As we celebrate our independence this July Fourth, let’s reflect on the reason for our celebration; the creation of a nation based on a new idea for government, one that guarantees every citizen personal power and freedom.
For 6,000 years, civilization had been ruled by kings, theocrats, or feudal lords. Kings ruled by threat of violence and continual warfare; theocrats ruled by the people’s fear of God; and feudal lords ruled by controlling wealth and keeping the majority in poverty.
The idea of our Founders was to replace all of these historic tyrannies with a new way: people ruling themselves, a government that derived its legitimacy solely from the approval of its citizens. They called it a republican democracy, meaning a representative government elected by the people. The Declaration of Independence granted Americans freedom from tyrannical British rule, but the U.S. Constitution granted freedom from internal tyranny.
The Constitution and its first 10 amendments, called the Bill of Rights, provide insight into the concerns and intentions of those leaders who drafted it. Much of these documents is dedicated to solving the fundamental problem of avoiding excessive or unbalanced concentrations of power.
The Founders knew the potential for corruption of power, so the Constitution is the system of fundamental laws and principles that prescribes the nature, functions, and limits of the government. It is the contract that guarantees our right to freedom, not from foreign oppressors, but from tyranny by our own government. Elected officials must take an oath to support the Constitution of the United States.
Our Founders were inspired in part by the ideas of John Locke. In “The Second Treatise of Civil Government,” in 1690, he wrote that the “freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to everyone of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it. A liberty to follow my own will in all things where that rule prescribes not, not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man.”
Our right to move freely, to assemble peaceably, to petition the government for redress of grievances, to keep and bear arms, to express or publish our opinions, to practice our religion, and to be secure in one’s person, house, papers, vehicle, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, are the fundamental aspects of our freedom.
America’s political freedom contributes to the nation’s low incidence of internal terrorism. When opportunities to create peaceful change are available, people are less likely to turn to violence.
The Constitution itself provides for the amendment of its laws. The Amendments giving voting rights to minorities such as African Americans and women were initiated not by the government, but by the people. Political activists organized, assembled and lobbied to have the laws changed.
Without the rights allowed by the Constitution, these people’s movements for social justice might not have been possible, which is why it’s important for all citizens to know their rights and to safeguard their freedoms.
To afford Americans a richer understanding of their constitutional heritage, the National Constitution Center, opening July 4, 2003, on Philadelphia’s Independence Mall, is the first museum in the world dedicated to honoring and explaining the U.S. Constitution. Through their Web site, http://www.constitutioncenter.org, citizens can read the Constitution and Bill of Rights, learn how to contact their representatives and find out about current issues and impending legislation.
A healthy democracy and the preservation of our freedom depends on citizen awareness and participation, so get informed and get involved!
Sue Gray, a decorative painter and resident of Carbondale, is active with the Roaring Fork Peace Coalition. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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