Liberty and justice under the rule of law are primary American principles. Our struggle to understand and execute them in our country never stops.
A beautiful and up to date restatement of how our Democracy should work comes from our former President, Harry S. Truman, in a little known address he made to Missouri Bar enrollees almost 60 years ago. The challenges faced by our Democracy are the same today as when President Truman spoke in 1958. Update his references to “communism” to “terrorism” and this could be a modern “State of the Union” address. His address is quoted as follows as it was printed in the June 1958 and November 2014 issues of the Journal of the Missouri Bar.
“I do not consider myself adequately equipped to make a full and complete discussion of the Constitution, but I have been interested in it for many a long day. You can read it every day, and a hundred times besides, and you will always find something you haven’t seen in it before. You know, it took the Supreme Court of the United States 150 years to find the word “welfare” in the Constitution. And if it takes the Supreme Court that long to discover something in it, what chance does the average man have?
The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are now assembled in one place for display and safekeeping. We venerate these documents not because they are old, not because they are valuable historical relics, but because they still have meaning for us. It was about 166 years ago that the Bill of Rights was ratified, but it is still pointing the way to greater freedom and greater opportunities for human happiness. So long as we govern our nation by the letter and by the spirit of the Bill of Rights, we can be sure that our nation will grow in strength and wisdom and freedom.
Everyone who holds office in the Federal government or in the government of one of our states takes an oath to support the Constitution of the United States. I have taken such an oath many times; including the two times I took the special oath required of the President of the United States.
It actually says “to support and defend” the Constitution. Every lawyer subscribes to that oath when he is admitted to the Bar.
This oath we take has a deep significance. Its simple words compress a lot of our history and a lot of our philosophy of government into one small space. In many countries, men swear to be loyal to their king, or their nation. Here we promise to uphold and defend a document.
This is because the document sets forth our idea of government. And beyond this, with the Declaration of Independence, it expresses our idea of man and his place in the world. We believe that man should be free. And these documents establish a system under which man can be free and set up a framework to protect and expand this freedom.
The longer I live, the more I am impressed by the significance of our simple official oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. Perhaps it takes a lifetime of experience to understand how much the Constitution means in our national life.
You can read about the Constitution, and you can study it in books, but the Constitution in not merely a matter of words. The Constitution is a living force – and it is a growing thing.
The Constitution belongs to no one group of people and to no single branch of the government. We acknowledge our judges as the interpreters of the Constitution, but our Executive branch and our Legislative branch alike operate within its framework and must apply it and its principles in all they do.
The Constitution expresses an idea that belongs to the people – the idea of the free man. What this idea means may vary from time to time. There was a time when people believed the Constitution meant that men could not be prevented from exploiting child labor or paying sweatshop wages. We no longer believe these things. We have discovered that the Constitution does not prevent us from correcting social injustice, or advancing the general welfare.
As we look toward the future, we must be sure that what we honor and venerate in these documents is not their words alone, but the ideas of liberty which they express.
We have treated these documents themselves with the utmost respect. We have used every device that modern science has invented to protect and preserve them. But we must face the fact that all this pomp and circumstance could be the exact opposite of what we intend. If the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were enshrined in the Archives Building, but no where else, they would be dead. They would be just so many papers in a glass case.
The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration can live only as long as they are enshrined in our hearts and our minds. If they are not so enshrined, they would be no better than mummies, and they could in time become idols whose worship would be a grim mockery of the true faith. Only as these documents are reflected in the thoughts and acts of American’s can they remain symbols of a power that can move the world.
Today, the ideals which these three documents express are having to struggle for survival throughout the world. When we sealed the Declaration and the Constitution in the Library of Congress, I had something to say about the threat of totalitarianism and communism. That threat still menaces freedom. The struggle against communism is just as crucial, just as demanding, as it was then.
We are uniting the strength of free men against this threat. We are resisting communist aggression, and we will continue to resist the communist threat with all our will and with all our strength.
But the idea of freedom is in danger from others as well as the communists. There are some who hate communism, but who, at the same time, are unwilling to acknowledge the ideals of the Constitution as the supreme law of the land. And that is going on right now in some parts of this country.
They are people who believe it is too dangerous to proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants. What these people really believe in is that the Preamble to the Constitution ought to be changed from “We, the people” to read “Some of us – some of the people of the United States, but not including those we disapprove of or disagree with – do ordain and establish this Constitution.”
Thank God, that is not what it says. It says, “We, the people” for the welfare of the whole population, and not just one segment of it.
Whether they know it or not, those people who believe in special privilege are enclosing the spirit, as well as the letter, of the original Constitution in a glass case, sealed off from the living nation. They are turning it into a mummy, as dead as some old Pharaoh of Egypt, and in so doing they are giving aid and comfort to the enemies of democracy.
The First Article of the Bill of Rights provides that Congress shall make no law respecting freedom of worship or abridging freedom of opinion. There are some among us who seem to feel that this provision goes too far, even for the purpose of preventing tyranny over the mind of man. Of course, there are dangers in religious freedom and in freedom of opinion. But to deny these rights is worse than dangerous; it is absolutely fatal to liberty. The external threat to liberty should not drive us into suppressing liberty at home. Those who want the government to regulate matters of the mind and spirit are like men who are so afraid of being murdered that they commit suicide to avoid assassination.
Invasion and conquest by communist armies would be a horror beyond our capacity to imagine. But invasion and conquest by communist ideal of right and wrong would be just as bad.
For us to embrace the methods of morals of communism in order to defeat communist aggression would be moral disaster worse than any physical catastrophe. If that should come to pass, then the Constitution and the Declaration would be utterly dead. But I do not believe it will come to pass. On the contrary, I believe that every day every one of us is re-dedicating himself to the ideal of liberty.
Since 1789 we have learned much about controlling the physical world around us. Perhaps our progress in learning the art of government has not been spectacular, but I, for one, believe the great experiment that we call the United States of America has taught much to mankind. We know more than our forefathers did about the maintenance of popular liberty. Hence, it should be easier, not harder, for us to preserve the spirit of the Republic, not in a marble shrine, but in human hearts. We have the knowledge; the question is, have we the will to apply it.
We cannot talk too much about liberty. It costs too much to get, and you cannot get it by asking for it. It takes blood and sweat and tears, as Sir Winston Churchill used to say, to get it, and it takes that to maintain it.
Whether we will preserve and extend popular liberty is a very serious question, but, after all, it is a very old question. The men who signed the Declaration faced it. So did those who wrote the Constitution. Each succeeding generation has faced it, and so far each succeeding generation has answered yes. I am sure that our generation will give the same answer.”