Kim Fischer had a bone to pick with historians. As a high school social studies teacher, he claimed our war for independence should not be referred to as a revolution. He used his invented umbrage to teach us about Enlightenment ideas that formed the basis of our Declaration of Independence and then our United States Constitution.
We loved hearing him accuse Thomas Jefferson of plagiarism, lifting John Locke’s century-old phrase that government should protect its citizens’ “life, liberty and property.” We silently cheered when he insisted that democracy came from the Greeks, and that a representative republic was also not original with us.
Those high school civics lessons have echoed through my head for over four decades. It’s taken this long to believe I could hold my own on the other side of his argument. The founding of this country was indeed revolutionary, and it may be easily unraveled by our own righteousness.
Jefferson swapped Locke’s idea that government should protect our property with our pursuit of happiness. The argument can be made — I’ve made it — that happiness lacks any self-limiting markers. If King George III had too much property, he would and did eventually lose some of it — but nothing can be done about anyone having too much happiness. American excesses have inevitably accrued since Jefferson edited Locke.
I have no such umbrage — invented or not — to take with James Madison. He worried that the United States Constitution was a marvelous implementation of the ideals woven into the Declaration of Independence, but that those “inalienable rights” should have been articulated again and included in that founding document.
Washington led the fight for a new country. Jefferson crafted a new form of government. But Madison, the youngest of the three, envisioned a new kind of society. His Bill of Rights has been our foundation for what we expect and how we treat one another.
Just a divided government has checks and balances, so too do our rights compete and constrain themselves. The First Amendment’s freedoms must not supplant the fourth or the sixth. Fischer always told his students, “There’s no mystery to history — everything’s connected.”
Events and ideas are connected, and so are people.
One of our neighbors again did something that most of us would not condone. A few months ago, it was blackface at a Halloween party. Now it’s two school administrators talking trash about former students.
I’m not here to defend those choices or those actions, but I will defend those people, because they are no different than me and no different than us. As one of the culprits admitted in an apology to the community, he’s “a human being, flawed and not infallible.”
Administrative rules may have shown these two administrators the door if they hadn’t found it on their own when they quit last week. The woman with blackface will likewise face internal discipline by her employer — following due process. Maybe all of them have had the opportunity to face their accusers in private. We don’t know who took the photographs or why. Those matters are out of our hands.
Here’s what’s not out of our hands: how we respond.
Our founding fathers agreed that the Constitution was not complete if it only articulated the rule of law. The aspirational language about how we should expect to be treated — by the government and by one another — was just as important.
John Locke’s 1679 essay was entitled, “Second Treatise Concerning Civil Government.” He published it anonymously, fearing reprisal from government authorities. Madison penned our Bill of Rights and published in American newspapers his arguments with Alexander Hamilton about how they should be understood.
The Federalist Papers gave Americans a clear picture of their leaders pushing past simple democracy to a civil society, where the rights of every individual is guaranteed. “Majority rules” had to be understood as necessary but not sufficient — a good starting point, but only that.
Accepting or condoning any mob mentality — even for a righteous cause — is to miss the truly revolutionary convictions of our founders. Madison and Jefferson and Washington would not be pleased, to say nothing of Fischer.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.