President Obama's attempt during his second inaugural address to wrap his expansionist vision of government in the language of the nation's founding is nothing new. He has been doing this ever since he gained national recognition for his soaring speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention as a state senator.
"[O]ur pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over 200 years ago," Obama said in 2004. On Monday, he said, "What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago."
In both cases, Obama quoted the most highly cited clause of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
In each instance, this was a jumping-off point for Obama to deliver a sermon on the virtues of more government action. But on neither occasion did Obama read the crucial clause that follows: "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed ... "
The essence of this statement is the recognition that individuals enlist government for the narrow purpose of protecting their basic rights. It isn't feasible for every individual to travel around with a bodyguard or to maintain their own private army. Without a court system to settle disputes among individuals, society would descend into mob rule. So, even in ridding themselves of foreign tyranny, the founders understood the need for government -- but they sought to create one that was limited in scope.
Liberals would counter that truly securing such rights necessitates broader government action -- for instance, that without national health care, America cannot secure everybody's right to life. But a survey of Declaration of Independence author Thomas Jefferson's other writings demonstrates he did not share their view.
"[W]hat more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people?" Jefferson mused in his first inaugural address. "Still one thing more, fellow-citizens -- a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities."
Jefferson was a firm believer that the role of the federal government should be limited to the functions specifically spelled out in the U.S. Constitution. "To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition," he wrote in 1791, in opposition to the establishment of a national bank.
In his draft of the 1798 Kentucky Resolution, written in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson wrote that states "are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government ... they constituted a general government for special purposes, delegated to that government certain definite powers, reserving, each state to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government ... "
Obama wants to cement his legacy as a transformational liberal president by reframing our nation's founding principles as a call for a robust role for the federal government. "That is our generation's task," he said Monday, "to make these words, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American."
But to call for such things as government health care and green energy subsidies based on Jefferson's words is to debase rather than to celebrate them.
Philip Klein (email@example.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @philipaklein.