Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Golden Thread

Mankind was created with a certain capacity for creativity and vice, the ability and prerogative to enjoy the rights bestowed by God and to deny those rights to others. If we were living under the thumb of a despot some 234 years ago, we might recognize the disharmony between the government and economy imposed on us and the natural rights God entitled us to. In our sense that we have been disenfranchised from our natural rights, we might seek to break away from the despotic rule.

After years of progressive degradation of our exercise of our natural God-given rights, we might sense an incremental approach is no longer an option. We might finally choose to make a decisive stand. We might make a singular declarative statement that is bold not just in what it asserts in the face of power, but even bolder in the fact that there would be no turning back from it once done, and even bolder still in the abundant awareness that affixing our names to it might also inscribe our own death warrants and financial ruin. If we were to set words to that kind of declaration in 1776, they might be words like these: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and pursuit of Happiness.”

It might also be that in the crucial decade during which we toiled under that despotic rule there were other minds at work on recognizing the alignment between man’s unalienable natural rights and his right to freely exercise commerce to attend to his well-being. It might be that we would recognize that the irony of free enterprise is that with each actor in the marketplace – producer, merchant, and consumer – acting in his own self-interest a special friction is generated that creates an equilibrium of quality, quantity, and price in a fair market. If a person were to set these ideas to text in a written work, it might be published as “The Wealth of Nations,” written by Adam Smith - oddly enough - in 1776.

Mankind was created with a certain capacity for creativity and vice, the ability and prerogative to enjoy the rights bestowed by God and to deny those rights to others. If we were living under the thumb of a despot some 234 years ago, we might recognize the disharmony between the government and economy imposed on us and the natural rights God entitled us to. In our sense that we have been disenfranchised from our natural rights, we might seek to break away from the despotic rule.

After years of progressive degradation of our exercise of our natural God-given rights, we might sense an incremental approach is no longer an option. We might finally choose to make a decisive stand. We might make a singular declarative statement that is bold not just in what it asserts in the face of power, but even bolder in the fact that there would be no turning back from it once done, and even bolder still in the abundant awareness that affixing our names to it might also inscribe our own death warrants and financial ruin. If we were to set words to that kind of declaration in 1776, they might be words like these: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and pursuit of Happiness.”

It might also be that in the crucial decade during which we toiled under that despotic rule there were other minds at work on recognizing the alignment between man’s unalienable natural rights and his right to freely exercise commerce to attend to his well-being. It might be that we would recognize that the irony of free enterprise is that with each actor in the marketplace – producer, merchant, and consumer – acting in his own self-interest a special friction is generated that creates an equilibrium of quality, quantity, and price in a fair market. If a person were to set these ideas to text in a written work, it might be published as “The Wealth of Nations,” written by Adam Smith - oddly enough - in 1776.

It might be, then, that after a subsequent decade during which the consummate battle for the natural rights of men is waged, a government is formed in the wake of victory. With a notion to preserve the ideals for which the war was fought, maybe we would establish a Constitution that observed those principles articulated in 1776. It might be against the backdrop of the previous two decades of struggle that the words of the Preamble of the Constitution take their significance: “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.”

But while the Constitution would limit the powers of the federal government to include only those specifically enumerated to it, it would achieve ratification only with the understanding that the Congress would immediately begin work on a Bill of Rights that would place additional limits on the prerogatives of government over its citizens and the states. We would be certain that the tyranny of a king would not be replaced by the tyranny of cynical elected "representatives."

That Bill of Rights would prevent the government from establishing a religion and prevent it from prohibiting citizens from exercising their own. It would guarantee free speech, assembly, petition to the government, and speedy trial. It would prevent the federal government from denying any citizen the right to life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Finally, it would reserve to the people or to the states all powers not specifically granted to the federal government in the Constitution. Such a Bill of the Rights wouldn't change the Constitution, it would complete it. If that was our task in 1791, we might include our Bill of Rights as the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Maybe more than any time in recent memory, we have reason to reflect on our origins as a new Congress is seated next month. We have reason to remember the vision and values of our Founders, those who inspired them, and those who were inspired by them. We have reason to remember their sacrifices and the early struggles to craft a government that would lend credence and nobility to it all. We have reason to see the golden thread that connects the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution and to the Bill of Rights and to challenge ourselves to weave the thread into our vision and plans for the future. Maybe we will have the courage to make the sacrifices necessary to preserve for our posterity the ideal for which so many have given everything.