It is a Fourth of July ritual to appraise where we are in meeting the Declaration of Independence’s promise to institute a government that would, unlike King George, secure human rights equally for everyone who sets foot on American soil.
Here at the 240-year mark, put me down as a historical Pollyanna with some mild alarm about a contemporary — and temporary — president’s antipathy to some of those rights. The country’s republican institutions and liberal democratic tradition have survived many such bumps and, regardless of his own inclinations, President Trump will never enjoy dictatorial power. The arc of history is long, as Rev. Martin Luther King said, and it bends towards justice and expanded human rights.
Remember that the great institution of the Supreme Court created excuses, one after another, for more than a hundred years — in Dred Scott, Plessy and many other shameful cases — for not delivering on the most sweeping promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which was that black people, women, the disabled and, yes, even sexual minorities had to be treated as humans and citizens and had to be accorded equal treatment under the laws. If he’s lucky, Trump will fare no worse in history than James Buchanan, who begged the justices in the Dred Scott appeal not to recognize slaves and blacks as humans and citizens and thus make his job as president easier. The court obliged and gave us the Civil War.
Can we briefly review the government’s history of protecting equality and the rights given all people by their Creator, among them “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”? Mine is not the most common reflection today, which rather is that, by restraining industry and business and interceding occasionally for unpopular minorities, federal and state governments have eroded individual rights, especially of majorities. My notion, perhaps from personal experience in a segregated and profusely polluted region, is the opposite.
Despite the soaring language, neither the Articles of Confederation nor the Constitution and its Bill of Rights gave America an egalitarian society and the promised free pursuit of life, health and happiness. Women and blacks and frequently the unpropertied could not vote or exercise the rights of speech and association. Regardless of the promise of a free and unfettered press, so strongly touted by Jefferson, Franklin, Washington and Madison, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts to jail prying reporters and shut down noisy newspapers. (Despite the press’s perpetual unpopularity, Trump won’t succeed either.)
But the founders’ words were always there and made more explicit by the 13th and 14th amendments. The story of America is the liberal democratic tradition: Every generation, whether through the courts or the elected divisions of government, breathed fresh life into the words. The resistance, starting with the simple ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, was always that the promises of rights and freedoms should not be taken literally. The founders, according to Justice Antonin Scalia and many others before and after him, did not really mean what they wrote. We must trace their words back to the prejudices, ignorance and political dilemmas of the authors, and stick to their agenda. First of all, the rights and freedoms were accorded to “men,” which had to refer only to the gender and not to mankind. The Supreme Court set up one enigmatic doctrine after another — “rational basis,” anyone? — to avoid recognizing rights plainly proclaimed by the Constitution for unpopular minorities, like African Americans or gay, lesbian or transgender people. But time and knowledge eventually sets it all straight.
The elected government also has advanced the cause of Jefferson’s unalienable rights of life (and health), liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When the greed of big business trammeled upon the health and happiness of individual Americans in the 19th century and later, government stepped in to establish health and safety standards to protect workers and consumers, halted child labor, regulated working hours, established a minimum wage, forced business to recognize the association rights of workers established by the First Amendment, guaranteed security and medical care for the aged and (some of) the poor, and, late in the 20th century, moved to protect the natural environment and the health and happiness of individual Americans and their grandchildren from industrial poisoning of the water, earth and atmosphere.
Now, there is a common assumption, fed by corporate propaganda, that regulation of polluting industries abrogates human rights. Having been reared in the poisonous oilfields of South Arkansas before the advent of any government regulation (1949 and Gov. Sid McMath in Arkansas, 1971 and Richard Nixon in America), I see it very differently. Trump is rolling back every pollution and safety restriction on industry that he can, but it won’t last. Trust me, and our institutions.
Trump is not King George, although the Declaration of Independence did cite as a huge grievance the king’s efforts to keep immigrants from coming to America.