Commentary - Striving for American Ideals
Early in our nation’s history the concept of equality and freedom in religion and thought was the cornerstone of something new in the world.
On March 4, 1681, King Charles II of England granted William Penn forty-five thousand acres to pay a 6,000 pound debt owed to Penn’s father, an admiral in the British Navy. Penn, a Quaker, believed that “no people can be truly happy if abridged of the freedom of their consciences” and opened Pennsylvania to Quakers, Protestants, Catholics and Jews all of whom were suffering from religious persecution. Significantly, Quakers also called the Society of Friends held to the notion that all men were created equal. These concepts have taken a while to develop from those early roots. And we continue to have a ways to go.
Still under British rule, in 1735, Andrew Hamilton persuaded a jury to acquit John Peter Zenger of criminal charges of seditious libel critical of New York’s royal Governor William Cosby on the grounds that truth is a defense against libel.
On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence, with its eloquent assertion “all men are created equal.”
Quaker’s from New Jersey, Delaware, Western Maryland and Western Virginia met with Pennsylvania Quakers in October 1783 and signed a petition delivered to Congress on October 8, 1783 pleading that Congress not permit the renewal the African slave trade after the Revolution from England, stating that it was “contrary to every humane and righteous consideration, an in opposition to the solemn declarations ofted repeated in favour of universal liberty” and was “so obvious an Evil.” The petition failed.
Patrick Henry said “I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil” and yet he held slaves. In the summer of 1787, as the first governor of Virginia, he opposed the ratification of the Constitution without the Bill of Rights to safeguard the basic civil rights of the individual, that Virginian James Madison was principally responsible for drafting. The Bill of Rights, which was introduced to Congress in 1789 and adopted on December 15, 1791, includes the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The First Amendment text reads:
“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 took much longer to begin to see light, where all people would be treated equally. Even Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Emancipation on January 1, 1863 only declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the southern rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free”, ignoring the slaves in Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, and Maryland.
It was not until December 6, 1865 that the 13th Amendment was ratified, stating in part:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Using the police and courts, so many were convicted back into involuntary servitude with a significant and disparate impact upon African Americans, helping to fuel the nation’s first prison boom with convict-leasing. The Virginia Supreme Court in 1871, in the case of Ruffin v Commonwealth, explained that convicts were “slaves of the State.” The court stated “They are the slaves of the State undergoing punishment for heinous crimes committed against the laws of the land. While in this state of penal servitude, they must be subject to the regulations of the institution of which they are inmates, and the laws of the State to whom their service is due in expiation of their crimes.”
Over the last 200 years, the principles of these fundamental rights continue to be ironed out. Often with appalling failures.
However, by 2020, it was well established that the freedom of individuals to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state explained Supreme Court Justice Brennan in Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 461-63, 107 S. Ct. 2502, 2509-10 (1987). In another case, Supreme Court Justice Powell explained in a concurring opinion, “a properly trained officer may reasonably be expected to “exercise a higher degree of restraint” than the average citizen, and thus be less likely to respond belligerently to “fighting words.” Lewis v. New Orleans, 415 U.S. 130, 135, 94 S. Ct. 970, 973 (1974). And yet these lofty ideals continue to be regularly violated.
As a society, we will continue to see failures, but we must continue to strive to meet the ideals, one decision and one act at a time. Civil rights law firms like Thomas H. Roberts & Associates, PC seek to move the nation forward towards those ideals, holding government officials accountable when they ignore their obligations or infringe upon those liberties.