I had hoped to write a thoroughly celebratory column about the Fourth of July. It’s when we come together to cheer a nation that has struggled for 246 years to make the principle of equality a reality.
The core argument I had planned to make is that we are a constitutional people. We define ourselves not by ethnicity or race, nor blood and soil, but by a set of principles and the documents that reflect them.
Yet thanks especially to this term’s Supreme Court rulings on abortion, guns and the climate, this July Fourth finds us riven about how to read our own founding and the documents the Founders bequeathed us. We are torn about what we love most about our country.
It is a national habit to insist that whatever we happen to be asserting about politics is consistent with what the Founders envisioned. Just listen to how often members of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and Donald Trump’s lawbreaking have spoken of the Constitution and its obligations.
Even now, when we are increasingly aware of how racism and sexism afflicted the founding generation, most Americans still prefer to be on the side of Jefferson and Madison, Adams and Hamilton. Not for nothing is “Hamilton” a smash hit.
But that’s where the agreement stops. On one side of our divide (the side on which I stand) are those who revere our nation’s capacity for progress and self-correction. We point with appreciation to the figures in our history who battled for the reforms that allowed us to adhere more closely to the commitment to equality embodied in the Declaration of Independence, a document pivotal to the thinking of Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Those of broadly progressive convictions regularly invoke the Preamble to our Constitution and its commitment “to form a more perfect Union.” The implication of that “more” is that we will always find ourselves less than fully perfect and having additional work to do. We have taken steps forward and backward, but on net, we have advanced from 1776, when most Black Americans were slaves and women could not even vote.
In this reading, the Constitution is not a straitjacket designed to keep the country where it was in 1789 or 1868 or whatever other date a nostalgic conservatism might point to. The Constitution is a framework for self-rule and (small-r) republican government that assumed the nation would embrace change when necessary. Remember, as the historian Gordon Wood taught us, the Founders were radicals for their time.
The conservative reading of the same documents is well reflected in the repeated invocation of the words “historical” and “tradition” in the recent Supreme Court decisions on guns and abortion. The majority’s gun ruling used the words “historical tradition” a dozen times.
This is what “originalism” as a doctrine really comes down to. If the progressive view of the American experience focuses on the changes needed to live up to our aspirations, the conservative imperative is to preserve — and in many cases move back to — what made the country, well, “great” at some earlier juncture.
What “strict construction” really means is not close adherence to the text, as is often claimed. The gun decision, after all, effectively dismisses the importance of the Second Amendment’s “well regulated Militia” clause.
Together, “originalism” and “strict construction” reflect an effort to invoke the Constitution to tether the country to the past. Both have been used to roll back democratic advances such as the Voting Rights Act and campaign finance reforms as well as regulatory achievements on the environment and labor rights that in many cases date back a century or more. Now, we are torn asunder about guns, abortion and saving our planet.
This, then, is the argument that confronts us this July Fourth. It’s a familiar battle from a history in which slavery’s advocates and opponents alike claimed that the Constitution and the Founders support their respective outlooks.
For those on the progressive side who feel they are on the losing end of today’s conflicts, our national birthday this year can be an occasion to remember those who came before them and never gave up on King’s vision of bending the arc of our story toward justice.
“One can be a critic of one’s country,” the great social thinker Daniel Bell wrote, “without being an enemy of its promise.” On this July Fourth, that promise is still worth celebrating — and fighting for.