This week’s holiday celebrates the purity of democracy in America, but last week’s Supreme Court decisions demonstrated its complexity. The protection of marriage benefits for same-gendered couples was, in Governor Deval Patrick’s words, “a victory for America.” The overturning of part of the Voting Rights Act was, in the words of US Representative John Lewis, “a dagger in the heart” of what he and other civil rights leaders fought for. As rights were expanded in one direction, they were constricted in another. What would Thomas Jefferson say?
Especially on the Fourth of July, the Declaration of Independence is hallowed as the founding American scripture. President John Kennedy famously honored its author at a dinner for Nobel laureates by saying that never had so much genius gathered at the White House “since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Others had made contributions to the Declaration, but Jefferson gave the revolutionary statement its immortal cadence and content. The appeal to God — “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” — made human rights a matter of divine right. The holding of “truths to be self-evident” cloaked truth itself in an absolutism not to be denied. The Declaration, in “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” and with its “firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence,” promotes American exceptionalism.
Rarely had rhetoric carried an ideal so far toward its realization. But in light of what the recent Supreme Court rulings reveal, perhaps the Declaration of Independence projects a nation unlike the one in which Americans actually live.
Since JFK’s tribute — and partly because of the witness of heroes like John Lewis — Thomas Jefferson has been knocked from the pedestal, with shadows also falling on the Declaration itself. Slavery was its unspoken word, and its glorification of liberty is sullied by the narrow meaning of “all men.” Jefferson himself harbored a moral objection to slavery: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between slave and master is despotism.” Despotism is one of the charges leveled in the Declaration’s indictment of “the present King of Britain,” but as Jefferson well knew, none of that “tyrant’s . . . repeated injuries and usurpations” held a candle to what slaves routinely suffered. His hypocrisy was both private — Sally Hemings — and public, with his complicity in the wicked institution.
Yet the Declaration of Independence is not the only founding American scripture. The other is the US Constitution, which, coming more than a decade later, can be read not just as a completion of the Declaration but as a correction. While the Declaration claims a divine right, the Constitution never mentions God. Truths are not “self-evident,” but debatable. If the Declaration enshrines the genius of one man, the Constitution was created by multiple committees, through an arduous communal process of give and take.
The Constitution pursues not perfection, which is impossible, but the “more perfect,” which always beckons.
Yes, the Constitution protected slavery, in significant part because of Jefferson’s cowardice about confronting the issue as the nation defined itself. It grotesquely counted slaves as three-fifths of a human being for purposes of congressional representation. But the Constitution also put in place the mechanism of change, so that even slavery could be abolished by amendment. That the Union survived a horrible war over the question testifies to the Constitution’s strength.
This, the second American scripture, does not assume an “exceptional” nation especially favored by Divine Providence. On the contrary, the Constitution takes for granted that the people it protects are flawed, and that their government must be hemmed in by checks and balances, the separation of powers, the federal tension between margin and center. The institutions of power carry their own built-in systems of self-criticism and improvement. The Constitution pursues not perfection, which is impossible, but the “more perfect,” which always beckons.
So with last week’s court rulings, the United States of America was acting like itself. If voting rights were set back, constitutional remedies are available and will be advanced. The judicial branch must again be corrected by the legislative branch. If gay rights were affirmed, still they must be further shored up, because the debate over equality is unending. The nation’s progress toward justice — as all of this shows — is halting and unfinished. But even that, given the human condition, is to America’s glory.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.