Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Fidelity to Liberty

Today calls for a more meditative post on what I am celebrating on Independence Day. I want to celebrate two important documents today, which I believe are the very best of what this country stands for and what I return to again and again when I fear that the powers that be in Washington want to ignore or dismiss the import of these documents. Alas, today I celebrate the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the United States. I am grateful for the vision of the Declaration of Independence in declaring:

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 the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .
This is a document born from the Enlightenment; here we have the expression of fundamental truth, which is the sole basis for our current form of government--a government whose powers are drawn from the consent of the governed. While as a philosopher I have engaged in countless hours of debates over whether or not we can actually know that human liberty is in fact a self-evident truth, I am still passionate about this declaration. I am willing to interpret it less as a absolute truth, but rather as an axiom. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address adopts the axiomatic language when he says

our fathers brought forth, on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the propostion that all men are created equal . . . (my emphasis)

Now my dear colleague SteveG will have to give you a better lecture than I could of the difference between a "self-evident truth" and an "axiom" for logicians and mathematicians. However, the gist is that axioms do not require elaborate metaphysical arguments (a la Thomas Aquinas) dedicating to proving they are absolutely true (i.e. Proof of God's Existence). Lincoln's language belies this when he says we are dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. We have conceived of this nation that honors each human's fundamental liberty because we assume all humans are equal.

It is precisely this language, of the Enlightenment, that inspired the first wave of feminists, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who penned the Declaration of Sentiments, which used the same language, invoked the same axiom--all men and women are created equal--in order to frame the moral and political right to suffrage and equal rights under our constitution. Granted the Declaration of Independence does not use the language all men and women are created equal, but is rather difficult to make a case, unless you hold to a very unEnlightenment religious worldview, that women are not also contained int his propostion. Stanton and Anthony simply highlighted that fact.

What also gives me comfort in these dark days of the Bush Administration is the following paragraph, near the end of the Declaration:

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Indeed it seems we have among us a prince who is a tyrant.

I said I wanted to honor two documents and so I hasten to give thanks also to the U.S. Constitution. I couldn't possibly enumerate all of the features of this important political document that I revere in this post. I will focus on two aspects--the supremacy clause (Article VI, paragraph 2) and the 5th Amendment. Article VI, paragraph 2 clearly states:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

I am grateful for this clause of the Constitution because it protects each citizen from the state and local governments who might impose their own private moral views or political prejudices on citizens. States and local governments quite simply cannot make laws that deny any citizens civil liberties. (Thank goodness for the ACLU, who vigilantly protects our civil liberties.)

Lastly, I have learned this year the profound importance of Due Process, articulated in the 5th Amendment:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.
There is a lot to muse on in this amendment. But above all, it symbolizes for me how seriously we take the proposition of human liberty. We extend dignity and fairness even to those whom we believe might have broken our laws or intended to harm us. We give these men and women the benefit of the doubt and grant them a fair trial. We do not (or SHOULD NOT) just round up anyone suspected of wrongdoing, throw them into jail, torture, maim, or kill them. Such actions are the very antithesis of system of government and our dedication to human liberty. We treat our alleged enemies with the same dignity and respect that we demand our government to honor us with. This is what distinguishes our form of government and only by fidelity to this principle can we with great pride celebrate this Independence Day.