Government & Politics
 

Not self-evident: Our founding documents weren’t created equal

My family and I drove to central Florida to visit relatives and celebrate the Fourth of July. Unfortunately this coincided with the Casey Anthony trial, which culminated this week in a not guilty verdict on the major felony charges. Suffice it to say that my favorite holiday wasn’t favorably enhanced by heading into the main ring of that legal circus.

For example, during closing arguments on July Fourth weekend, an attorney on Anthony’s defense team repeatedly cited “the candles we light to the Constitution.” Afterwards, local TV networks raved about the “civics lesson” he had provided to the audience. Disgusted, I tried to distract myself by reading a periodical and noticed that the July 4 Time magazine cover pictured… the Constitution. So I brought my daughters to the local pre-firework festivities, which included games, shows and an appearance by Abraham Lincoln.

Erggh! Why is it so hard for us to remember that on Independence Day we (should) celebrate the revolutionary ideas expressed in a document called… the Declaration of Independence?

Back in the 1990s, historian Neil Jumonville attempted an answer:

[O]n the Fourth nearly all citizens pay tribute to the ideals of our conservative Constitution rather than the more radical Declaration. The holiday confusion is a result of two competing doctrines in American political culture that were already present early in our national history.

The first outlook, associated with Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and the Declaration of Independence, was suspicious of tradition. This conviction was wary of beliefs handed down from past generations, since those values would only stifle and repress ideas in the present. Paine believed that the hereditary system had crushed freedom in Europe, and he wanted to leave future generations of Americans unbound by history. Past laws and rules were fine to study and learn from, but history was not to throw its confining shadow on today.

Not merely saying goodbye to Britain, Paine saw America entering a bold new stage. Our children, he predicted, would create their own experiment in government and society. So Paine concluded that we shouldn’t bind our offspring with our rules, legal codes, and constitutions. To be truly independent, a generation could not be bound by those who had come before. “Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the ages and generations which proceeded it,” he warned. “The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies.”

Sharing Paine’s radicalism toward the past, Jefferson worried about chaining the present to historical precedent. In the Declaration of Independence he proclaimed the right to revolution if political conditions became intolerable. Like Paine, the benefits of perpetual revolution seemed obvious to Jefferson. He wrote Madison that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

As Jumonville explains, the Declaration’s revolutionary outlook is too radical for the most of us:

Yet most Americans, moderate as they are, reject radical beliefs, even those revolutionary values held by some of the Founding Fathers. Most moderate Americans, that is, would find distasteful the core values expressed in the revolutionary ideology of American independence. These centrist citizens commemorate a second, alternative national doctrine on July Fourth.

In the late 1700s, representatives of this more conservative outlook, such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, argued strongly in favor of our current Constitution – as an arrangement that would replace the weak Articles of Confederation with order, fairness, balance, and strength. Contrary to those radicals who had little use for history, John Adams, Hamilton, Madison, George Washington, and John Marshall believed that constitutions and continuity helped encourage more integrity and virtue in a society. Fittingly, the U.S Constitution, designed under the influence of this second tradition, is a conservative document that funnels all government decisions through a process of compromise, negotiation, and consensus.

Let’s face it. America is a conservative country that adores the status quo. We treat the Constitution as though it’s a holy counterpart to the Bible. In judicial arguments – on the right to bear arms, for example – we search furiously for the original intent of the authors of the Bill of Rights, instead of caring about what is more suitable for the present generation and circumstances. Our reverence for our constitutional scriptures reveals a national ancestor worship that is practically Oriental in its intensity.

In my opinion, neutering the revolutionary spirit of the Declaration by preserving its revolutionary words in amber and genuflecting towards the historical document like timid antiquarians… all that is bad enough. But to ignore the Declaration – in both word and spirit – on Independence Day of all days, so as to dedicate one’s candles to the Constitution, strikes me as un-American.

Today ascendant political movements like to incorporate “the Founding Fathers” into their talking points whenever possible. But we must remember that some of these Founding Fathers never wanted to be regarded as the Fathers that knew best. They fully expected and hoped to have rebellious offspring – spiritual heirs who were independent and experimental, not merely dutiful and obeisant. Paine and Jefferson envisioned future generations who would forget them and forge revolutionary identities embodied in new “declarations.”

Well, we seem to have the “forgetting” part down pat.

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