Originally published by The Hill, July 4, 2018.
Celebrating our nation’s independence in 2018 offers an opportunity to consider the path of our history — to take a look back and to take a look forward.
Our first and perhaps greatest leader, George Washington, did the same shortly after he became president in 1789. The points he made and challenges he set for the country have as much resonance today as they did when he framed them.
Washington developed his thoughts on the path of America in correspondence he wrote to the religious believers of our nation at the time he began his presidency. In thanking the people of various congregations — Jewish, Protestant and Catholic — for their well wishes upon his election, Washington took the time to draft letters that perhaps had a little more thought behind them than our average email or text penned in the hurly-burly of today’s world.
First, in writing the Hebrew congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, he reflected on how the nation had emerged from “difficulty and danger” to days of “uncommon prosperity and security.” Washington noted that prosperity and security demanded “wisdom [on the part of its government] to make the best use” of those advantages to secure “liberty” for its citizens and to “tolerate” that liberty — not tolerate as an “indulgence of one class of people” for another, like a British aristocrat considering a commoner, but as a “natural right” for all, which gave “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
And is this not true even today? We are all called, year over year, decade upon decade, to examine ourselves, both individually and collectively, to ensure America is a place that gives “bigotry no sanction,” and which refuses to persecute others because of their station in life. We do this in little ways — when we refuse to let our children bully others, or when we offer a helping hand to the unemployed, a newly-arrived immigrant or an unwed pregnant mother — and in big ways, such as when our government ensures that regardless of race or religious creed, we can find work free of unlawful discrimination.
Next, in writing to the Baptists of Virginia, Washington promised, implicitly on behalf of the government, to protect their First Amendment rights, but he asked in return that the congregation act as “faithful supporters of a free, yet efficient general government.”
Our government generally strives to protect the First Amendment rights of all Americans with the assistance of a vigilant citizenry, who stand ready to remind the government of the people’s rights when the government appears to forget. And just as Washington asked the Virginian Baptists to support a “free, yet efficient general government,” Americans of all stripes support their government — although perhaps there is a yearning to see an improvement in its efficiency and administration.
Finally, in writing to the members of a Catholic church, Washington expressed his hope for the future “to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice.” Two hundred plus years later, the world confirms that those who followed in Washington’s footsteps as our leaders have made it so.
The rest of the world envies the manner in which our country provides justice. Some of our Supreme Court justices travel abroad each summer to teach courses on the American system of justice. Our law professors often do the same. The people expect the leaders of the three branches of government to observe the norms our Founding Fathers put in place, and that our later leaders such as President Abraham Lincoln observed and updated to better provide justice to all.
This effort to obtain justice does not remain static, and Washington, D.C., does not drive the effort; we, the people, press to ensure our government administers justice each and every day. We may quarrel about what justice is in any particular circumstance, but all Americans of good faith fight for their beliefs about justice because they want to see a great country become only greater. Our good fortune, handed down to us by those who came before, allows us to ensure that the country lives up to the rights recognized in our Constitution and its amendments, including the Bill of Rights.
Lastly, Washington challenged the Catholics to whom he was writing to “not forget the patriotic part” of citizenry.
And that is why we celebrate today.
Mark Miller is a senior attorney for Pacific Legal Foundation, which litigates nationwide to achieve court victories enforcing the Constitution’s guarantee of individual liberty.