On June 21, 1788 when the Constitution was ratified, it provided a mere framework for the government of the United States. Even with the Bill of Rights in place, it did not start off as a document ensuring liberty and justice for all, not by a long shot.
The U.S. was still seventy-five years and a bloody civil war away from abolishing slavery, and people of color would still not gain full Civil Rights (1964) for another century. Women had a one hundred thirty-two year fight ahead of them before gaining the right to vote. Native Americans would suffer genocide, imprisonment, oppression, carrying on a battle for fully vested citizenship and the right to self-determination that lasts until this day. Gay rights would receive no recognition for two centuries. And, when we arrive at the year 2020, two hundred and thirty-two years after its signing, our Constitution still does not recognize the rights of the land itself, the fresh water, clean air and abundant resources we so aggressively coveted. That’s been left up to the E.P.A. and we’ve just seen how easily a president can undermine their purpose.
At best, the U.S. Constitution and the government it defines is still a work in progress. But, it all began with well-stated idealism authored by a man who believed every word he wrote. So lofty were Jefferson’s ideals that he was unable to achieve them in his own life. But, what he wrote in 1776 led to a paradigm shift. Those same words could, and should, inspire us to the same goal today to upend the status quo that enfolds the inaction on the climate crisis and that has been tragically exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
America’s Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War that made it stick defined a new world order. And not just because an upstart group of colonies defeated and won independence from the mighty British Empire. The true revolution was not just freedom from tyranny but freedom based on “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It was a revolution of mind, body and spirit and the words that spearheaded it flowed from the progeny of evolved human enlightenment.
John Adams and Benjamin Franklin pressed Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence not because he was the most outspoken of the Continental Congress. If they were merely looking for a loud passionate voice they’d have turned to Patrick Henry (“give me liberty or give me death”). They knew that Jefferson, though only thirty-three years old at the time, was more prepared than any man they knew to write a document that would lay the groundwork for an entirely new kind of government – a new way of thinking about government. As Lincoln called it four score and seven year later, “a government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
Jefferson did not come up with the ideas he framed in the Declaration of Independence all by himself. As Adams and Franklin knew, he was a devoted scholar. He spoke English, French, German and Italian. He’d studied Olde English and Latin at an early age, a pre-requisite to studying English Common Law. Later he taught himself to read Greek so that he could read Homer and Aristotle in the original.
Jefferson was a gatherer of ideas, particularly ideas leading to new ways of thinking. His heroes were Sir Francis Bacon, the father of empiricism, English Philosopher John Locke who wrote extensively about the rights of the governed and Isaac Newton, the most influential scientist of modern times. He read everything he could get his hands on, creating a library that became the foundation for the Library of Congress. Jefferson’s studies of English law took him all the way back to the Magna Carta. Written originally in Latin in 1215, Magna Carta Libertatum — the ‘Great Charter of Freedoms’ –established the rights of individuals.
Jefferson, like his contemporary, Jean-Jacque Rousseau, distilled the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment into the revolutionary concept of a ‘social contract’ –- the basic idea that government needs to be founded on an agreement between the government and those that are governed. Though Rousseau was first to use the term, Jefferson was the first to apply it. Paragraph two of the Declaration of Independence: “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”
Though he had to suffer through its editing by the other Founding Fathers, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence not only became the foundation for the U.S. Constitution, it inspired freedom-seekers around the world. After helping win America’s Revolutionary War, General Lafayette returned to a France already embroiled in its own fight for liberty and justice. When Jefferson showed up as a U.S. Ambassador, Lafayette sought his help in writing The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which would eventually — after recovering from the bloody mess Napoleon made of it — become a cornerstone for a French Democratic Republic.
Clearly Jefferson’s well-studied philosophies described the way forward, but let’s look at what started it. In Jefferson’s words: “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
The colonists were pissed off. The Stamp Act of 1765, the Tea Act of 1773 and British-enriching fees and tariffs on every part of their lives were markers on the road to revolt. But, it went deeper. In Virginia, colonists participated in the House of Burgess which was supposed to give them a role in enacting colonial laws. But, it was a sham. The Royal Governor of Virginia could chose to accept or deny any laws passed by the colonists, either on a whim or as directed by King George III and his Royal Court. American colonists understood all to clearly that they held no rights to self-determination.
And here we are in 2020 where our government’s ineffectiveness is as nakedly apparent as the crack in the Liberty Bell, and our president fancy himself to be a beloved king. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed our country’s tragic flaws and inadequacies like nothing we’ve seen in the past fifty years. Not since the Civil Rights Movement confronted the country’s systemic racial discrimination . . . not since anti-war demonstrations brought the energy of young peace-loving Americans face-to-face with the military industrial complex . . . not since outspoken scientists like Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) inspired environmental outrage has this country been more in need of addressing the crumbling foundation of our democracy.
The cause of the fractures half a century ago was the same as it is today – unchecked capitalism manifested as corporate greed. Perhaps the greed itself is human nature, but when the government enables and insures the ballooning wealth of corporate billionaires at the expense of the common people it shatters the bindings of our social contract.
We did not agree that corporations should be bailed out while essential workers face the perils of the pandemic without the assurance of national healthcare, and without the promise of livable wages, much less hazard pay. We did not consent to states having to do battle with the federal government to acquire lifesaving protective gear for frontline medical workers. Nor did we grow up believing in an America where the richest 10% make nine times more money than the total incomes of the other 90% of the people.
The federal government’s inept response to the coronavirus pandemic is costing thousands of lives – possibly more than 100,000 before this is all over. As tragic as these losses are, they might help save lives in the future. The pandemic is, unfortunately, merely a warm-up round for the greater battle we face –- a battle we might have been halfway to winning if we hadn’t been hamstrung by a government focused on lopsided capitalism rather than a healthy planet.
For years we’ve been hit by hurricanes super-charged by warming oceans. The Midwest and South have been flooded out repeatedly by torrential rains that were previously considered ‘100 year events’. The West had been scorched by wildfires that have consumed 363,000 square miles of our forests just in the past decade. Until COVID-19 showed up our headlines were filled with climate-related crisis. We’re all well aware of the global warming and the cause.
As David Wallace-Wells points out in ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ our reckless use of fossil fuels over the past hundred and fifty years has spewed CO2 and other greenhouse gas pollutants into our atmosphere. It has ‘weaponized the environment’. The devastation we’ve already witnessed is just the beginning. As oceans continue to warm and ice caps melt global weather patterns will shift dramatically. While some parts of the world will experience severe and repeated flooding, others will be wiped out by endless droughts. Climate scientists predict that up to three billion people will be living in places with “near un-liveable” temperatures by 2070.
Each element of the climate crisis, including mass extinction events among animals and insects, will eventually generate a climate cascade, “waterfalls and avalanches of devastation, the planet pummeled again and again, with increasing intensity and in ways that build on each other and undermine our ability to respond.”
These dire forecasts are nothing new. We’ve known about the climate crisis for four decades and we’ve known all along that humans are the cause. But, in this country we’ve cared so little about the warnings we have failed over and over again to elect politicians committed to climate action. The climate crisis wasn’t mentioned even one single time during the 2016 presidential debates. Not one single time.
Maybe the massive health crisis we’re going through now will perhaps liberate us from our collective complacency. Like Louise Erdrich said in her recent novel, The Night Watchman, “Government is like sex. When it’s good you take it for granted. When it’s bad, it’s all you can think about.”
Thomas Jefferson wrote:
“. . . when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
In addition to being a scientist, a historian, an empirical philosopher and a linguist, Jefferson was an architect. As much as he enjoyed it, he was never completely satisfied with his designs for Monticello. He was a perpetual re-modeler. When a given room didn’t meet his needs, he tore it out and started over again. He was convinced the same thing should apply to government.
Our government is due for a major remodeling. Just as Jefferson never tore down the entire mansion when a room or two didn’t suit him, we need to take the same approach. There is much that works in our Constitution and in our representative form of government. But money has perpetually tipped the scales. And we haven’t just quietly let that happen. Voters keep putting millionaires and billionaires in office as though their wealth is all the evidence we need of their superior knowledge and credibility. On average, members of Congress are five times richer than the median-income American. And, of course, look at who’s in the White House.
Historian Jeremy Lent wrote recently, “Studies of past civilizations show that all the major criteria that predictably lead to civilizational collapse are currently confronting us: climate change, environmental degradation, rising inequality, and escalation in societal complexity. As societies begin to unravel, they have to keep running faster and faster to remain in the same place, until finally an unexpected shock arrives and the whole edifice disintegrates.”
The irony of the current presidential campaign should not be lost on us. The candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders who called for ‘big structural change’ in our government lost. Just after their campaigns ended we were hit with a calamity of epic proportions – one necessitating a massive federal response. But, we cannot let that irony reverse our direction.Whether it’s the Green New Deal or some other blueprint for a major remodeling of government systems, we will not come out of this crisis without bold moves. We have, at best, ten years to shift our entire economy from fossil fuel to renewable energy and all our plans must be founded on social justice. Our children’s future depends on it. So, we cannot let our government go back to business as usual. We can no longer afford the fantasy that the wealthy will willingly share, much less believe that they should lead.
Thomas Jefferson said: “I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”