they had no right to command their people once the war was over.  If warfare became prolonged, however, a war leader could become a perpetual ruler over villages merged into one society, which became a chiefdom.

If a chieftain established a formal bureaucracy of government officials and priests to enforce autocratic power, that could become a state.


The centralization of seemingly absolute power in chiefdoms and states would appear to deny Locke's claim that government rests on consent of the people, who will rebel against oppressive government that fails to secure their natural liberty.  But as I have argued, there is plenty of evidence in the history of ancient chiefdoms and states that their propensity to autocracy was checked by popular rebellion and resistance.

Occasionally, Moffett recognizes this:

"Few chiefdoms lasted long.  For one to persist, its chief had to put a stop to insurrections over the long haul.  Like a Big Man, a weak chief had to continue to earn his people's respect, and their faith in him rarely lasted and seldom automatically extended to his children" (2019, 289).

The establishment of autocratic states might seem to set up a state power that could enforce repressive rule.  But even here, as Moffett notes, state societies were prone to collapse and fragmentation.  For example, when a Maya civilization collapsed, there was evidence that the king lost control and the nobility vanished.  Moreover, there is evidence that the "commoners" desecrated the sacred symbolic objects and monuments that had previously given divine sanction to the state (Moffett 2019, 291-301).

In my next post, I will consider whether the social identity of a nation must be closed to outsiders by enforcing the dominance of one racial or ethnic group.  Or whether a multiethnic nation like America can be become "one people" through its dedication to the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence.


Anderson, Benedict.  2016.  Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Carneiro, Robert.  1998.  "What Happened at the Flashpoint?  Conjectures on Chiefdom Formation at the Very Moment of Conception."  In Elsa M. Redmond, ed., Chiefdoms and Chieftancy in the Americas, 18-42.

Carneiro, Robert.  2017.  "The Chiefdom in Evolutionary Perspective."  In Robert Carneiro, Leonid Grinin, and Andrey Korotayev, eds., Chiefdoms Yesterday and Today, 15-59.  Clinton Corners, NY: Eliot Werner Publications.

Moffett, Mark.  2013. "Human Identity and the Evolution of Societies." Human Nature 24: 219-267.

Moffett, Mark.  2019.  The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall.  New York: Basic Books.

Moffett, Mark.  2024.  "What Is a Society?  Building an Interdisciplinary Perspective and Why That's Important."  Behavioral and Brains Sciences, forthcoming.