A Nation of Immigrants: The Constitution, The Bill of Rights, & E Pluribus Unum

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Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightening, and her name
Mother of Exiles.  From her beacon-hand
Glows worldwide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips.  “Give me your tired, your poor,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The New Colossus
By Emma Lazarus
Published November 2, 1883
Inscribed on a Plaque At the Base of The Statue of Liberty, 1903

Racial politics have moved to the foreground over the past few years through movements such as Black Lives Matter and the adoption of ideas espoused by such philosophies as Critical Race Theory in colleges and universities as well as the public schools.  These movements and their leaders focus on equality of outcome and assume other racial groups in the United States are racist due to the either the color of their skin or their ethnic background.  They focus on redistribution of wealth within the society, following the philosophies espoused by former Black leaders, such as Malcolm X.  In addition, they decry any opposition to these policies as racist, in order to forestall public discussion of the policies and how they might impact other minority groups, such as Asians or Hispanics.  As part of this philosophy, these groups have moved to prevent those who oppose their goals from stating their views.  Over the past several years, they have run speakers off stage, moved to suppress the publication of books and articles, and forced the resignations of those who oppose their views by labeling them as racist.

For those not familiar with US history, the United States possesses a long history of suppressing free speech followed by public reaction that expands the freedom of expression.  These vacillations in the approach to freedom of expression relate to the tension between the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution and the political goals of those in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. or hoping to achieve various political goals.  In order to pass the Constitution, the U.S. adopted the Bill of Rights, which includes the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution.  They were written by James Madison, one of the key figures in the victorious American side.  The Bill of Rights focuses on the basic freedoms all Americans should possess that the British continuously violated during the runup to the American Revolution, from the 1750s to the 1770s.  The First Amendment to the Constitution lays out the approach to freedom of expression: 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

It is from this Amendment that the Supreme Court, along with one of the Amendments passed after the Civil War, expanded freedom of expression in the U.S. throughout the late 1800s and into the 20th Century.

The initial actions to suppress speech reach back to the decade after the Constitution was adopted. This occurred through the Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798.  John Adams and the Federalists won the Presidency in 1796.  They wanted to advantage themselves against Thomas Jefferson and the Republican Party.   In order to do this, they enacted four laws.  These laws allowed the government to deport foreign nationals, to extend the time as a resident before citizenship was granted, and to prosecute for sedition those who spoke against the government or opposed any “measure” of the government.  Numerous Republican newspaper publishers and even Congressmen were prosecuted under the Act and thrown in jail for opposing the policies of the Federalists.  The country reacted negatively to these government actions, electing Thomas Jefferson as President in 1800. 

In addition to political attempts to suppress speech, wartime typically led to restrictions on freedom of expression and other liberties.  During the Civil War, President Lincoln famously restricted freedom of the press in order to support the North’s war effort.  This included jailing dissident publishers as well as confiscating and destroying newspapers that published articles opposed to government policy.  If one fast forwards to World War II, the U.S. famously interned Japanese Americans in camps during the war to protect the United States from potential sabotage or spying. 

After World War II, another movement arose to suppress citizens’ freedom of expression.  This came in the form of the anti-Communist movement identified with the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) in the House of Representatives and Senator Joseph McCarthy in the U.S. Senate.  These actions came about due to the famous Alger Hiss spy case.  In this instance, dissenting against the government on communism led to destruction of one’s career.  This became especially true for Hollywood where over 300 people were famously blacklisted.  Eventually, through hearings, it became clear that the government overreached and accused innocent people.  Thus, a huge reversal occurred in personal expression.  This led to the 1960s whereby there were numerous anti-war protests, Civil Rights protests, and significant expansion of the ability to express oneself.  This culminated in the famous 1971 case of New York Times vs. United States, whereby the Supreme Court effectively banned pre-publication censorship. 

If we fast forward to today, the Woke Movement and Black Lives Matter bear striking resemblance to prior episodes in U.S. history of attempts to ban opposite points of view.  They argue that any point of view that differs from them, should be banned.  They believe that any public icon they find distasteful should be removed from view, including those of Thomas Jefferson, who famously wrote The Declaration of Independence.  They demand that those who publish points of view that differ should find their works removed from both physical and online bookstores.  They pressure institutions in order that people who argue against their points of view in academia or the media should be fired.  If one steps back and examines these points of view, they bear striking resemblance to those under the Alien & Sedition Acts as well as McCarthyism during the 1950s.  For America, these arguments appear to have come full circle back to the fundamental disagreements in the country that began almost 250 years ago.

Should the Civil Rights leaders of the 1960s or those who allied themselves with these leaders at that time, such as the ACLU, examine recent actions by these groups, they would view such attempts to suppress speech and publications as counter to the basic freedoms for which they fought.  In fact, such actions stand counter to much of the philosophy espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King, who focused on equality of opportunity and basic civil rights, harking back to the basic philosophy annunciated in The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution.  This approach led to much of the success of the Civil Rights movement and the adoption of many of the policies it espoused by the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s against much opposition, as Congress acted and the country moved to right past wrongs.  Dr. King most famously stated his view in his I Have A Dream speech, where he laid out his ideal of a color blind America:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

 I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”

I Have A Dream
Dr. Martin Luther King, 1963

As occurred in past instances of suppression of basic freedoms, a counter-movement has arisen to bring focus back to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  Various organizations, across the political spectrum, have allied to open up debate and once more allow freedom of speech to occur.  New organizations have formed to oppose the teaching that some racial groups are racist just by the color of their skin.  Other groups have formed to enable freedom of publication and oppose the banning of works, both scholarly and fiction, by those that oppose their viewpoint.  What these groups possess in common is a belief in The Bill of Rights and a long line of Supreme Court cases upholding these basic freedoms that stretches back over 100 years.  They hark back to the Jeffersonian tradition, as stated in The Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”.  And they believe in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure 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.  

As has occurred time and time again in U.S. history, those that hold these truths to be self-evident have fought back to re-establish the basic freedoms as granted in The Bill of Rights.  And once again, it appears the pendulum has begun to swing towards expanding the basic freedoms of expression including speech and the press.  With the pendulum moving once more, as evidenced in recent elections, it appears the motto of The United States of America, E Pluribus Unum, “Out of Many One”, with its cacophony of viewpoints which turns into a soaring symphony, is moving into ascendance once more.

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