Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Honoring America’s constitutional heritage on MLK Day

by Jeffrey Sikkenga, Ashbrook Executive Director

Originally published in the Washington Times.

These are tough times. Despite the welcome arrival of vaccines, the pandemic still rages on for now. Political strife continues. Public trust is at all time lows.

We need hope. Real hope. But where can we find it?

When Martin Luther King. Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, he found hope in the words of our American Founders. As he said: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

In drawing strength from our Founding, Dr. King was following in the footsteps of a great American, who, like King, saw a bright future for our country – if we stay true to our Founding principles.

Frederick Douglass was born enslaved in Talbot County Maryland in 1818. Through his own persistence, he learned to read and dreamed of a better life as a free person. He courageously escaped from slavery in 1838 and eventually became one of the most famous abolitionists of his day. He fiercely condemned the injustice of slavery and, through his own story of his life, exposed the horrors of the slave system.

Douglass had every reason to be bitter against America. But he wasn’t. Unlike some other abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass did not denounce the Founders’ Constitution as “an agreement with Hell.” Nor did he join Garrison in telling Americans to split the Union apart over slavery.

Even in the darkest times, Douglass never gave into the demoralizing and divisive belief that America is evil or permanently stained by injustice. Instead, he declared that “[t]here is in the Constitution no East, no West, no North, no South, no black, no white, no slave, no slaveholder; but all are citizens who are of American birth.” Douglass knew that we Americans are “one people”, as the Declaration of Independence puts it, as long as we continue to share the fundamental principles of self-government inherited from our Founding. The only problem, according to Douglass, “is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution.”

Douglass was a patriot but also a radical. He called for the immediate abolition of slavery and embraced voting rights for all citizens regardless of their color or sex. But he was a radical for American principles, not against them. He believed that the country would achieve real unity and make true progress only if we extended our Founding principles of equality, liberty, consent of the governed, and the rule of law to all people. Douglass knew that these principles give us real hope.

That’s still true today. Even in these tough times, we can be “one people” if we embrace our shared principles from the Founding.

But we can’t embrace what we don’t know or even reject. Unfortunately, too many Americans – especially young people – do not understand or feel devotion to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution that inspired Frederick Douglass.  Too many of them do not study these great documents – even worse, too many have been taught that the Declaration and Constitution are monuments of oppression, not “glorious liberty document[s]”, as Douglass described them.

To remedy this deep problem, we need to improve the content and quality of American history and civics education. Schools need to let students discover the truth about America for themselves by turning away from textbooks, which are boring or biased — or both. Schools need to bring American history alive by going back to the primary sources themselves. If students study the words of great Americans like Frederick Douglass, they can once again “have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution.”

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let’s follow the example of Frederick Douglass and recommit ourselves to restoring the principles of our Founding to their rightful place in the hearts and minds of all Americans.  Then we can have true hope as one people in whom there is “no East, no West, no North, no South” – one people united by the very same principles that have sustained Americans since our Founding.

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