Ah, the 4th of July: fireworks, burgers and dogs on the grill, and reflection on our nation's founding. It's the discussion of the latter that tends to get me in trouble. When I make the case that our founding principles are very progressive, I'm met with everything from skepticism to howls of outrage. I can't say that those are unreasonable reactions given that our founders were all wealthy, white men and many of them owned slaves. They're not known as a progressive demographic. This very American contradiction has dogged us since our founding: our ideals as laid out in the Declaration of Independence vs. our reality. I admit that our reality frequently pushes me away, makes me despair that we will ever live up to our ideals. But we are a work in progress, work that will never be done. In order to form our more perfect union, we must focus time and again on our founding principles, our manifesto.
The American Manifesto is spelled out in the second paragraph 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.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Within this passage are the principles that drive my political beliefs. They form the heuristic I use to judge candidates and policies.
ALL Are Created Equal
This is the foundational truth. Every one of us is equal. If we do not govern like this is true, then none of the other founding principles matter. Regardless of our race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual identity, education, socio-economic status, citizenship, or however else we may identify ourselves, or be identified by others, we are all still equal in that we are ALL endowed with the same set of rights.
Among Our Rights Are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
Some would have us believe that the only right we have is freedom (aka, liberty), but that's only one of the listed rights. And the listed rights are just some of what we are equally endowed with. To reinforce this point, the authors of the Declaration called out safety and happiness at the end of the above quote. Twice they call out happiness. That is the pivot point around which all of our rights revolve. It is the reason why we go to the effort to build and maintain our nation. We are not here to serve the economy or any other master. We do this so that we can ALL be happy.
Governments Secure Our Rights
There is no other institution that can ensure that we are ALL able to exercise our rights equally. Religions are beholden to their gods, businesses to their owners. What other organizations are there to which we all belong, all have equal membership? Nothing but a government.
Some would say that governments should only concern themselves with national defense and law enforcement. I agree that those concerns fall under the government's purview, but to ensure ALL of our rights, the government must do more. This is spelled out in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Consent of the Governed
The form of government that can best secure our rights is one in which we all have an equal say in how it functions. ALL. OF. US. Not just those eligible to vote, not just those who can clear the obstacles put in our way to prevent our voices from being heard. If you are a subject of this government, you should have as equal a say as anyone else living in this country.
This principle reinforces the foundational idea that we are all equal. If your voice is not heard, you will likely be left out of the blessings of liberty.
Tyranny exists when we are not ALL able to exercise our rights. This is a pretty high bar, perhaps unattainable. This is why our work is never done. The continual self-improvement needed to form a more perfect union not only helps us fight tyranny but also teaches us new and better ways to secure our rights. We must ever strive for perfection.
There comes a time when we may conclude that tyranny is not a flaw in the current system, but rather the point. That is, the government is not fixable but instead is doing exactly what it is designed to do: monopolize the blessings of liberty for a select few. Changing our form of government under that condition is not a right, it's an obligation. You may decide that, yeah, the current state sucks for some, but it's working for me. If you do not act, though, you will eventually find yourself either a victim of that tyranny or an accomplice.
So What Can We Do?
If you want to argue that we're not all equal, that our only right is freedom, and that only you, not the government, can secure that right for yourself, fine, go ahead. This is America. You're free to believe whatever you want. And I am equally free to express my disagreement.
If you want to argue that is how the founders acted despite whatever they may have written, I'll likely agree with you. They weren't very good at walking the walk. Thomas Jefferson believed slavery to be a "hideous blot" on our nation's honor, and yet he did nothing to end slavery when he had the power to do so. It's hard to do the right thing when it goes against your financial self-interest.
If you want to argue that our founding principles are just too difficult to implement, again, you'll find me nodding my head in agreement. This is HARD work! Democracy asks a lot of us, maybe too much (more on this in a future post). And there are those who actively seek to thwart it or look the other way while others do so (and another future post on this).
But if you're trying to tell me that your restrictive view better represents our founding ideals, you'll find me pushing back hard. Thomas Jefferson, moral coward though he was, sincerely hoped that future generations would achieve the goals he laid out in our Declaration. We can be that generation. America can be that exceptional country if we become the first nation where EVERYONE has an equal say and an equal ability to exercise ALL of the rights that we are ALL equally endowed with. That is a cause truly worth fighting for.
- Text of the Declaration of Independence
- Text of the U.S. Constitution
- Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality by Danielle S. Allen
- Jefferson's Attitudes Toward Slavery