The recent July 4th holiday meant different things to different people. It was, of course, a celebration of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, and for those who care there was the excitement of parades and fireworks.
But my attitudes take me off the popular celebration path.
For me July 4th multiplies my frequent irritation and profound regret that our public schools teach so little about the American war for independence from Britain, the roots of the conflict, the deep differences in American and European life at the time, the flawed gaggle of American founders who split into infighting factions just as we do today, and despite their differences ended up creating for us, and for the world, the magical model of self-government we call the U.S. Constitution.
For me July 4th is also an inescapable reminder that America has broken faith with our Constitution in many ways.
Presidents choose which laws to enforce, which to ignore. Congress spends trainloads of taxpayer money they do not have. The Senate abdicates its budget duty year after year. Congress routinely exceeds its authority using the fig leaf of the Commerce Clause. Activist judges violate the limits of their interpretation authority to create new law as they desire.
Even Supreme Court justices divine rights in the Constitution that are wished for but not even remotely hinted by the founders’ original words or Amendments. And so on.
It is my belief that failing to adhere to our constitutional duties is a permissiveness at the top that, along with other weaknesses of the times, encourages a nationwide attitude of advocating national policy based on tender emotions rather than careful, challenging and reasoned thought.
We have raised several generations now with little knowledge of, appreciation for or devotion to the intended structure of our government or the reasons behind it.
Our self-absorbed citizenry, devoted most to their own comfort and entertainment, know virtually nothing about the Constitution other than invoking a few keyword rights when it suits them.
If you ask why the Bill of Rights was added as the first 10 amendments, or what federalism means, or how the 10th Amendment has been trampled by federal overreach, you’ll have deer in the headlights.
The American public has pathetically sparse knowledge of our capitalist system and how it has spread prosperity around the globe. Our youth spout with shallow thought socialist ideals that seem to feel good at the moment, but they have zero knowledge of or devotion to the discipline, self-control and restraint our Constitution requires to live side-by-side peaceably with people whose politics differ.
And so America’s universities, where the collision of ideas is supposed to elevate learning and knowledge, have purged conservative thought and now provide safe haven for delicate “snowflake” students who fear ideas that differ from their own.
For years now, conservatives invited to speak at university events have been disinvited, ostracized, shouted down and threatened by young Americans who cannot bear to listen to ideas that differ from theirs.
Violence to suppress unwanted public speech is on the upswing, and now leftist politicians are encouraging the public to harass the private lives of political opponents.
Anyone who reads the Constitution will see therein their duty to civil behavior. But, as a stand-up comic recently observed, in his ironic British accent, “You would think Americans would know a lot more about their own Constitution since it covers just four pages, but … who has that kind of time?” It’s a funny and tragically accurate line.
Too bad there isn’t universal understanding, at least in America, that the Constitution encourages us to restrain ourselves from the ugly side of human nature. As a curious observer of human nature over many years, I have reduced my thoughts on how people tend to behave to three rules, to which in fairness I attach my name so critics can be sure to blame only me.
Terry’s rule 1: People tend to cluster in us-vs-them groups, and serve their own benefit at the expense of others, ranging from innocent competition to genocide, lubricated with just enough rationalization to conceal their misdeeds from themselves.
Terry’s rule 2: Those with an altruistic side are still subject to rule 1.
Terry’s rule 3: When the motivation of behavior is puzzling, it can usually be decoded by re-reading rule 1.
My own research on our founders and their struggles with Britain and each other, tell me my three rules applied to them just as to us today.
Further, I see in their story their own insights into and fears of the sordid side of human nature, such fears becoming a strong influence as they designed checks-and-balances into ideas of self-government.
That is especially true for John Adams and James Madison, both well-read on Western philosophers, both deep thinkers on government structure, both influential in shaping our Constitution, though they worked separately in competing factions.
In 1780 John Adams penned the Massachusetts Constitution, still the world’s oldest functioning constitution. Seven years later in 1787, James Madison’s “Virginia Plan” played a key role in the final result of the American Constitutional Convention.
John Adams was abroad serving as minister to Britain at the time, while Thomas Jefferson was serving as minister to France, but Adams’ Massachusetts Constitution served as an influential model for key provisions: a bi-cameral Congress to temper a tyranny of the majority; a balance of power among the legislative, executive and judiciary; the rule of law; the republic designed for elected representatives instead of mob rule by passions of the moment in a pure democracy.
These and other provisions seem designed to restrain the natural human urge for power.
The magic contained in the Constitution’s design, never mind the imperfections of the men who created it, has been used as a starting point model by other countries establishing their own self-government around the globe.
But here in America, while July 4th crowds cheer and delight in parades and fireworks of the celebration, my thoughts are we seem to have become victims of our own success, too comfortable and pampered to think of hard responsibilities, too entertained to recognize we are less a republic now and subject to the mob rule of 24/7 TV news where the propagandists delivering our daily feeding disguise themselves as journalists even though they have forgotten what journalism actually means, if they ever knew.
Those TV talking heads should be reporting on government-related news through the prism of the Constitution, but they don’t know any more about it than the ignorant and apathetic American public.
So on July 4th, while crowds indulge in their one annual day of shallow thought of America’s formation, I worry even more than other days when I reflect on the damage we have done to the Constitution, a legacy we should have protected and preserved.
[Terry Garlock lives in Peachtree City, GA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]