The Constitution of the United States of America undoubtedly is one of the greatest documents in the history of the written word. I constantly marvel at how its conceptualizers and writers could have produced such a document nearly 250 years ago and it still stands, still lights the dark, twisting pathway to freedom.
Obviously, I do not pretend to be a constitutional scholar, but I have read and heard its words since the time I was a school boy. I also know a bit about the historical context in which it was written — the era when men enslaved other men; women could not vote; only propertied elites could hold elective office; and Native Americans were on the way to near extermination.
Still, I marvel. In so doing, as I recall the words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech: “When the architects of this great Republic wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution they were making a promise to which every American ... was to fall heir.” I understand that.
The U.S. Constitution is not merely a set of principles, it is a sacred promise or, as Dr. King phrased it, a “promissory note.” The fulfillment of that promise, as I understand it, is still unfolding, still worth fighting for, still up to each of us. But the promise cannot be realized if we insist on selective interpretation or complete misrepresentation of the meaning of the words behind it.
Understanding the words and all their nuances may be fine fodder for legal scholars, but I am not one of them. I’m just a guy trying my best to understand what the Founding Fathers meant when they wrote of our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A promise, yes, but not a privilege, the right undergirding the very reason for our system of government.
And so, the right to life means the right to be born. Clever people wish to debate such questions as when is an unborn child a person.
That may be a fair question, but it should not be confused with the words of the Constitution. Some other answer must be given.
The right to life also means the right not to be killed by anyone, including federal and state governments, for any reason. There is no wiggle room here. The so-called right-to-lifers who also favor the death penalty also must think the Ten Commandments are the “Ten Suggestions.”
The right to liberty is tied, I think, to certain constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. Those freedoms include freedom of religion; freedom of the press; freedom to peaceably assemble; freedom from unreasonable search and seizure; and rights such as habeas corpus.
Even though we are still struggling with these ideas, I believe we are light years ahead of most democratic societies in these matters.
One observation here. There is a necessary tension between ideas of liberty and freedom and the human desire for security. In a world where many think there is a terrorist on every airplane, in every school, and in other public places, we would do well to remember the words of Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would surrender liberty for security deserve neither.”
As to the pursuit of happiness, it seems to me that there are certain pre-conditions to making this promise real. The first is a system of universal health care (not Obamacare). How can anyone pursue happiness if, by circumstance of birth or other reasons, they are malnourished, sickly, or otherwise physically or mentally disabled?
Second, it is impossible to pursue happiness without a decent education. In this regard, in my judgment, a robust system of public education is indispensable to the aims of a truly free society. Contrary to the philosophy of educationist free-marketers, only fully public schools can achieve this vital function. As someone once said, “the common (public) school is the greatest invention known to man.”
I believe that.
Finally, if the pursuit of happiness is to have any meaning at all, there must also be an equal opportunity to compete. For all the talk about the value of competition in our society, our words have not matched our actions. Until we recognize that the noble ideas of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are profoundly related, the promise wrought by our Founding Fathers will remain just that — a promise.
Have a nice day.
Anderson resident Primus Mootry is a retired school teacher. His column appears Wednesdays in The Herald Bulletin.