Today, many—if not most—of us celebrate the 13 original colonies’ Declaration of Independence, and some celebrate the dream of freedom. Many of us, though, only know that today is a day off from work, a day of food, friends, and fireworks.
And just as many—if not most—of us do not know about the 13 original colonies, or the Declaration of Independence, or have any inkling of the real reason to celebrate this day, more than a few also do not get this day as one which is off from work, or anything else, nor will we get to share it with our friends, nor will we enjoy fireworks.
Abraham Lincoln—and this name represents yet something, or in this case someone, about whom most of us know little-to-nothing—is alleged to have once said, in a debate with Senator Stephen Douglas, who was running against him for President of these United States, that he hated slavery. Not just because it was monstrously unjust, but because
it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principles of action but self-interest.
I have read a lot about Abraham Lincoln. But I won’t claim to be an expert on him. Lincoln himself fell prey to the powers he held as President, overriding portions of our Constitution (not to be confused with the Declaration of Independence) when he felt it was necessary to advance his agenda. Some say that even his views on slavery, or at least how to deal with it, were at times suspect, self-serving, and politically-motivated. His comment regarding hypocrisy continues to be worthy of our attention.
Perhaps the most famous words of the Declaration of Independence we celebrate today are these:
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.
Of course, words that would follow in the then-not-yet-written Constitution of the United States, which spelled out the rules for how the United States of America was to operate, put the lie to this at the very foundation. Not more than a few paragraphs into that Constitution, the rule relating to representation in the Congress, as well as to how the population would count for tax purposes, stated:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
Well, that’s more than some folks are counted today, I guess. Of particular note, if you are a black man in modern America, confronted by a police officer, you are not counted even as three-fifths of a person. There is a very real possibility that you do not count at all, and that, on the whim of the officer—who will later claim that he feared for his life even if you were running full-tilt away from him as if for your life, because you were, in fact, running for your life—your life will be snuffed out. There will be no recourse, because the Supreme Court of the United States, whose job it is to enforce the protections of the Constitution, whose job it is to ensure that the government is held to that Constitution, who in the most real sense there is are responsible in modern society for guarding the rights of each and every one of we, the People, has said police officers are protected, while you are not.
Do not say to me, “No, they only said that black man was not.” Because that is not the case. The United States Supreme Court themselves will tell you that this rule, allegedly, is not a rule protecting police officers only for shooting black men. It is, in some sense, an accident bred of institutionalized racism that so many black men are shot, while you escape, and while you even live without fear that you will be next. The Constitution that protects you has this giant loophole that allows police officers to shoot pretty much anyone they want, so long as whilst the
spells bullets emerge from their wand, they chant “Avada Kedavra!”
That’s Latin for “I am in fear for my life!”
So, despite the lofty words of the Declaration of Independence, and the alleged limitations on the government and its agents spelled out in the Constitution of the United States, so many good people amongst ourselves are forced into open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty.
Less well-known is the clause of the Declaration of Independence which states, immediately following the promise of 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….
Anyone reading Article II, section 1 of the Constitution could easily argue that this, too, was a lie. Aside from the fact well-known today but true even then that not everyone votes, or voted, “the governed,” that is, we, the People, really aren’t the ones who give consent. These were the words of the original Constitution:
The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President….
Though the process today has been altered, the fact that our Presidents are chosen by what we now call the Electoral College, or by an “electoral vote,” remains true. We, the People, who will be governed by this President and his (or, maybe someday, her) Administration actually have little say in the process. Electors are influenced by us, but not bound by us, and because of the way they are distributed—we learned this as recently as in the last election—we, the People, sometimes do not get the President that the majority of us choose.
Yet perhaps this would not be so much of a problem, but for the portion of that line I jumped over:
…to secure these rights, Governments are instituted…
The very purpose of electing someone—anyone, whether by we, the People, or through the Electoral College—is to secure our rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
What does this mean? To secure our rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness?
It does not mean that we are guaranteed we will live, guaranteed we will have unfettered personal freedom, and it especially does not mean that we will be happy, nor even be actually able to pursue it. It means that we will have a system that endorses, supports, and secures our rights to these things. We won’t have a system that impinges on our lives. We won’t have a system that destroys our liberty. We won’t have a system that stops us pursuing happiness.
This is why the follow-up to the Declaration of Independence, after the War for Independence had been won, constituted the United States of America,
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
That is the ideal. It is why our original conception of the United States Constitution was that it was a government with limited power over us. It was supposed to have just enough power to bind the colonies closer together, and to create an environment that could establish justice, keep us safe from outsiders, promote—not guarantee, not micromanage—the well-being of all of us, and to make sure we and our children remained free. It was because the idea here was that the “federal” government was to be so weak, so limited in power over us, that the original Constitution did not even include any discussion of our rights themselves. The freedom of speech, religion, assembly, to own weapons, not to have to give up our space for soldiers, freedom from being searched, or seized—detained, or arrested—by their modern-day much-more-dangerous toy equivalents, the rights not to be forced to incriminate ourselves, to public trials, assistance of attorneys, and a slew of other rights were add-ons, agreed to because some very prescient people realized that saying the government was limited was not good enough. Additional protections were necessary to specify a minimal set of lines that could not be crossed.
Except that, today, they are crossed. Repeatedly. Some states, in response to this have stepped up to the plate. The Iowa Supreme Court, for example, recently said this about the rights to be free from “inventory searches” of cars: ((Cars are frequently impounded in some states, like California, as a pretext—or, as it is colloquially and more accurately known, “bullshit”—stop, so that officers can not only inflict the maximum pain on someone who they have no evidence against, but so that they can search those cars without the warrants the Constitution of the United States allegedly requires.))
Unlike the decisions of the United States Supreme Court in recent years, which generally have sought to minimize the scope of individual protection under the Fourth Amendment, our recent caselaw under the search and seizure provision of the Iowa Constitution has emphasized the robust character of its protections. We have repeatedly declined to follow the approach of the United States Supreme Court in its interpretation of what one commentator has referred to as an ever-shrinking Fourth Amendment.”
They can do this because, so far, United States Supreme Court case law still allows states to give greater protections to its citizens than the United States Supreme Court allows those who are supposed to be protected by the Constitution of the United States, but no longer are.
So, as Lincoln noted, the United States of America is rightly taunted as constituted not by a Constitution creating a constrained national government, born after a Declaration of Independence that noted our unalienable rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness, but as a nation that has failed to live up to the ideals of those twin documents.
As we celebrate—drink, party, set off fireworks, watch others set them off, or simply hide in our houses with our frightened pets—we should take some time to think about this. It may not be the details of the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution, or the realities of American life that we celebrate today. But we should take a moment to consider them.
And to remember that they are something to strive for, to fight for, to work to implement.
What makes the Declaration of Independence worth celebrating is not what existed at its writing, when most of our ancestors had not yet become immigrants to the not-yet-born nation, nor what exists here, almost 250 years later, as new masses of the tired, poor, humans yearning to be free huddle amongst us, or at our borders, because of draconian laws anathema to our national birth certificate. It is the ideal that that Declaration gives us to strive for. It is the dream of freedom, and of a nation that secures the blessing of it for us, and all who follow us.