It’s July 4, 2010, and I’m continuing to reflect on Independence Day and what it actually means beyond hamburgers, hot dogs, and fireworks. Is there truly something to celebrate here, and if so, what is it?
It heartens me a little at a time of a generalized malaise in America to read articles that point back to the Founders and try to draw strength and purpose from that. I think that we as Americans are taught to revere the founding fathers in early grade school, and continue to have this drilled into us throughout the rest of our lives–so much so that I think we have a tendency to become numb and unable to actually think seriously about the situation and people which led to the creation of the U.S. democracy.
Yesterday as I was reading, slowly and carefully, the Declaration of Independence, I read the document partly as an attempt to analyze the thought, but more importantly I read it as an act of imaginative transport, trying to put myself into the mind and mindset of a member of the Second Continental Congress, a Founder of the nation. I was first struck by the cogent expression of the context and premise for the declaration:
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.”
This is the piece of the Declaration that most of us were forced to memorize at some point so it’s very familiar. But in experiencing it this time I thought about what it would feel like to be Jefferson, tasked as the main drafter for what would have velt like a ‘once in a lifetime’ document — and what would become a document for the ages. I found myself thinking about “separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them”. This is an artful formulation which seems acknowledges God but does so in such a way as to clearly avoid the kind of language that would create an argument that America was being founded as a Christian nation. Indeed as an American in 1775 I would have been acutely conscious, as Jefferson clearly was, of the fact that many Americans were the descendants of settlers who fled to America precisely to escape religious persecution, and thus the idea of separating matters of Church from those of State would have been almost second nature.
Yet earlier this year in 2010 America, as Frank Jakubowicz writes:
religious conservative members of the Texas Board of Education decided to push for a revision of this history by downplaying Jefferson’s influence in the founding of our nation because the notion of the “separation of church and state” has been traced to him. These religious rightists believe this country was founded as a Christian nation and decided to make their point by revising American history in their public school text books. The effect of this kind of revision of American history would be to celebrate the founding of this country as a religious event rather than the secular event it is.
Jakubowicz makes the case that this is absurd and I couldn’t agree more. He goes on to point out that the US became party to a 1797 treaty, the drafting of which was initiated during Washington’s tenure, and the final product of which was unanimously approved by Congress (can you imagine today’s congress unanimously approving anything?). The treaty included the following statement which was read aloud to the same Congress that passed it unanimously: “”the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion “. I don’t think it can be stated any more clearly than that.
I take pride in knowing that our country was founded by men with the kind of vision, intellect, and sense of fair play that recognized that the separation of Church and State was a correct formulation, and I am even more thankful that the intellectual and spiritual climate of that time was able to embrace this awareness. Thank God (no irony intended) that our Declaration of Independence was written in 1775 and not 2010. How different the outcome might have been.
But as eloquent as the introduction is, it is the section called the Preamble that contains the thought that has come to be seen as a fundamental articulation of the American idea.
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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
The LA Times points out that it was not until some years after the document was created that this came to be seen as the central and most important concept of the Declaration.
Today, with King George’s misrule largely forgotten or forgiven, it is those two key concepts — liberty and equality — that continue to both guide and bedevil Americans. On the face of it, and especially in Jefferson’s eloquent words, they seem such clear, fundamental principles, yet 234 years later, there is still vehement disagreement about what they mean and how to apply them. Think of the issues raised at the contentious confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan last week. Just how much liberty is guaranteed by the Constitution’s 4th Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures? Does the freedom to speak one’s mind extend to the right to counsel terrorist groups? Should judges, in their effort to guarantee equal justice, feel a special solicitude for the “despised and disadvantaged”? When may the government seize private property? Could Congress pass a law mandating that Americans must eat their fruits and vegetables?
Each of those is really a question about how far liberty ought to extend, or how equality can most fairly be defined. In case after case this year, the Supreme Court, too, turned and turned those concepts of liberty and equality in its hands. Are corporations entitled to the same 1st Amendment free speech guarantees as individuals? That was the question in the troubling Citizens United decision, which permitted companies to spend unlimited sums to influence elections. In McDonald vs. Chicago, the court considered whether the right to bear arms is one of the core liberties of U.S. citizens or whether guns, as Justice John Paul Stevens put it, “have a fundamentally ambivalent relationship to liberty.”
This makes me mindful of something that I came to understand 25 years ago when I served at the US Embassy in Moscow, a position that made it necessary to learn Russian and make a serious attempt to understand Russian culture and ideas. Much of this effort came in the context of our language instruction, where we were sequestered for 10 months with half a dozen instructors, most of whom were recent immigrants from the USSR and who had a strong understanding of the Russian and, at that time, Soviet mind. I remember one in particular, Marina, who said that if we were to ask a typical Soviet how he felt about America, he would reply that America seemed a very dangerous place to live — a place where you could rise to the pinnacle of wealth, fame, and glory — but where you could also find yourself living on the streets, homeless. It seemed a veritable jungle in which the survival of the fittest governed. And freedom — the word we revere without hesitation or even much thought, to a Russian of 1985 would seem to be a double edged concept, a positive in that it offered the opportunity for freedom of expression and action, something anyone would desire – but something that also carried with it this dangerous edge, the potential for failure. “Swododa”, the Russian word for freedom, even seem to have a dangerous vibe to it.
In contrast, the word that conjured a warm glow in the soul of Russians at that time was the word “bezopastnost”, literally “without danger” — security, as it is normally translated. To the Russians this was the central organizing principle of their government and their culture. A country which had been invaded countless times, which had enemies on both sides, the Russians felt that only by banding together and putting the needs of the many ahead of the opportunities of the few, could a generalized societal well-being be achieved. The American concept of the “rugged individual” had no place in a society whose history had be written around the idea of central organization, power, and shared sacrifice and endeavor.
Jefferson, it seems to me, would have innately understood this, and his document manages to express the deep yearning for Freedom that was uniquely American but does so without losing the connection between “ying” of Freedom and its “yang” — Justice. Freedom without Justice is chaos–the kind of chaos that the Russians of 1985 felt fearful of.
I’ll close these random thoughts with a quote from Abraham Lincoln:
“All honor to Jefferson — to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so embalm it there, that today and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.”
We are truly blessed to have men such as Jefferson, and Lincoln, as those who came before us. It’s worth stopping today and pondering this.