"America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag" is former vice presidential candidate and conservative power house Sarah Palin's second book after her 2009 bestselling memoir, "Going Rogue: An American Life." The book is a collection of Palin's favorite speeches, sermons and inspirational works. She also includes memories from her extensive traveling in the last year.
We the People
When I was elected governor of Alaska in 2006, my friend Bruce, who'd helped out on the campaign, presented me with a black-and- white framed print of Jefferson Smith, the character played by Jimmy Stewart in the Frank Capra film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It hung on my office wall in the governor's office in Juneau, and it hangs on my office wall in Wasilla today.
Call it corny, but Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is one of my favorite movies. It's a movie about hope. It's a movie about good triumphing over evil and idealism defeating cynicism. Most of all, it's a movie about the timeless truths of America handed down to us from our forefathers and foremothers. In other words, it's a movie Hollywood would never make today.
In case you've forgotten, Mr. Smith is about an American Everyman, Jefferson Smith, who goes to Washington to fill the Senate seat of a corrupt senator who died in office. The political machine chooses Smith because he is an ordinary man, a nonpolitician, and they think they can control him. But he holds fast to his ideals—the ideals of the American founding—and eventually defeats the machine. The movie was made in 1939, but its message is timeless: there may be corruption in politics, but it can be overcome by decent men and women who honor America's founding principles, the way the American people do.
No doubt, most of today's Hollywood hotshots think movies like Mr. Smith are sappy and uncool, foolish sentimentalism about a country they seem to prefer to run down rather than build up. During the Iraq War, Hollywood produced a whole slew of movies that portrayed the United States (read: the Bush administration) as motivated by vengeance and oil, with the troops as mindless pawns. But almost all of them bombed at the box office, because most Americans don't share this view of our country or our troops. The same cultural gap exists with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Americans love this movie. Over seventy years later, we still watch it and judge Washington against it, because it is happily, unabashedly pro-American— not pro-government, certainly, but definitely pro-American. It celebrates the values that come to us from our founding and that have made our country great.
The wonderful thing about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is that it doesn't just cheerlead for America, or engage in a theoretical discussion of our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It puts these documents and their ideas into a human context. It shows us all the love, charity, and humanity that they embody when they are honored and adhered to.
I shared a love of this movie with my maternal grandfather, C. J. Sheeran. Grandpa always reminded me of Jimmy Stewart, with the looks of Ronald Reagan. One of our favoritescenes comes in the middle of Senator Smith's famous filibuster. It is a scene that has not only inspired a love of democratic ideals in generations of Americans, but has also provided Americans with a basic education in the nature of congressional debate. Smith is trying to get a loan from the federal government to build a boys' camp on some land that the corrupt political machine in his state, headed by a Mr. James Taylor, is eyeing to build a dam. Taylor has bought off most of Senator Smith's colleagues, but Smith refusesto back down. In the scene, Jimmy Stewart is on the floor of the Senate and he has just read the opening words of the Declaration of Independence:
Now, you're not gonna have a country that can make these kind of rules work if you haven't got men that have learned to tell human rights from a punch in the nose. It's a funny thing about men, you know. They all start life being boys. (I wouldn't be a bit surprised if some of these Senators were boys once.) And that's why it seemed like a pretty good idea to me to get boys out of crowded cities and stuffy basements for a couple of months out of the year and build their bodies and minds for a man-sized job, because those boys are gonna be behind these desks some of these days.
And it seemed like a pretty good idea, getting boys from all over the country, boys of all nationalities and ways of living—getting them together. Let them find out what makes different people tick the way they do.
Because I wouldn't give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn't have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little lookin' out for the other fella, too.
That's pretty important, all that. It's just the blood and bone and sinew of this democracy that some great men handed down to the human race, that's all! But of course, if you've got to build a dam where that boys' camp ought to be, to get some graft to pay off some political army or something, well, that's a different thing. Oh no! If you think I'm going back there and tell those boys in my state and say: "Look, now, fellas, forget about it. Forget all this stuff I've been tellin' you about this land you live in—it's a lot of hooey. This isn't your country. It belongs to a lot of James Taylors." Oh no! Not me! And anybody here that thinks I'm gonna do that, they've got another thing comin'.
Jefferson Smith loves the words of the Declaration of Independence, not because he's mindlessly pro-American, but because, as he says, "behind them, they . . . have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little lookin' out for the other fella, too." He understands that those words are a gift, not just to Americans, but to all humanity. But that gift is being corrupted by special interests and forgotten by Washington.
That's what I think so many of the people who make the big laws, run the big corporations, write for the big newspapers, and make the big movies today have forgotten. Americans love this country because it means something, and it has since the beginning. That meaning, many of us feel, is being lost today.
Americans love Mr. Smith Goes to Washington because it's about an ordinary man who stands up to power and says, We're taking our country back. It seems like ancient history now, but I remember it vividly. I was a young mother—Track had just been born—and I was watching a revolution on television. It was 1989 when it began. First in Poland, then in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, and Romania—the dominoes of dictatorship fell. And then, soon after the decade turned, the Soviet Union—the dictatorship that was responsible for all the other fallen dictatorships—met its fate. I watched in August 1991 as Boris Yeltsin stood on a tank outside the Kremlin and faced down a coup by Communist hard-liners. By New Year's Day 1992, the Soviet Empire was no more. It was a dizzying moment to be free. For my entire life, many Americans had been told by the propaganda mouthpieces of the Communist regimes—not to mention plenty of others in the free world—that Soviet communism was the way of the future. We had been told it was a more just and democratic form of government because it guaranteed the equality of all. We had been told that it was Americans, not the Russians or the Poles or the Chinese, who were living in an authoritarian society. After all, the Soviet constitution promised its citizens dozens of rights, including the right to work, the right to leisure, the right to health care and housing, and some rights that sound very familiar to Americans, such as freedom of speech, press, and religion.
None of these rights meant anything in the Soviet Union, of course. They were words on paper and nothing more. The reason, I think, is important for Americans to understand. It speaks as much to the wonderful uniqueness of our Constitution as it does to the hollowness of the Soviet document. In 1987, just a few years before the Soviet Empire began to fall, America celebrated the two-hundredth anniversary of our Constitution. That year, in his State of the Union Address, President Reagan talked with his usual courage and clarity about the special magic of the American Constitution: I've read the constitutions of a number of countries, including the Soviet Union's. Now, some people are surprised to hear that they have a constitution, and it even supposedly grants a number of freedoms to its people. Many countries have written into their constitution provisions for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Well, if this is true, why is the Constitution of the United States so exceptional?
Well, the difference is so small that it almost escapes you, but it's so great it tells you the whole story in just three words: We the people. In those other constitutions, the Government tells the people of those countries what they're allowed to do. In our Constitution, we the people tell the Government what it can do, and it can do only those things listed in that document and no others. Virtually every other revolution in history has just exchanged one set of rulers for another set of rulers. Our revolution is the first to say the people are the masters and government is their servant.
History has borne out the truth of President Reagan's words. In the USSR, the government used its constitution to tell the people what they could do—to grant them so-called "rights." It said the Soviet people had a "right" to just about everything. But of course, if a government can grant you a right, it can also take that right away. And that's what the dictators of the Soviet Empire did: they promised their people the moon, but in the end it was the government, not the people, that had the power. It could choose to give its people "rights" or not, and it chose not to, so the people finally rose up.
It's different here, and the reason is our Constitution. I remember memorizing the preamble to the Constitution when I was a little girl in Alaska, watching Schoolhouse Rock at a friend's house. What I was just beginning to learn about our Constitution is that it doesn't give us rights—it describes a government that protects our God-given rights. It puts us in charge. As my friend Newt Gingrich likes to note, our Constitution doesn't begin "We the government of the United States . . ." or "We the federal bureaucrats of the United States . . ." or "We the special interests camped out on Capitol Hill of the United States . . ." It begins like this:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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. As usual, the Gipper absolutely hit the nail on the head. The difference, with our Constitution, is those three little words: We the people.
What has struck me most in traveling around the country in the past two years is the tremendous, unshakable love Americans have for their country, even when times are tough, and even when we are most definitely out of love with Washington, D.C. It says something interesting about Americans that this love of country so often takes the form of love of our Founders and our founding documents. Everyone claims to love the Founders, of course. But so many of our so-called academic and cultural elite talk out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to the founding. They pay lip service to revered American figures such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson at the same time that they bad-mouth the principles they stood for. They think Americans such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton are museum pieces, interesting historical figures with no relevance to our lives today.
You're probably familiar with their take on America's founding. They think the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are just documents written by old white men to benefit other old white men. To really have a just and equal society, they argue, we have to change these documents, update them for the times, and make them no longer mean what the Americans who wrote them intended them to mean. Either that or we have to ignore them altogether.
I hear from and meet Americans every day who have a very different view. They see America as having flaws, to be sure. But they understand that these flaws are not in the nature of our country but in the nature of humanity. No government can—or should try to—change our fundamental human nature. Deliverance is for the next life. You don't have to look any farther than the killing fields of Cambodia, the gulags of Soviet Russia, or the mass starvation of Communist China to see what happens when government tries to remake men and women.
The wonderful thing about the system we inherited from the Founders is that it doesn't try to change our humanity; rather, it respects it and honors it. This is the approach our Founders took from the very beginning, when they announced the birth of America with, next to the Bible, the most consequential words for human freedom ever written: 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, Libertyand the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructiveof these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizingits powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
I still get chills when I read these words. They express a beautiful idea—that we are all equally precious in the eyes of our Creator—that gave birth to a beautiful country. "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 . . ."
It is to keep faith with these words that our Constitution begins "We the people."
In America, the people are sovereign, not just as a group, but individually. We are endowed by our Creator with this sovereignty. That means no person, no king and no government, can rule us without our consent. We all have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that wasn't given to us by government; it was given to us by God. Therefore, it can't rightly be taken away by government.
To me, the Declaration of Independence is an expression of our ideals as a nation—the ideals of liberty and equality—and the Constitution is how we make those ideals a reality. I found a great metaphor Abraham Lincoln used to describe the relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in Matthew Spalding's wonderful book We Still Hold These Truths.
To illustrate how the Declaration and the Constitution work together, Lincoln cited Proverbs 25:11: "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver." For Lincoln, the principles of the Declaration—that we are granted by our Creator with inalienable rights—are the apples of gold. "The Union, and the Constitution," Lincoln wrote, "are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture."
For me, this is the essence of freedom: to be a child of God whose God-given rights and responsibilities are respected by her government under the Constitution. What makes all of us Americans isn't our ancestry or our skin color but our belief in this freedom. This isn't the kind of freedom that says, "Whatever feels good, just do it." It's the kind of freedom that says, "Don't tread on me." It's the kind of freedom that shouts that men and women aren't just as free as their government or their king will allow them to be. Freedom is our birthright. We are free as a consequence of being made in the image of God—even if you don't believe in God. Not only that, but we are equally free; no person or group of persons is less free than any other.
Too many voices in America today sound the wrongheaded belief that these truths are no longer so self-evident. Some of these voices come from Washington, but many more come from our universities, our high school textbooks, even our churches. These skeptics think we have outgrown our founding principles, that even the wisest men and women in 1776 and 1787 couldn't possibly have been wise enough to create an effective government for America in the twenty-first century.
Some find the words of the Founders too limiting for their bloated vision of government. After all, government that is true to the ideals of our Charters of Liberty is government that is limited. If government exists to protect our God-given rights—and not to bail out big banks, buy car companies, take over our health care, and tell us which light bulbs we can use—then that government does a few things, does them well, and gets out of the way in order to allow its citizens to realize their potential.
Remember the 2001 interview about the Constitution by then-Illinois state senator Barack Obama that surfaced during the 2008 campaign? In it, Senator Obama complained as he captured perfectly the constraints on government created by the Constitution. Speaking about the Supreme Court in the 1950s and '60s during the civil rights movement, Obama expressed regret that the High Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth, and of more basic issues of political and economic justice in society. To that extent, as radical as I think people try to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn't that radical. It didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, at least as it's been interpreted, and the Warren Court interpreted it the same way, that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. Says what the states can't do to you. Says what the federal government can't do to you, but it doesn't say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf. (emphasis mine) Our future president called the civil rights movement's focus on the courts—and the courts' subsequent failure to break free of the constraints imposed by the Constitution—a "tragedy." But a lot of us call it basic fairness and adherence to our founding principles. We believe it's a good thing that we came so far in achieving racial justice while keeping faith with our Constitution.
Some like to dismiss all this talk about staying true to our founding documents as the ideological rants of people who are obsessed with constitutional theory. But whether we remain true to our Constitution or not has practical, real-world consequences for all of us.
The Supreme Court, along with the rest of the federal judiciary, has tremendous power over our lives today. Their rulings mean the difference between free political speech and censored political speech, property rights that are protected by government and property rights that are routinely violated by government, and the survival of innocent life and the state-sanctioned killing of innocent life. The reason this is the case, is because so many of the people who appoint and approve our judges and justices erroneously believe the courts' duty isn't to interpret the law but to make the law. In cases where their agenda can't prevail among the people's representatives in Congress, they have turned to the courts to make policy. That means having judges and justices who are no longer guided by the Constitution and the law, but by their personal opinions. President Obama himself has said that, in the really difficult, consequential cases, justices shouldn't go with the law but with their hearts. "That last mile can only be determined on the basis of one's deepest values, one's core concerns, one's broader perspectives on how the world works, and the depth and breadth of one's empathy," the president said.
But if you look at the oath of office that every Supreme Court justice takes, you see that it commits them to a very different standard. They pledge not to pick winners and losers based on their hearts or their "empathy," but to impartially apply the Constitution and the law. Here is their oath: I, (name), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as Supreme Court Justice under the Constitution and laws of the United States. So help me God.
When you take the time to read the plain text of this oath, and then consider many of the criteria that President Obama and other progressives have spelled out for their judges and Supreme Court justices, there is no other conclusion to come to other than that progressives want Supreme Court justices who will violate their oath of office.
Now, empathy is certainly a good and virtuous thing. It's something we should practice ourselves, and look for in our doctors, our teachers, and our neighbors. But should empathy be the guiding criterion for our judges? After all, one person's empathy may be another person's antipathy. Our Constitution spells out a separation of powers between Congress, the president, and the judiciary for a very good reason: to protect our freedom and our right to govern ourselves from one person's idea of "empathy." When we give more power to unelected judges, we take power away from "we the people."
It's no accident that progressives view the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as obstacles to be mowed down or maneuvered around to create bigger government. After all, their name itself, progressives, implies that there is something defective or at least inadequate about America. Progressives exist, their name implies, to "correct" America and to "correct" all the rest of us in the process.
The epitome of progressive thinking was Barack Obama's promise, just before the 2008 election, that "we are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." I guess you could say he warned us! But the problem is that Americans don't want a fundamental transformation of their country. Americans are awakening to the fact that, of course our country has changed a great deal since it was born, but our Founders hit on some timeless truths that will never change and should never change. More and more of us view our founding truths as a bulwark, not just against bigger government, but against losing that fundamental sense of decency that Senator Smith fought for. If we forget these truths—or reject that they are timeless—we lose something fundamental about ourselves. No, "transformation" won't save America; "restoration" of our honor, dignity, and freedoms will save America.
Every generation thinks it is having its arguments for the first time. In fact, our old friend Calvin Coolidge—is it just a coincidence that one of the presidents who most appreciated our founding principles is one of the least celebrated by the academic elite?—made this point over 80 years ago. In the same speech I cited earlier, the one celebrating the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence (which is full of interesting nuggets; I highly recommend it), President Coolidge delivered a devastating rebuke to those who thought the principles of our founding were no longer relevant way back in 1926:
It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter [the Declaration of Independence]. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people.
Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.
It's worth asking: Who are the real "progressives" in America today? As President Coolidge said, to deny the principles of our founding isn't to go forward (to "progress") but to go "backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people."
Those who run down American values and think our founding principles are somehow intolerant or theocratic have it exactly backward. The words of the Declaration of Independence, brought to life in the words of the Constitution, are the most liberating, most human-rights- respecting words ever written. They assert the moral and political equality of all men and women, no matter who their parents are or how much money they have. What could be more "progressive" than that?
What's most amazing to me is that I think most Americans understand this. Most Americans don't just blindly love their country; they understand the unique gift of freedom it represents and they strive to live up to it. The men and women of our military make sacrifices to defend this freedom every day. But ordinary Americans do so as well, by resisting trading their freedom for the promise of cradle-to- grave government security the way so many countries of Western Europe have. Americans don't just cling to their liberty like spoiled children. We understand that freedom isn't free. It's one of the many things about the American people our politicians underestimate.
Take the recent health care debate as an example. The folks pushing President Obama's government health care bill seemed to think that we could be bought. But when we say we believe that our rights are God-given it means something.
Those words in the Declaration of Independence mean that our rights are sacred; government can't legitimately violate them or add to them. The proponents of government health care didn't seem to think that Americans understood this principle—or, if we understood it, we didn't really mean it. They seemed to think we could be bribed by pie-in- the-sky promises; that we were gullible enough to believe that government could manufacture a new "right" to health care and we wouldn't pay the price with our freedom, such as our freedom to keep what we earn, to choose our own doctor, and to buy—or not buy—health insurance.
They were wrong, and for proof you don't have to look any further than the shameful way in which Obamacare was written and passed. It was written in secret, behind closed doors, far from the promised C-SPAN cameras. And it wasn't long before we found out why: To win the support of nervous politicians, President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had to resort to trading pork in the bill for votes, cutting sleazy deals behind closed doors like the infamous "Louisiana Purchase" (in which a Louisiana senator's vote for the bill was secured in exchange for $300 million in extras for that state) and the "Cornhusker Kickback" (in which a Nebraska senator's vote was secured in a similar fashion). Not only that, but to pass the bill, congressional Democrats had to resort to all kinds of legislative shenanigans to avoid an up-or- down vote. At one point, Speaker Pelosi told a national audience that we'd have to pass the bill to "find out what's in it." She even hatched a plan to pass the bill without the House ever actually voting on it!
And why? Because the support in Congress wasn't there. And the support in Congress wasn't there because public support wasn't there. The American people have a principled wisdom that all the lawyers and academics and schooled-up "experts" in D.C. fail to appreciate. Washington may have managed to make it the law, but we still don't support Obamacare. It turns out we can't be so easily bought.
Still, the bill was passed and the damage has been done. In the end, this unsustainable bill jeopardizes the very thing it was supposed to fix: our health care system. Somewhere along the way we forgot that health care reform is about doctors and patients, not the IRS and politicians. Instead of helping doctors with tort reform, this bill has made primary care physicians think about getting out of medicine. It was supposed to make health care more affordable, but our premiums will continue to go up. It was supposed to help more people get coverage, but there will still be twenty-three million uninsured people by 2019.
Americans have been reminded many times that elections have consequences, and Obamacare was definitely one of them. But as my father would say, instead of retreating, Americans are reloading. We don't consider the health care vote a done deal, not by a long shot. Instead, it was a clarion call, a spur to action. We will not let America sink further into debt caused by government controlling another one sixth of our economy—and mandating its approved health care coverage—without a fight. We will not abandon the American dream to government dependency, fewer freedoms, and less opportunity.
If our current leadership in Washington had ventured outside the Beltway more, they would have known that Americans are serious about our freedom. And we have the common sense to know there's no free lunch. As usual, a sign I spotted at a health care reform rally (held up by a guy I'm pretty sure wasn't a constitutional law professor) said it best: "Governments Don't Give Rights. Governments Take Rights Away."
There, written in black acrylic paint on neon poster board, was as good a description of what it takes to defend our freedom as I have ever seen. The giant that is America has been awakened.
The worst thing you can say about a fellow American in politics today is that he is a racist. It just doesn't get any more damning than this accusation. That's why so many of us were horrified to hear news reports that people protesting the passage of the health care bill had shouted racial epithets at an African American congressmen as they walked to the Capitol to cast their vote. It was a serious charge, made by supposedly serious men, and repeated endlessly in the mainstream media. At a critical moment in the debate, it overshadowed all the arguments that opponents of Obamacare had made—that the bill would put government in control of our health care, cost too much, and explode the deficit. The racism charge painted opponents of the law with the lowest form of hate, not the best interests of their country or their neighbor.
But was it true? Despite the fact that everyone walks around these days with a cell phone capable of capturing video, evidence to support the charge has never emerged. In the weeks and months after the alleged incident, conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart even offered huge cash rewards to anyone who could produce proof that the health care protestors had shouted racial slurs. No proof ever emerged.
But a lack of evidence hasn't stopped liberal activists and their allies in the media from repeatedly accusing patriotic Americans at Tea Party rallies and elsewhere of being racists. And let's not kid ourselves. The purpose of this charge isn't to clarify but to confuse. It's thrown out there to shut down debate by declaring one side of it (dissenters from the Obama agenda) unworthy of being taken seriously. After all, if we're motivated only by the fact that there is a "black man in the White House" and not by serious policy differences, what's the point in discussing those policy differences? This tactic is of a piece with the shameful tendency on the left not simply to declare their opponents wrong, but to declare them evil. Conservatives and liberals don't have honest policy disagreements, this strategy says; conservatives are just bad people. But more Americans have opposed Obamacare than have supported it since the health care debate began. A majority of Americans opposed the bill when it was proposed, then passed. A majority oppose it today. Does that mean that a majority of Americans are bad people? And would that be the same majority of Americans who voted for Barack Obama for president?
The deep unrest in America today wasn't caused by the color of the president's skin but the content of his policies. And more and more, it seems that the starting point for these policies is the liberal view that the Constitution is a flawed document. One of the main arguments that the Constitution is flawed and no longer relevant is directly related to the issue of race. It's an issue that all admirers of the Constitution and of our founding have to deal with squarely and honestly: the Constitution's initial compromise on the issue of slavery. It sometimes seems like slavery is all that liberal academics and the mainstream media want to talk about when the topic is America's birth, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't acknowledge the contradiction that slavery represented to American principles. To do less is to denigrate the greatness of those principles. To love our country is to confront our history squarely and honestly. To love our fellow Americans is to admit that we have not always, as a nation, respected their God-given rights.
Confronting our history, of course, also means acknowledging how much progress we've made as a nation to overcome the legacies of slavery and segregation. It always amazes me how some on the left would rather focus on America's sins rather than on the steps we've taken to heal and redeem them. Laws like the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which followed one year later, are great human achievements. They made our country better, not just for some of its citizens, but for all of its citizens. Wouldn't it be more constructive to celebrate these great achievements instead of dwelling obsessively on the problems that made them necessary in the first place? In our hearts, I believe Americans are a fundamentally just and tolerant people.
I've been to big cities and little towns throughout the country. I've met thousands of Americans. I've disagreed with some, agreed with more, and cherished (almost!) all of them. There are exceptions, of course, but in my experience, Americans are too busy raising their families, building their businesses, and looking after their neighbors to spend a lot of time fixating on the color of someone's skin.
Still, I don't think it's an accident that the opponents of this new American awakening so often accuse Tea Partiers and others of being racist. For one thing, it's a guaranteed conversation stopper. Just saying the word racist instantly ends any legitimate debate. Just the accusation gives the accuser an excuse not to debate the issues at hand.
The second reason the charge of racism is leveled at patriotic Americans so often is that the people making the charge actually believe it. They think America—at least America as it currently exists—is a fundamentally unjust and unequal country. Barack Obama seems to believe this, too. Certainly his wife expressed this view when she said during the 2008 campaign that she had never felt proud of her country until her husband starting winning elections. In retrospect, I guess this shouldn't surprise us, since both of them spent almost two decades in the pews of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's church listening to his rants against America and white people.
It also makes sense, then, that the man President Obama made his attorney general, Eric Holder, would call us a "nation of cowards" for failing to come to grips with what he described as the persistence of racism.
Many on the left also believe that the current call for a smaller federal government and a return to federalism—otherwise known as states' rights—is code for a return to white supremacy.
But is it racist to believe in the principles of the American founding? To revere the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights and to invoke the Tenth Amendment? To want leaders and national policies that respect the wisdom and humanity of these documents?
The answer is important, because it speaks to the kind of country we are, and the kind of country we were meant to be. Did our founding values produce the country of Reverend Jeremiah Wright's rants? A place where African Americans or any minority would be justified in saying, "God damn America," instead of "God Bless America"? Or did our Founders enshrine a set of principles that gave birth to a just society, despite the obscenity of slavery? Did they, in fact, set the stage for the elimination of slavery? Does America really need, in the words of President Obama, a "fundamental transformation" in order to be a good and decent nation?
As we all know, many of our Founders were slaveholders. Even Thomas Jefferson, the author of the assertion that all men are "created equal" and that we are all "endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights," owned slaves and may have had a sexual relationship with one of them. Perhaps the most powerful (and frequently cited) evidence pointed to by critics of the founding is the so-called "three-fifths clause" in the original Constitution. The Constitution that was produced in Philadelphia in 1787 contained a clause that, for the purposes of determining representation in Congress and taxation, counted each "free person" as one and"all other persons" (meaning slaves, although the Constitution never uses the word) as three fifths of a person. Native Americans were not counted at all.
Americans can well ask how, in light of these historical facts, the idealistic words of the Declaration are not the words of hypocrites? How can the meaning of the Constitution not be that African Americans were, and were destined to be, considered less human than white Americans in the United States? If you've attended an elite college or even taken a high school history course, you have probably heard the infamous three-fifths clause denounced as evidence that the founding generation was morally blind, thus all of their works are irredeemably tainted, just like that label on the Constitution warned.
So what is the truth of our founding? We all know that the question of what to do about slavery and its obvious grotesque violation of the ideals of the Declaration was a major issue at the Constitutional Convention. It almost ended the Founders' efforts to produce a Constitution, and with it, a new republic.
Most of us have always thought that the Founders were forced to compromise on the issue of slavery for the sake of creating the Union and keeping it together. Some wanted slavery to continue; some genuinely wanted it abolished. In the end, the profound moral challenge of slavery was put off for future generations to resolve.
To a great extent this view of the founding is true. But what I've learned is that the framers of the Constitution did more than simply compromise. They did more than just kick the can down the road. They produced a document that one of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention, James Wilson, said succeeded in "laying the foundation for banishing slavery out of this country," even though he regretted that "the period is more distant than I could wish."
Just how the framers did this was explained brilliantly in an essay by the late constitutional scholar Robert Goldwin: The struggle that took place in the convention was between Southern delegates trying to strengthen the constitutional supports for slavery and Northern delegates trying to weaken them. That issue—the initial and subsequent political strength of slavery—was in contention on the question of representation in the House of Representatives . . . Slave-state delegates were in favor of including every slave, just as they would any other inhabitant. Madison's notes indicate that the delegates from South Carolina "insisted that blacks be included in the rule of representation, equally with whites."
On the other side, delegates from the nonslave states were opposed to counting the slaves, because it would give the South more votes and because it made a mockery of the principle of representation to count persons who had no influence whatsoever on the law-making process and who therefore were not "represented" in the legislature in any meaningful sense of the word. Counting the slaves for purposes of representation would also give the slave states an incentive to increase their slave population instead of decreasing it. In short, considering the chief purpose of this clause in the Constitution, it is obvious that an antislavery delegate would not want to count the slave at all. (emphasis mine)
To our great and lasting shame, slavery continued in the United States for almost a century following the adoption of the Constitution. Although the controversy never went away, in the end it took the bloodiest war in our nation's history to end the evil practice. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died, but slavery finally died with them. And in an important and overlooked way, our Founders began this painful process.
In other words, when it comes to America, there is a difference between hating the sin and hating the sinner. To acknowledge honestly the stain of past slavery and racism is not the same thing as saying that America is a fundamentally racist country.
Barack Obama himself acknowledged as much in his widely hailed speech on race during the 2008 campaign. Here's an excerpt that can be appreciated: "We the people, in order to form a more perfect union." Two hundred and twenty-one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America's improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.
The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.
Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution—a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.
My only wish is that President Obama would follow through on this hopeful view of America. To want a better and brighter future for our country does not mean a rejection of our founding or a "fundamental transformation" of who we are. Instead it means following, in part, the wisdom of the most powerful American voice for civil rights of the twentieth century, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Famously, Dr. King called not for a rejection of America's founding principles, but for America to "rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed."
My first memory of hearing his words is sitting at my desk at Iditarod Elementary School. We had been studying the civil rights movement and were watching a grainy eight-millimeter film of Dr. King's speech projected onto a screen over the blackboard.
The events we watched were far away, both in time and space. The Washington Monument, for us, may as well have been the Eiffel Tower. I don't think any of us had ever been to our nation's capital, over four thousand miles from Alaska, but we knew something momentous had happened there a decade before, and that we were somehow a part of it. Dr. King's words made it so.
It wasn't our accomplishment; we knew that. The civil rights movement was the work of heroes we would never know except in history books. Still, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, words made us feel like patriots that day.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. King was speaking about the content of our character, and the meaning of our creed. We weren't there yet, but the fact that his dream was coming closer to reality made us so proud to be Americans. It made us want that dream for ourselves. It's a shame that not everyone wants to quote Dr. King these days. What made Martin Luther King, Jr., a great and effective leader is that he appealed to our better angels. Unlike other so-called civil rights leaders who claim to be his heirs and to walk in his footsteps, he didn't doubt that America had it in her to be great. He just made us understand that to be great, we first had to be good. This man of God believed those words in the Declaration of Independence. He believed that our Creator had given us all the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He knew that realizing his dream was the fulfillment of America's exceptional destiny. That's a belief, it seems to me, that shouldn't depend on whether someone is liberal or conservative or Republican or Democrat. It's an American belief.
It's a belief Senator Jefferson Smith would have agreed with.
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