July 4, 2014 Midland Daily News
With our annual celebration of Independence Day on July 4th, it is good to reflect on our founding documents that led to our separation from England in the eighteenth century.
The primary document associated with Independence Day is, of course, the Declaration of Independence which tradition says was declared on July 4, 1776. It is a document often praised but seldom read. Since we were victorious in gaining independence from England, we regard it as a sacred document but let’s remember that at the time it was an act of treason.
People elected delegates after this Declaration of Independence in order to set up their new government. They did that with the Articles of Confederation, which within a few years proved to be unworkable. New delegates then set out to write a new document. From this emerged our Constitution, setting up a truly radical and innovative form of government. This document separated the powers of government into three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. It even established two bodies within the legislative branch. All of this was to ensure a balance of power so that no one branch could gain ultimate power. The theory is marvelous but hasn’t always worked as well as envisioned by the authors of that document.
They had no problem compromising their positions in order to produce a working document. One of the compromises set up two houses in the legislative branch: the House with numbers based on population and the Senate with two from each state. This has worked very well. The Great Compromise, which preserved slavery but stopped the slave trade in 1808 and the expansion of slavery, resulted in the bloodiest war in our history.
The writers of the Constitution were wise enough to know that it might need to be amended. It has been amended 27 times. The first ten were so important that they are called the bill of Rights as if they are a separate document.
Some people today appeal to the Constitution to support their views but too often these people are ignorant of the contents of that document. Much of the language of the Constitution can be interpreted in various ways, making it a living document. One clause in the preamble says that the Constitution was established to provide for the “general welfare” of the people. Today we might use the words “common good.” That is a very broad phrase with many levels of meaning.
One of the highest values enshrined in the Constitution is freedom. Freedom however is illusory to many people. The exercise of freedom is dependent on cultural and societal values. In our country people with money and property have much more freedom than those without.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) said in a committee meeting that people opposed the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) because “maybe he’s of the wrong color.” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) took personal offense and said his opposition is that Obamacare “is an assault on our freedom.” * That maybe true for him and wealthy people, but the Affordable Care Act opens the door of freedom through access to health care for many millions of poor, low income, and even middle class people. Freedom is greatly enhanced when fundamental human needs are met. The meaning of freedom must always be linked to the common good.
It is unbelievable to me that we have an immigration crisis in this country for the past several decades. We elect people to govern and solve problems but they have sidestepped this very important issue for far too long. People come to this country for the same reason our ancestors did: freedom. Are we afraid to share that freedom with others? Why hide behind a cloak of legalism in this matter? That merely avoids the real issue of people wanting to live here, work here, and contribute to our country’s growth. After all, most of us are descendants of immigrants.
Let us indeed celebrate our country but in that celebration let us remember that we are in this together. Our views are not the only views. Our beliefs are not the only beliefs and our understanding of freedom is not necessarily the final word. We must give honor to the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution but we must also remember that they need to be interpreted in light of our times. Let us not idealize nor mythologize our founders and these documents. A good way to do this is to actually read the Declaration of Independence on July 4 with family and friends.
* Burgess Everett, “Jay Rockefeller, Ron Johnson duel over ‘race card’”, Politico, 5/22/14