Our wonderful, frustrating, dynamic, messy American republic
Several years ago, my son and I got into a debate over the merits and outcomes of self-governance. Being the practical person that he is, my son argued that the U.S. needed to be run by a panel of elite experts. The outcomes would be better, he claimed, than the outcomes from a Congress bound by gridlock and an executive operating on ideology rather than pragmatism. My rebuttal was that the outcomes matter less than the process itself.
That stance is worth recounting on the day we celebrate our independence. Two hundred and forty-two years ago, our founders declared that a nation should govern itself rather than operate under the dictates of a hereditary ruler, a nobility class, and a distant parliament at which they had no representation at all. The Declaration of Independence makes no claim about outcomes or policies except for the liberty to govern for the best interests of the colonies without interference from abroad. In doing so, the authors list a long line of grievances tied to the inevitable results of remote governance without consent of the governed, primarily the refusal to allow people to create local and regional laws to govern themselves.
How did that work out? Far from perfectly. The original Articles of Confederation created a nightmare of a nation, pitting the colonies against each other and leaving the United States vulnerable to collapse or attack. It took a second attempt at creating a new self-governance model six years later, one with a stronger central government that provided more cohesion and unity. The U.S. Constitution emerged as a singular expression of a government that balanced those needs with the sovereignty of the states and of the people, while providing for three co-equal branches of government to keep any one of them from acquiring too much power.
Even that outcome was far from perfect. Thanks to an impasse between the southern and northern states, the grotesque institution of slavery was perpetuated in part by the new Constitution. Its infamous "three-fifths compromise" was an attempt by the northern states to limit the power of the southern states in the House of Representatives, but also arguably legitimized the practice in a document dedicated to the defense of individual liberty. Slavery was a stain on the nation that created a civil war less than 80 years after the adoption of the Constitution, and a series of events perpetuated state-imposed discrimination known as Jim Crow laws for another century after that.
Want more bad outcomes? We have the two Sedition Acts in 1799 and in 1918 that criminalized dissent and imposed a kind of lese majeste despite the First Amendment protection of free speech. Bothered by ugly rhetoric in election cycles? That has an unfortunately long tradition in the U.S. too, starting from the presidential election in 1800. One Connecticut newspaper warned that electing Thomas Jefferson would result in a nation where "murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will openly be taught and practiced." Another newspaper, Rick Ungar recalled a few years ago at Forbes, warned that re-electing John Adams would extend the presidency of someone who "behaved neither like a man nor like a woman but instead possessed a hideous hermaphroditical character." By those standards, the infamous "Daisy" commercial launched as a broadside against Barry Goldwater by Lyndon Johnson in 1964 was, well … a daisy.
But focusing on America's bad outcomes misses the point. A nation that governs itself owns its own mistakes — and has the ability to rectify them. We create the laws under which we are governed, and when we don't like the outcomes, our elected officials have the ability to correct them. Our Constitution has been amended 17 times since its initial ratification to deal with the worst of the outcomes, including slavery, and even once to correct an earlier amendment prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol.
Our Independence Day gave us the ability to set our own course, for better or worse. No doubt the worse outcomes of those decisions, and the slow process of correcting them, made our forefathers despair at times, too. The long string of injustices seen in our history belong to the people who governed at that time and plagued the people they served, but we remember them now to remind us of the responsibility we have to govern ourselves wisely and judiciously in the future. The successes and failures of self-governance provide the perspective necessary to keep a sharp check on the use of power, lest we create the disconnect that created the need for the Declaration of Independence in the first place. Sundering governance from accountability is the surest and the shortest way to arrive at such a crisis.
Freedom and self-governance may not be pretty, but it is the antidote for the ills of every other form of government. We do not celebrate perfection on Independence Day — we celebrate the right and the responsibility we have to keep pursuing it in our messy, frustrating, dynamic, and wonderful nation. May God bless our journey as we renew our commitment to that goal today.
Editor's note: This article originally misstated the number of times the Constitution has been amended. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.