This is an especially important moment to consider the unique American ideology of freedom. The fundamentals of our republic course through our hottest political conversations and nastiest conflicts every day, 246 years after the fact.
The independence we celebrate on Monday began with that famous declaration approved by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. The Articles of Confederation were adopted the following year, a predecessor to the U.S. Constitution ratified after an arduous process in 1788 with the Bill of Rights added in 1791.
After a distant monarchy had to be forced from power here, a democratic republic like none before evolved in fits and starts. Every issue debated and defined across the U.S. remains tied to freedom, freedom, freedom, and rights, rights, rights. This is the national character, the national idea.
Appreciate its strengths. Recognize its flaws and limits. And don't think it survives or improves without collective, conscious effort.
No matter how stretched or distorted or manipulative it all gets, every issue that reaches the courts, Congress and executive today is fought out in the ingrained language of securing our freedoms. It's in the national DNA.
Different rights and liberties, unused by some and exercised by others, bump against each other in the law, always forced into compromise.
RIGHTS, LIBERTIES COLLIDE
The right to keep and bear arms meshes none too harmoniously with states’ rights to keep domestic order and assure public safety. In New York and other densely populated states, the Supreme Court just pushed the pendulum remarkably far in the direction of gun rights.
Lawful climate protections, meet limits on regulating industries, says the high court. Free speech, meet the right to not be defamed.
Perhaps the most explosive recent news concerns the high court majority's decision to strike down rights that their predecessors instilled in Roe v. Wade, the culmination of a 50-year political campaign by anti-abortion activists. Women’s sovereignty over their bodies runs up against religiously and morally inspired concepts of pre-born right to life.
Freedom to worship can clash with what many see as a civic freedom from religion. This line was redrawn in the high court’s 6-3 decision saying it was transgressive to penalize a high school football coach who would demonstratively pray after games on the 50-yard line.
Taxes, meet representation. Necessary policing, meet the rights of the accused — the root of continuing local controversy over bail reform.
For every right we cherish there is always a limit. There has to be, for society to function at all in the Spirit of ’76. But it's always about rights.
Beware: This does not mean that the most valued rights are comfortably assured.
In America today, deceivers and demagogues know that to achieve unearned power they must convince people that their political rivals are taking away their rights. This is the language they know they must speak to win.
For this reason, the case of ex-President Donald Trump is highly instructive. He knew full well that we, the people of the United States, had collectively revoked the consent for him to govern for another four years. Disloyally and fraudulently, he pushed the empty claim that his successor, Joe Biden, benefitted from an immense conspiracy to fake the vote.
JULY FOURTH MOCKERY
Congressional hearings last week made it clearer than ever that the violence of Jan. 6, 2021 marked a dystopian, seditious mockery of July 4, 1776. A ruling faction of one party tried not to stop a steal but to start one. Students of American history know, or should know, how installments of the Federalist Papers, arguing for ratification of the Constitution, were devoted to the dangers of factions and pretenders to power.
The ever-fluid defining of rights proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence goes on as always. The question of the moment approaches the one that vexed Abraham Lincoln — whether a nation conceived in liberty and in theory dedicated to equality can long endure.
Let the blue and red states disunite some more, let the institutions of liberty go unprotected, and the answer to the question might not carry much conviction.
There is an obvious prescription. James Madison wrote: "Education is the true foundation of civil liberty." Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the Declaration, said leaders should “illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large.” We should “give them knowledge of those facts which history exhibits.”
Whether that teaching takes place in the classroom, and perhaps starts to seep into attractive sections of the Web and replace the misinformation of fabulists and quacks, is up to supporters of the ideology of freedom to demand. Knowing your rights is one thing; knowing how they work and where they come from is even better.
Authors of the Declaration looked back to republics and democracies that preceded ours, described by the likes of Plato and Aristotle, for clues as to what works and what doesn't. Perhaps an authentic patriotic revival — looking to the early days of the great republic — is in order again.
The current crises offer the perfect opportunity to rearm ourselves with potent ideas that recognize and fend off subversives and reinvigorate the democracy of the republic.
For now, Happy Fourth — and drive carefully.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.