Earlier this week I wrote a column questioning why our contemporary political discourse makes so little reference to the common good. The United States was the first nation in human history that acknowledged humanity itself to be the formal premise for the common identity of the people who comprised it. The Declaration of Independence makes the unalienable rights God endows to all humanity the standard of just government. Upholding it, the American people rebelled against British rule. During the Constitution's ratification debates, our first patriots repeatedly referred to the principles derived from this standard as the touchstone in light of which constitutional provisions were frame and have to be understood.
Because of this standard, the Constitution extends to all persons (not just to all citizens) the requirements and constraints intended to assure the just administration of the laws it prescribes. Ironically, the stupidly maligned reference to "3/5s of all other persons," originally included in the Constitution's formula for each state's representation in the House of Representatives, actually affirms the personhood of the enslaved blacks to whom it mostly refers. Thus, though excluded from citizenship, they were "persons" nonetheless, entitled to benefit from the legal protections and constraints upon government the Constitution sets forth. So, for example, even prior to the Civil War, the Africans involved in revolt aboard the schooner Amistad had their day in court.
Clearly, the reference to "liberty and justice for all" at the end of the Pledge of Allegiance is not restricted to all citizens, or all inhabitants of the United States. It refers to all persons, i.e., to all who represent the common characteristics of humanity. Of course, like all standards of right, the actual application of this standard was the subject of great contention, including civil war, throughout our history. But that contention precisely verifies the importance and efficacy of the standard, which was the rallying point for every great crusade for justice in our nation's history. We are all familiar with the rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr., that it crucially, and effectively, informed.
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It was effective because, whatever the deep injustices that bedeviled America's social and economic practices, the standard of right, endowed by God to all humanity, was seeded into the nation's heart, and deeply rooted there, spreading throughout like the veins and arteries that nourish the heart of our body politic. It troubled the conscience and inspired the outrage of good people in every generation, providing a persistent counterweight to the motives of greed, ambition and fearful bigotry that impelled and sustained racist slavery and xenophobic discrimination. Americans were no better, and often worse, than they ought to be. But the standard continually gave grounds for courageous decency to remind the nation of its higher vocation.
People who readily decry our past as a long history of "hypocrisy" must be reminded that hypocrisy is, as Francois de La Rochefoucauld said, "a homage that vice pays to virtue." Homage implies respect, and the acknowledgment of superior worth. Thanks to the understanding plainly stated in the Declaration of Independence, Americans fighting for "justice for all" have always relied upon incontrovertible proof that this was the intention of the standard that informed our nation's identity, and motivated the sacrifice of blood so many plain and simple Americans have offered in the battles that not only preserved our nation, but lifted it to global influence and power.
The wartime speeches of all the presidents who have ordered the troops called upon to make that sacrifice resound with the theme of justice and rights, including liberty. Periods of existential threat were, therefore, also times when people of good conscience could challenge us to meet the standard for which our compatriots risked and often sacrificed their lives. This surely contributed to the success of the push, in the 1950s and '60s, to end law-enforced segregation and racial discrimination.
All this makes it easy to know what has always epitomized the common good of our nation. At the beginning, Madison wrote that "justice is the end of government; it is the end of civil society. It has been, and ever will be pursued, until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit." So, the simple words of the pledge accurately reflect the common ground of our aspiration – liberty and justice. These have been the themes of all the great advances we have made, more than any material goods, measure our progress as a nation. But who have been the subjects of our struggles along the way? Because ours is supposed to be a government of, by and for the people, our people have been the matter and the makers of our progress. People by what name? By every name in the catalogue of our humanity – every race, color and birthplace; every putative class, religion, conviction and creed. All have come to answer to the name we have in common. All have fought to fulfill the promise of justice and right, including liberty, held out, in our name, to all humanity.
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Each demands it for themselves, and little by little expands the place where that demand is met. But in the clamor for justice to the nations, races and creeds, one by one advancing, we are each called to acknowledge the standard that obliges us to give way to the demand of others. As we gain our footing in this nation of nations – this people of many peoples – we are challenged to ponder the nature of the people we seek to persuade. We are challenged to articulate the hope we feel that they should understand; the good we seek that they too ought to cherish; and the obligation to act that we are bound to fulfill, and that they also are bound to honor, even at the cost of life itself.
Thus, in demanding justice for ourselves, we discover its meaning for others, and in that discovery trace out the lineaments of what we all have in common. This common ground is not all that we are, or hope to be. But it is that which we see in ourselves and are also capable of seeing in others. We cannot force others to see all matters of right as we do. But we can lend our support to enforcing the views of right we have in common. We cannot, all together, give to others, in every respect, the worth they demand. But we can demand that, in respect of what gives worth to all humanity, we all will give all that we must to secure it, while leaving room for the quality of human being that allows us to understand that what humanity is due is not all that we are capable of cherishing.
The terms of our nation's founding allow us to put it simply: Human justice is what we can see, with our own eyes, as the treatment due to our humanity. But our understanding of ourselves is not enough to satisfy the understanding of God. He sees Himself in us. He therefore calls upon us to rise above our nature, by way of the wholesome union in His will that raises possibilities in us that we cannot see by and for ourselves. As humans, we are called to live by the law of our nature. But as children of God we are called to live up to the standard of our Creator, whose righteousness transcends the call of our humanity, answering to that of all Creation. All are called, but God knows how many or few will answer. Public law must therefore maintain a preserve of privacy in which we answer to God in our own way, enforcing it upon no other; and into which we invite all who see such things just as we do. Thus, we will do justice each to each, but also to the whole we all comprise, just as God intends.
Media wishing to interview Alan Keyes, please contact [email protected].
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