We the people of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The idea of liberty for all is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States, first as a goal set by the founders in The Preamble, and then by addressing specific freedoms in the amendments.
For instance, the first amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances. The second amendment focuses on the right to bear arms: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
These amendments set a foundation for a broad concept of liberty and have become cornerstones of the idea of America. They specify fundamental rights granted every citizen (either by the Constitution or by Supreme Court decisions) regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or place of national origin.
However, these rights are not absolute. The Constitution makes clear that there are limits. The founders gave Congress the responsibility to enact legislation that governs community life; they gave the President the power to execute the laws; and they established the Supreme Court to adjudicate them. So, it seems to me that the clear intent of the founders was to embrace liberty and specific freedoms, but to put regulators on them in the interest of the “general welfare.”
The Distortion of Constitutionally-Given Freedoms
But today’s political arch-conservatives see it as their absolute right to distort and override the founders’ intent, and to decide who gets the Constitutionally guaranteed first and second amendment freedoms. For example, the second amendment has come to mean that thugs with assault-rifles can parade their weapons around our communities. They claim it is their right to declare themselves a militia, and to put guns in the hands of violent, unstable people.
This is tragically absurd and filled with contradictions. For example, the American conservative movement that fights for broad access to guns, is at the same time trying to ban hundreds of school books because they think the subject matter “threatens” our children. To my knowledge, there haven’t been any children killed or injured in school by Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, while approximately 290,000 children have experienced school gun violence since the Columbine massacre in 1999. A child being shot to death in his/her classroom is certainly not a blessing of liberty or a positive promotion of the general welfare.
In this and many other facets of American life, political conservatives are claiming freedoms to act in ways that endanger our “general welfare.” Another example is the fight to be free from government-issued pandemic protections. It is their right of personal freedom, they say, to reject vaccinations and refuse to wear masks. They protested, sometimes violently, against government actions taken to protect the lives of citizens.
In those protests, many led by armed bullies, a governor’s life was threatened, and national health experts received death threats. If such a movement affected only the protesters, it might have provoked a sad shrug of the shoulders. But the fact is that their personal decision endangers their own family members and thousands of fellow citizens, thus undermining the Constitutional concept of general welfare.
A Clear and Present Danger
I see a clear and present danger facing America from those who distort constitutional rights in a way that endangers the lives of others and threatens the viability of our democracy. But this internal danger is nothing new. John Adams, the second U.S. President, observed that “Democracy never last long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Samuel Adams, one of the nation’s founders wrote, “A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of common enemy.”
And, to close, I turn to a prescient statement from Cotton Mather in 1650: “There is a liberty of corrupt nature, which is affected in both men and beasts, to do what they list; and this liberty is inconsistent with authority, impatient of all restraint. This liberty ‘tis the grand enemy of truth and peace, and all ordinances of God are bent against it. But there is a civil, a moral, a federal liberty, which is the proper end and object of authority. It is a liberty for that only which is just and good; for this liberty you are to stand with hazard of your very lives.” This is the liberty that promotes the general welfare.
Bill Jamieson’s career has included leadership positions in business, government, and education. He was also an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church and his ministry centered around advocacy for low-income families and children.