Over the recent Independence Day weekend, I unexpectedly found myself online advocating for the Constitution as a time-tested beacon of America’s founding principles. Breaking with annual tradition, National Public Radio aired a report examining what equality means and has meant in the Declaration of Independence, breaking with its tradition of reading the document on air. And then I got into an argument with someone I didn’t even know.
When the online dust ended, I was left with a startling recognition. In arguing for our national charter, I found myself unable to speak beyond generalities because I had never studied the Constitution systematically, nor even read it cover to cover.
More than surprising, it was breathtaking.
As an educated American from birth with over 60 years of life, I realized in many ways that I was a citizen in name only. I support candidates I believe in, attend occasional political rallies, vote without fail. Still, that raises a pretty low bar. I felt a sudden surge of excitement about being a citizen by choice. I knew it would take preparation and training. I was eager to start.
Let me start by thanking the online stranger who openly admitted his disdain for the Independence Day celebration. His thought prompted me to start delving into the Constitution at a much deeper level than the minimum knowledge required to pass the written test to become a US citizen. To that end, I enrolled in an independent study course on the Constitution, offered online by Hillsdale College.
I have already begun to explore the ideas at the heart of America 101: natural rights and the American Revolution, the theory of the Declaration and the Constitution, the tyranny of the majority and the consent of the governed, the crisis of war civil society, the progressive rejection of the Foundation, post-60s liberalism and contemporary politics.
I’m not crazy about current political labels. When pressed, I generally think of myself as a classic or original liberal, on the side of freedom as the first principle – freedom of thought, of expression, of assembly, of worship, of enterprise. Of moderate temperament, the closest to absolutism is to be aware of what is really stated in each of the 10 amendments that make up the Bill of Rights. To me, this is not a “maybe, please” wish list.
During his seminar on equality on Independence Day, the NPR hosts pointed out that American actions have not always been in line with our equal opportunity credo. Evidenced by slavery, Jim Crow and women excluded from the right to vote. The person I ended up in an online argument with took things a step further, chastising America for its lack of equal outcomes for everyone.
But level playing field isn’t really an American idea, and that’s what pissed me off. What the United States stands for is equality before the law. Mobility is integrated into our social software. With motivation, preparation, and learned skills, Americans of diverse backgrounds and beliefs can overcome obstacles and change their destinies. That’s why so many people everywhere, as Neil Diamond sings, want to keep “coming to America.” . . today.”
And let us remember that when Dr King called on America to “live up to the true meaning of its creed”, he made the point by citing the gap between the Declaration as a marvelous blueprint for equality , and our nation’s failure to honor and enforce the plain language of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
Consider this a love letter to the freedom fighters of 1776 for setting a standard to be upheld, and to the country I always called home, even when it seemed adrift or abjectly misguided and it needed to be corrected. Thank you, judge Louis Brandeis, for that: “The most important function in a democracy is that of citizen. Who will now channel Paul Revere’s warnings? Who else but us, never.
What do you think? Maybe you felt bored with the way America was taught in high school. Or maybe you’re one of those who doubts that this country is anything special, but as open to evidence as we are. You may not need convincing that the United States is exceptional, even if you can’t always put that feeling into words.
Whatever your starting point, please consider renewing your own commitment to ensuring that the powerful words of the Constitution and Declaration live not just on parchment, but on the sidewalk. Let’s keep bringing freedom to the streets. When it comes to defending due process, limited government and the blessings of freedom: the right time is always now. Meet you there?
In the meantime, I have studies waiting for me. May you be inspired to live more fully President John F. Kennedy’s call to action: “We are the heirs of that first revolution. It’s up to us to make it real.
Boise resident Keith Thompson has written opinion pieces for The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle and health and fitness articles for Esquire.