Imperishable Insights by Bill Buckley

William F. Buckley, New Criterion (September 2001).


This (too) short book grew out of an essay written by the distinguished political philosopher Walter Berns for The Public Interest. What it does is to probe into American history in search of the meaning and implications of the Declaration of Independence and its immediate progeny. Professor Berns asks: What was meant—is meant?—by our pledge of allegiance to the flag and to the Republic for which it stands? The author knows what was meant by those who coined the words and by those who fought to give the words standing in an independent country. He knows to declare our republic unique. Walter Berns can be pretty assertive in expressing his own views but to say that much about America calls for a little rhetorical caution, so he lets Thomas Pangle say it:

The declaration by which Americans made themselves independent marked the birth of the first nation in history grounded explicitly not on tradition, or loyalty to tradition, but on an appeal to abstract and universal and philosophical principles of political right.

Therein hangs the story. There are problems in forwarding this view of the flag for three reasons. One, we don’t know how to foster a belief in American principles among our children. This is so because the schools do not, under pain of violating academic freedom, feel free to inculcate a respect for American values. Two, we have been taught that our values are enduring only insofar as they are revalidated year after year by democratic procedures; which is to say, if they fall into disfavor, then the postulates of the American revolution are no longer enviable. And three, the American flag is something anyone who wishes is at liberty to burn. The Supreme Court said so, to be sure by the narrowest margin, but it is now accepted that burning the flag is a form of speech, therefore, to be safeguarded by the courts pursuant to our pledge, by whatever is the surviving altar, to defend the Bill of Rights.

New Criterion