Given the national holiday this week, and its importance and centrality within American and American’s civic life, rather than focusing on an explicit security issue, I think it is more appropriate to spend a few minutes thinking about Independence Day.
When the men and women – and there were women – made the decision to risk their lives in revolt against the Crown, they set something in motion that has become our inheritance as Americans. Usually, we think of the Declaration of Independence on the 4th of July because it was the revolutionary document that provided the justification for the American Revolution. It delineates an indictment against King George regarding all of the crimes he and his government had committed against the colonists.
While we do not normally conceive of it in the same way, the Constitution is itself a revolutionary document. Not in the sense that it provided the justification for revolution, but because the purpose of Madison’s words was to create and establish something that was itself revolutionary: a civil government that placed no one above the law, balanced powers to prevent tyranny, and sought to balance enumerated rights with duties, obligations, and responsibilities.
What Madison, and the other founders and framers he consulted with during his drafting of first the Constitution itself and then the Bill of Rights, were attempting to achieve was a balance that would produce, nurture, promote and sustain the ordered liberty that they wished to create in their new state and society.
Two 240 years later we no longer really talk about ordered liberty, the concept of freedom limited by the need for order in society, despite it being a primary concern of the founders and the framers. Instead, we tend to discuss freedom and argue over individual rights and to whom they should be extended. This is a major break with the founders’ and framers’ conceptualization of America and the American government. There are other ideas in the Constitution, ideas that occupied and preoccupied the thoughts of the founders and the framers that we no longer spend a lot of time discussing. Or, when we do, it is through a very modern frame of reference rooted in what are often local concerns.
For instance, when was the last time you heard anyone – politician, pundit or anyone else – talk about promoting the general Welfare? Is it even definable in 2019? At its root, the general Welfare is about public goods and their delivery. But in 2019, we do not really talk a lot about public goods as public goods. Sure, there is plenty of debate over education. Should it be public or private? Should we have school choice or charters? How do we fund it and at what level? What roles do the Federal, state and local governments have in education?
But we divorce these discussions from the question of whether education, and through it the educated and informed citizenry (that the founders and framers recognized as a necessity for the continuation of the democratic republic they created) is a public good. Education is a public good because an educated citizenry helps to promote the general Welfare by increasing our ability to participate in the American experiment of self-government.
Independence Day is also a good time to think about the charge we have received through the years from the founders and framers: to form a more perfect Union. Because Madison wrote into the Constitution a means to amend the Constitution, he knew that the Union was not perfect at its creation. Rather, Madison and the other founders and framers envisioned the need to make changes over time, to adjust for changes as time passed, and to account for things that they themselves did not think needed to be addressed, or they could not imagine.
The founders and the framers left it to us to take up the work they started, to carry it forward for them in each generation, and to work to perfect the Union knowing that this work is a never-ending civic duty we all share.
I think the appropriate way to end this week is to both wish you all a safe, happy and healthy Independence Day and to finish with Madison’s revolutionary wisdom from the Preamble to the Constitution:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America…”