America makes some outlandish promises. The story of the country is all about the struggle to keep them.
When I was a young county supervisor I sat on the zoning committee. My city of Madison colleagues and I on that committee were often the target of heated comments about how much we disrespected freedom. Why? Because we were sticklers for enforcing the zoning ordinances. But a lot of rural people saw their ability to do whatever they wanted with land they owned as the very definition of their freedom. They imagined property rights that they didn’t legally possess.
I am (by accident) on the NRA email list. Several times a week I get breathless emails, most of them telling me that the government is about to violate the Second Amendment. In almost every case, the NRA (who has lawyers who know better) is wrong. But they’re trying to raise money by appealing to some gun owners’ belief about what the Second Amendment actually does protect.
My point is that there are rights and freedoms that we actually do have as Americans and then there are rights and freedoms that we imagine. But here’s the thing. The freedoms we imagine are not just illusions.
I have scoured the research and I have determined that most people are not constitutional scholars. In our minds we curate phrases from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, what we’ve heard or read on Fox News or the New York Times (depending on your taste) and what friends and relatives have to say about it. All of that forms a set of — often fiercely held — beliefs about what it means to be free in America.
And that’s powerful. As a general rule courts have been expanding their interpretation of what the Constitution has to say about property and gun rights. Despite what originalists would tell you, there’s no question that that has happened in large part because of strongly held views on the part of a large part of the population about what rights they have — whether or not those rights are actually in the words of the Constitution. In the long run, courts bend to popular opinion or at least, in the case of guns, to the fiercely held opinions of an active minority. The Constitution was written on paper, not set in stone.
Which was an unnecessarily long way of bringing me around to the main point I wanted to make on Independence Day. When our Founding Fathers declared that we were all equal they didn’t mean it literally. Men who didn’t own property were not equal to men who did. Women were not equal to men. Slaves of both sexes were not equal to anyone else. Native Americans were less than equal even though they were here first.
So, it is true that in practice when the Founders said that we were all created equal what they really meant was that all propertied white guys were created equal. That’s what they meant, but that’s not what they said. They said that all men were created equal. And, by the understanding of the time, men included women. They might as well have said that all people were created equal.
So, all of our history over the last two and a half centuries or so has been about making good on what we were promised. If America tells us — not just in those few lines from the Declaration or in the Bill of Rights or in the Fourteenth Amendment, but in the common understanding of common words — that we are all equal, well, than what does that mean in every circumstance?
That’s the project. That’s what we’ve been trying to work out all this time. And, let’s be honest, we aren’t there yet. I would say that we’ve made fantastic progress just over the course of my lifetime, but others would beg to disagree. They’re impatient for their country to keep the promises it has made to them. They’re right to be impatient.
But there are those who have lost all patience, who have given up on the whole project. They believe that the promises themselves were false from the start. Even if I agreed with them — and I don’t — I’d still be for keeping up the fight within the system. Because if we give up on this system, what have we got? The only alternative to democracy is some form of totalitarianism, which may look appealing if you imagine that the totalitarian will be on your side. But you might want to be careful about that as dictators tend to switch sides if it will keep them in power.
A lot of other countries were founded on a common culture, language or religion — on blood and soil. America was founded on none of that. Some say we were founded on a set of ideas, but I like to think of us as founded on a set of promises that we’ve made, down the generations, to one another.
We promise ourselves that we will keep each other free and we promise each other that we will be equal. History and this morning’s paper will document how we’ve failed. But we need to keep trying. Because no other nation makes promises that are so extravagant and so arduous and so wonderful.
Welcome to the 138th consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading and happy Independence Day!
2 thoughts on “America’s Promises”
Thank you for making perfect sense in this outstanding essay.
Well said. Led me to check out your “Resources”, and I landed on the Bruce Springsteen piece. Powerful.