It’s been 225 years since America’s Founders shook their fists in the face of tyranny by signing the Declaration of Independence on a hot summer day in Philadelphia. What began as a few simple pen strokes for 56 men has become the most important experiment in freedom that humanity has ever witnessed.
For those 56 men, however, their stand for freedom against oppressive government was more than a mere statement of principles. As the last sentence in the Declaration proclaims: “And, for the support of this declaration, with firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” Thus, to the signers it was a life-and-death situation. And because their names appeared on the Declaration, many were persecuted and lost their lives; these brave souls were willing to sacrifice everything for the right to govern themselves in a land where freedom, not tyranny, would be the rule.
But would our Founding Fathers, those brave men who preferred death to life without liberty, recognize today’s America? Is the Founding Fathers’ America still alive today?
In some ways, the answer is definitely “yes.” In a recent decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government may not use advanced technologies to peer into private homes from the outside. The court based its decision on the Founding Fathers’ goal of protecting the inner sanctum of the home, a principle that is still true today, even though the Founders never could have anticipated the incredible advances in technology we enjoy – and also fear – today.
The achievements of the World War II generation provide another example. These brave men and women stood up to tyranny and risked their lives to ensure that freedom and democracy would not become a historical footnote. The Founding Fathers would definitely have recognized such selfless courage.
But, in many other ways, the answer would have to be “no.” This isn’t always negative. America today is the lone superpower in the world, clearly the most dominant nation economically, militarily and culturally. The Founders’ America was struggling just to survive in a world filling with competing superpowers overseas. But it’s hard to imagine that they would be distressed at the achievements of their republic.
In addition, the United States has eliminated slavery and is working hard, for the most part, to ensure equal rights for every American, regardless of their race. While some Founders abhorred slavery, the Constitution recognized it, and there was no firm indication that it would end of its own accord. Thus, Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder, wouldn’t recognize racial relations in today’s America, nor would we want him to.
Yet the answer to whether the Founders would recognize today’s America is too often negative. Today, the federal government invades our lives in ways unimaginable to the founding generation. Lifetime federal employees entrenched in Washington have more control over our daily lives than any 19th century monarch ever did over his subjects. The Founders, who considered monarchies their archenemy, would certainly be distressed at this turn of events.
Questions of corruption in high office have plagued America in recent years. Bill Clinton, embroiled in a sex scandal and investigated by a federal grand jury, lied to a federal judge, was impeached and nearly lost his presidency. Venerable agencies such as the FBI have come under attack for hiding evidence and for SWAT team activities that have cost numerous lives. Most certainly these, among other examples of government abuse, would have shocked the Founders.
Our court system, in many ways, has abandoned the principles that guided the founding generation. Although the first Congress provided for a paid chaplain and many Founders endorsed Christian education for young people, the court system for years has decided cases that many believe are hostile to religious expression. The momentum, however, has shifted somewhat in recent times. For example, the Supreme Court recently affirmed the right of a Christian student club to use public school facilities after school hours.
But decisions like this one that protect religious expression have done so under the free speech clause, rather than the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Why? Because 10 years ago the same Supreme Court practically eviscerated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. Only in extremely rare situations is it of any use to a religious person whose beliefs are under attack from the government.
The Founding Fathers were well aware of the danger from government hostility toward religion. James Madison was shocked to see Baptist preachers in jail for failing to comply with rules against proselytizing. So Madison and his founding colleagues made sure that the First Amendment protected religious exercise. They would certainly be dismayed at its loss.
On this 225th birthday of America, as Bob Dylan once sang, “things have changed.” Some have been for the better, some for the worse. This Independence Day, take a moment to look around and contemplate how our Founding Fathers would perceive the world around you. And where appropriate, work to make their vision a reality, so that we can finally realize the dream of the Declaration of Independence and its promise of true freedom.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute, editor of Gadfly Online and author of “Grasping for the Wind” (Zondervan Publishing House, May 2001).