The juxtaposition July 4th and last week’s avalanche of Supreme Court decisions should prompt us to think deeply about the legacy of the document we celebrate each Independence Day. While peppered with Jefferson’s stirring phrases (“When in the course of human events,” “self-evident” truths, and pledges of “our sacred honor”), the document, when issued, had but one purpose: “to dissolve the political bands” that bound the colonies to Great Britain. The Declaration created America as a self-governing democracy. That identity is currently under threat.
Americans love to repeat that “No one is above the law,” but that mantra is hardly unique to us. Every functioning society needs a set of rules. Unless those rules apply to everyone, the society will ultimately disintegrate. Our uniqueness was welded into the structure of our government by the Declaration that founded an open-ended nation in which every citizen would have a voice. (“Citizen,” of course, referred to an exclusive club in 1776; nevertheless the definition of that term expanded over time. But that is another story….)
The Declaration stated simply that every citizen belongs to a political community founded on independence and self-rule. From the moment of creation, Americans pledged to live under the laws of its elected rulers rather than as subjects of an unelected authority. It is our relationship to each other that generates our laws, animates public life, and defines us as a democracy. We behave because we know misbehavior is counterproductive. We respect one another because mutual acceptance is an alternative to rancor and conflict. We solve problems—often slowly and clumsily—together. We cannot go our separate ways. We are all in this together.
Our revolutionary ancestors discovered the power of political community two centuries ago when they rallied their fellow colonists to reject the rule of a distant king. While cloaked in legal language and asserted through formal petitions and appeals to human rights, the activists opposing British rule—whether in the form of stamps, tea taxes, military orders, or imperial vetoes—had one objective: to establish governments that ruled themselves. The prospect of this self-rule electrified the citizenry. It drew together cities and towns; northerners and southerners; Catholics and Protestants; English speakers and their German, Dutch, and French-speaking neighbors. (By the way that same electricity is on display today in Ukraine where a large and divided country endures merciless attacks in a quest for self-government.) The goal of self-rule in America fueled public fervor throughout the colonies’ war with Great Britain.
We now occupy an odd moment. The Supreme Court has announced that a web of legal theories binds us to a set of abstract principles, preventing the popular will from shaping national life. Logic in the court has created confusion in our streets. Women may not control their bodies. Communities may not banish deadly weapons from public places. Colleges and universities may not address structural racism in their admissions policies. Student debts—money owed the United States—may not be forgiven. Citizens may be denied commercial freedom because of their sexual orientation. Acting swiftly and with stunning ambition, the Justices have marked off areas where self-government shall not function.
We may have entered a new chapter in our history, a time when the laws above us force us to behave in prescribed ways. A remote and unelected power is seeking to shape our community life. But it need not succeed. Living together, and sharing a commitment to our democracy, we should cast off these new shackles just as we cast off the shackles of slavery, the damage wrought by unfettered free-enterprise, the straitjacket of segregation, and the intimidation of the Soviet Union.
We are so many, and our society is so diverse and dynamic, that a small, unelected (and apparently corrupt) body of judges should not be able to accomplish what George III could not. Living together under the nation’s democratic institutions, we cannot allow overreaching judges to bully us into accepting “laws” from on high.
We have known for more than two centuries that—for good or ill—our nation is so large and diverse that it functions best when acting as a community, a political entity living under the law. We are a community of neighbors, if not brothers and sisters. Our definition of citizenship has expanded dramatically over the past 250 years and our constitution has generally adapted to new circumstances. Nevertheless, just as in 1776, we are by definition bound together in a single, self-governing community by “our sacred honor.” It is only by accepting one another and embracing our task as members of a lively democracy that we can adopt effective rules for ourselves. And it is only by accepting our differences that we can forge a united pathway forward.