Columnist Jay Fleitman: Nation continues efforts to be a ‘more perfect union’

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Published: 7/3/2018 10:32:48 PM

To believe that the Fourth of July simply celebrates the acceptance and signing of the Declaration of Independence and therefore the founding of our nation is to badly miss the point.

It is hard to imagine defining independence in America without bringing to mind its fellow travelers of freedom, liberty and self-determination. Though the Declaration of Independence of 1776 included a litany of intolerable British actions that the framers used to justify the righteousness of their decision to break with the mother country, it is in their own chosen words that introduce the Declaration that we hear their passionate dedication to the human condition of freedom:

“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.”

The founders of our nation embarked on a radical experiment, revolutionary not in that a war was fought to sever the heavy-handed ties of English rule, but revolutionary in that they set out to create a new form of government established on a principle that human freedom was paramount and that the governing body was an agreement among its citizens with the primary function being the protection of those liberties.

Human history as it stretched before the leaders of the American revolution was in large part a history of societies and their governments. Almost all of the historical precedents evolved arbitrarily based on custom or violence, with only rare examples of enlightened societies founded with a dedication to improving the human condition. The founding fathers looked to solve the age-old problem of how to organize and govern a society, but to achieve that based on the clarifying principle of preserving and protecting individual liberty.

The U.S. Constitution was the blueprint of a government to reach that end, and to constrain the human impulse of those in government to concentrate power to themselves. The three branches of government with their checks and balances were designed to prevent undue power from being concentrated by the few and wielded to the detriment of the freedoms of the citizenry.

The preamble to the Constitution was purposely worded: “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.”

There were deep disagreements between the drafters of the Constitution over many aspects of the initial structure of the new American government. Prime among these was the tension between any centralization of power in the federal government versus the primacy of decentralization of power to the states.

There was also a great struggle over whether or not to include an enumeration of rights as was established by the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, now known as the Bill of Rights. Proponents of including a Bill of Rights wanted specific safeguards for the protection of the most cherished of liberties, whereas those opposed to including a Bill of Rights were concerned that a specific listing of protected rights might be used sometime in the future to limit the liberties not specifically included by these amendments.

This is not to say that the Constitution deemed that liberties were limitless. Thomas Jefferson said, “Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”

That the revolutionary opportunity of creating a new society of liberty and freedom was revered by the founders is evidenced by what they were willing to risk by taking part in this rebellion against the most powerful of European militaries. Had the Revolutionary War failed, the leaders of the rebellion including the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin would all have certainly been hung as traitors, their properties confiscated, and their families turned out by the British. They would have known this, and yet they pursued the revolution.

What we celebrate on the Fourth of July is that we are the inheritors of this revolutionary and unique history. This is the true foundation of our American birthright and patriotism. That is not to say that our history was not without stains and tragedies such as a near genocide of Native Americans and the scourge of slavery.

On the other side of the ledger are great affirmations of the principles set out by the founding fathers, such as a Civil War that abolished slavery, extension of the vote to women, civil rights legislation and winning World War II and a Cold War against the worldwide spread of tyranny. The preamble to the Constitution suggests that the founding fathers were attempting to form “a more perfect union,” and I suspect that they expected that their efforts were just the beginning of a work in progress.

For better or for worse, we are now the custodians of that revolutionary genius that is the foundation of this nation. It remains revolutionary to this day, and the blueprint laid out by the Constitution remains alive and relevant.

There are some who may choose this holiday to dwell on the darker chapters of our history. I would hope that we use Independence Day to reflect on the promise of this nation and its continued efforts to be a “more perfect union.” We must be very cautious of taking this heritage for granted. We should teach our children well.

I wish to close with some prescient quotes from our founding fathers.

Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Thomas Jefferson: “I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”

Thomas Jefferson: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Thomas Jefferson: “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.”

Jay Fleitman, M.D., of Northampton, writes a monthly column normally published the first Tuesday of the month. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.


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