One of syndicated columnist George Will’s many lamentations about any changes having occurred since the Gilded Age is that progressives are wreaking havoc with “natural law” upon which the Constitution was supposedly framed. Conservatives such as Will employ notions like immutability, strict constructionism and “originalism” to thwart democratic changes they don’t like.
But asserting some unalterable principles pre-exist society is rhetorical subterfuge employed to coat subjective opinion with the patina of universality. It requires an endless array of ludicrous suppositions such as God must be a small “d” democrat and that the ultimate purpose of His creation is free enterprise capitalism.
Conservatives love to ascribe what is for what was meant to be. But is there really an innate impulse for freedom, privacy and ownership over, say, authority, collaboration and collectivism? Or does our comfort with Western values like individualism simply make it seem that way? For instance, private property was unknown in numerous civilizations throughout history and dynastic, religious or familial ascendancy over the individual is what’s considered natural in some social orders.
As societies progress from tribalism through theocracies and autocracies to nationalism and ultimately humanism, what constitutes human dignity and therefore human rights changes. Once slaves were considered property and women were treated as chattel. A time will come when full social justice and economic opportunity won’t depend on connections, influence, status and “membership.” This is simply social evolution in action not some concocted natural rules.
Most Americans believe the Revolution was a democratic uprising of people asserting their God-given rights against despotism. In reality it was simply the transfer of power from one set of elites to another.
The new elites, including the Founding Fathers, were wealthy merchants, large landowners and slaveholders. They chose to protect those aspects of British nobility that served their best interests like the sanctity of private property and upper-class privilege. Hence they gave us an appointed upper chamber and presidential electors and restricted the vote to white, male property owners, then about 15 percent of the population, so as to distance governance from the rabble. Most of the people who fought for independence weren’t allowed to vote. How does that square with Will’s assertion the Constitution is the consummation of natural law?
Sure the Founders gussied up their pamphleteering with terms from the European Enlightenment like “self-evident truths” and “unalienable rights” but remember while the Declaration of Independence is a moving and essential document in our history it was also a marketing appeal to those yet uncommitted to rebellion, many of them commoners susceptible to promises of egalitarianism.
This nation’s founding was an incredible step on the path of human advancement but it was just a step not the finale. Conservatives detest the idea that constitutional rights “evolve” with changing public sentiment but that’s exactly what has happened for tenants, blacks, women, the disabled and currently illegal immigrants and gays and lesbians.
Much to conservatives’ dismay, the “rabble” has been democratizing the nation since 1789 and their job is not over.
Marty Moore is a freelance writer living in Port Richey.