Two hundred thirty-six years ago, the nation's founders wrote that equality, certain God-given unalienable rights and the need for a government that derives its power from the people were "self-evident" truths. That remarkable Declaration of Independence later served as the basis for a Constitution that enumerated those rights and set up a government to protect them while allowing the nation to prosper.
All these years later, the nation continues to argue endlessly over the limits of the powers that Constitution granted to the government. It has been that way almost from the very beginning. The Supreme Court regularly weighs in and moves the line one way or another. It did so last week by deciding that the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate is acceptable as a tax, but not under the Constitution's clause that allows Congress to regulate commerce. It did so by deciding a law prohibiting people from lying about their military record ran afoul of the First Amendment's freedom of speech clause, and when it ruled that states cannot set up their own laws to punish people for violating federal immigration statutes.
The court rarely ends these arguments, even though governments must abide by its decisions. The battles continue to rage. Generally, one side believes the Constitution ought to be interpreted as to the original intent of the founders, and the other sides believes it should be interpreted in light of the conditions and thoughts of current times.
The remarkable thing, however, is that virtually everyone in the debate, except for a few fringe voices, proclaims reverence for the document itself. Few voices call for scuttling the Constitution and writing a new one.
That's not the case in every country. It speaks highly of the wisdom and foresight of the founders.
So does the peaceful transfer of power that happens after an election, when incumbents who lose graciously step down and make way for those who won the approval of the electorate. This, too, is owed to the founders. George Washington's choice to voluntarily leave office after two terms astounded many observers. Britain's King George III reportedly said that if Washington voluntarily stepped down, he would be "the greatest man in the world." Voluntarily relinquishing power is among the rarest of acts for a leader, given the long narrative of world history. But because of Washington's precedent, Americans take it for granted.
The nation's gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan and its decision to return Iraq to its own government are two more rarities this nation takes for granted. The United States does not conquer to occupy, rule or colonize. It conquers, as Francis Scott Key's "Star-Spangled Banner" says, "When our cause it is just." Then it helps those who are conquered to rebuild and establish a peaceful government.
These are all reasons for Americans to pause today and give thanks. The Fourth of July is a time for revelry and celebration. It also should be a time for quiet reflection and honor — for those who founded its guiding principles, for those who gave their lives to preserve it, for those who honor it daily through good citizenship and for the God who inspired its establishment and continues to bless it.
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