I read the Declaration of Independence this morning, a tradition for me. Some years, the Declaration flows smoothly through my mind and I celebrate its meaning and the better parts of our nation’s history. I’m always aware of its imperfections, of course, and some years they seem to loom larger. When that happens, I stick on the hypocrisy, often with a frustration born of contemporary politics.
Every year, I remind myself that this nation took a very long time to actually recognize the equality claimed for humankind in the opening sentences of the Declaration. Most years, I recognize that beyond the obvious hypocrisy of the claims was a powerful belief in the promise of equality and self-government, a promise that bore fruit for the patriots who became Americans but also for other citizens of this world. We aren’t perfect, far from it, but the idea of America became an inspiration for the growth of democracy and equality in the rest of the world. We can still be proud of that.
The more I think about the Declaration and the Constitution which eventually followed (and I think about it a great deal, thanks to the subject I teach), the more I prefer the Declaration. Its promise, the one we celebrate today, is a powerful statement of human potential. Even in 2019, it continues to inspire and bear fruit in the world. Though it makes all sorts of political claims rooted in the times, at its best it transcends politics and serves as an ambitious philosophy about what humanity can and should be.
The Constitution, on the other other hand, is more clearly a political document rooted in the desire for compromises to maintain the unity of an already disparate nation. Those compromises enshrined slavery in our founding, a decision that becomes more divisive and troubling with each year that passes in the absence of reparations or real efforts to understand the racism upon which slavery was built. In its preservation of state power and slavery, the federal system creates some additional quirky features. Among them are a Senate that gives two representatives to the least populated state in the Union, Wyoming, with just 572,000 people. The largest state, California, with nearly 40 million people, gets the same. An obvious problem of representation follows and the Electoral College, a direct function of this system of state representation, was bound to create democratic illegitimacy in our Executive branch, rather than the political certainly the founders intended. We live with that problem today in the form of Agent Orange.
If the Constitution has redeeming value, it’s in the document’s fear of tyranny and its (sometimes) reluctant faith in democracy. Hard though it is to achieve, there is room to amend, a function that demonstrates a group of founders who knew that the Constitution and its compromises were likely to prove fallible. It set up ways to check expressions of power, especially in the executive. It also demands a citizenry that take it’s civic duties seriously, the challenge of our current polity.
It is imperfect, as all human institutions are bound to be. But it is ours and we must take the necessary action to create a more perfect union. After all, that was the very claim made by the Declaration of Independence. Its an idea we should especially consider today, when we celebrate independence and would be well-served by considering what independence truly means.