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Posts Tagged ‘Declaration of Independence’

Creating America’s Freedoms in the Limelight

With all the news reporting on the major changes in healthcare legislation and reform, some may have missed the newest decision analyzing the 1st Amendment.  I am not a constitutional scholar, but I do want to highlight this particular decision because of it close proximity to the Fourth of July.

You may ask yourself why there is any relation between the two.  Well first, let’s remember what the Fourth of July really stands for: Independence Day. No, not the Will Smith blockbuster.  The Fourth of July is a federal holiday that celebrates the adoption of the Declaration of the Independence on July 4, 1776 and the rights that were conferred onto the new colonies at America’s creation.

According to the National Archives, “drafted by Thomas Jefferson between June 11 and June 28, 1776, the Declaration of Independence is at once the nation’s most cherished symbol of liberty and Jefferson’s most enduring monument. Here, in exalted and unforgettable phrases, Jefferson expressed the convictions in the minds and hearts of the American people. The political philosophy of the Declaration was not new; its ideals of individual liberty had already been expressed by John Locke and the Continental philosophers. What Jefferson did was to summarize this philosophy in “self-evident truths” and set forth a list of grievances against the King in order to justify before the world the breaking of ties between the colonies and the mother country.”

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “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, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

With these words, many questions have grown.  What are self-evident truths?  What is liberty? What is freedom? Where does freedom come from? What is the difference between freedom and liberty? Is liberty a license to do whatever ‘I want” whenever ‘I want to’? To learn more, read Michael P. Zuchert’s article, “Self-Evident Truth and the Declaration of Independence” published in The Review of Politics.

The Declaration of Independence has been interpreted in wildly different ways throughout its lifespan.  Here are a few of the articles that might shed more light on the intent and construction behind the Declaration of Independence.

One of the liberties, which we do know fairly clearly, that the founders wanted to ensure with the new country is the Freedom of Religion.  To learn more on this topic read “Religious Freedom and the First Self-Evident Truth: Equality as a Guiding Principle in Interpreting The Religion Clauses” by Jay Alan Sekulow, James Matthew Henderson, & Kevin Broyles – 4 Wm. & Mary Bill Rts. J. 351 (1995-1996.).

Others came out in the development of the Bill of Rights, specifically the First Amendment. According to the National Archives, “during the debates on the adoption of the Constitution, its opponents repeatedly charged that the Constitution as drafted would open the way to tyranny by the central government. Fresh in their minds was the memory of the British violation of civil rights before and during the Revolution. They demanded a ‘bill of rights’ that would spell out the immunities of individual citizens. Several state conventions in their formal ratification of the Constitution asked for such amendments; others ratified the Constitution with the understanding that the amendments would be offered.”

“On September 25, 1789, the First Congress of the United States therefore proposed to the state legislatures 12 amendments to the Constitution that met arguments most frequently advanced against it. The first two proposed amendments, which concerned the number of constituents for each Representative and the compensation of Congressmen, were not ratified. Articles 3 to 12, however, ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures, constitute the first 10 amendments of the Constitution, known as the ‘Bill of Rights’.”  The First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  And even though this was drafted in 1789, we’re still seeing its power today.

In last week’s Supreme Court decision, United States v. Alvarez, Justice Kennedy wrote, “Lying was his habit.  Xavier Alvarez, the respondent here, lied when he said that he played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and that he once married a starlet from Mexico. But when he lied in announcing he held the Congressional Medal of Honor, respondent ventured onto new ground; for that lie violates a federal criminal statute, the Stolen Valor Act of 2005.  18 U. S. C. §704.”  However, the court found “when content-based speech regulation is in question, however, exacting scrutiny is required.  Statutes suppressing or restricting speech must be judged by the sometimes inconvenient principles of the First Amendment. By this measure, the statutory provisions under which respondent was convicted must be held invalid, and his conviction must be set aside.” And with the last words that “the Nation well knows that one of the costs of the First Amendment is that it protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace,” the court found that “though few might find respondent’s statements anything but contemptible, his right to make those statements is protected by the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech and expression.”  These protections being the same principles that were born in the Declaration of Independence.

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