The thing I love most about America is that our existential premises are radical, unrealistic, revolutionary ideals. Before 1776, the world’s borders were drawn by conquest and its peoples were categorized by ancestry, ethnicity, religion, or language. On July 4th of that year the Continental Congress of Great Britain’s American colonies announced a change of course in our Declaration of Independence: “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.”
At the time, this was a flatly incorrect statement. Dirisible, even. When the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham dismissed natural rights as “nonsense upon stilts,” he was stating an empirical fact. Although other philosophers of the Enlightenment were advocating the idea that people have intrinsic rights to freedom, equality, and justice, such rights were rarely observed or asserted, much less enforced. That being the case, the Declaration of Independence changed the world. The founders of our country simply asserted that natural rights are self-evident truths, and went on to enshrine that belief in the Constitution—the document that defines who we are as a people, and precludes a lot of the old definitions.
Because Americans are people and ideals are abstractions, we’ve continuously fallen short of our own lofty standards and we will inevitably continue to do so. The Declaration of Independence was also a declaration of dominion over a long-inhabited land. The Constitution that sets out to secure the blessings of liberty secured human slavery too. Even if we could be perfect, the principles themselves leave us with some sticky wickets: liberty and equality aren’t mutually exclusive, but they occasionally throw elbows at each other.
But our continued progress is equally inevitable. By setting the bar too high to actually reach we committed ourselves to endless trying. And so during Reconstruction, for example, we ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, which makes explicit certain principles that had clearly been implied but chronically ignored, including that all Americans have a right to due process and equal protection under the law. Just last week the Supreme Court invoked the former clause in striking down the remaining state bans to legal gay marriage. Personally, I’ve been under the impression that Texas’s constitutional amendment banning gay marriage violated the equal protection clause, and law professor Jonathan Turley raises some concerns about invoking due process in this context that seem pretty plausible. But that’s okay. After a few days of saber-rattling on the right, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quietly conceded on the overarching legal question. Once again, that is, the Constitution of the United States took precedence. Further legal challenges are ultimately bound to yield the same result.
Since we embarked on this nonsensical journey in 1776, we’ve proven time and time again that forming a more perfect union is an iterative process. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back. But the better angels of our nature are our backstop and will prevail. Happy Independence Day, Texans! I hope everyone’s enjoying a safe and happy holiday, especially my young friend Wesley Ruple, who’s getting married this evening (to a woman, as it is indeed his right to do) and LaMarcus Aldridge, who is heading home to Texas to join the San Antonio Spurs.