Zane: This Fourth, celebrating the splendor of our flexible freedoms

July 1, 2014 

There is no way, no how the Founding Fathers would have supported gay marriage. You have to imagine something before you can ponder it, and the idea of two men or two women getting hitched was not on the table in 18th (or 19th or almost all of 20th) century America.

Nevertheless, following public opinion, courts around the country are ruling that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right.

Some call this a betrayal of our hallowed past. In fact, the constitutional enshrinement of same-sex marriage is one more fulfillment of the founders’ vision, encapsulating the genius of Jefferson, Franklin, Madison and their Colonial pals.

It reflects their profound, yet widely misunderstood, understanding of freedom.

For all our sophistication, we modern Americans see freedom as a static concept defined by bedrock rights – including freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship, etc. We cast our history as the struggle to reach the endpoint set forth by our founders. The historian Gordon S. Wood reflected this idea in a recent essay when he observed that, “Our noblest ideals and highest aspirations – our beliefs in liberty, equality and individual rights, including the right of every person to pursue happiness – came out of the Declaration of Independence.”

The founders understood that freedom is a journey without a final destination. It is not the long march to The Land of Noble Ideals and Highest Aspirations. Freedom is not an ultimate state of being, but a never-ending process of becoming. It is a means, not an end. It is dynamic and evolving. It is nothing more or less than the capacity of a system to adapt, evolve and change.

We tend to cast freedom of speech and assembly as protections for unpopular views – let the Nazis march! – but their true value is in inspiring us to articulate new ways to remake our nation.

We misconstrue the Founders Fathers when we see them as secular versions of Moses.

Their great gifts to us – the soaring rhetoric of the Declaration and the enduring system of government laid out in the U.S. Constitution – may articulate as many eternal truths as the Ten Commandments. But their genius lay in the open-ended flexibility of their work. Miraculously, they resisted the temptation to trap and tie us down, offering us their wisdom without imposing their views upon us forever.

Nothing could be clearer than the Mosaic commandments “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” But what exactly do we mean by liberty? Or equality? Or justice? What the heck is “pursuit of happiness”?

Barrels of ink have been devoted to exploring the “hypocritical” failure of the founders to live their ideals. That critique has merit, but it misses the point. Their prescience was in setting forth the correct terms of the debate. They understood, at least implicitly, that it is the duty of each generation to define those concepts for itself.

They created a system of government suffused with the freedom to adapt and change. Then they put the ball in our court. Franklin was addressing one Philadelphia woman but was speaking to history when he said the founders had given America “a Republic, if you can keep it.”

Lincoln captured the beauty and difficulty of this never finished experiment in his Gettysburg Address. In the beginning, he describes the founders’ vision of a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Then he proclaims “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

A new birth was necessary because justice and equality had acquired a new meaning for many Americans. Sadly, we had to fight a bloody war to change. In the decades since, that hard, and sometimes violent, struggle has continued.

Lincoln got at the heart of the matter – and expressed the signature achievement of the founders – in his final sentence when he declared “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

It is that vibrant idea of freedom – of a nation built on the consent of the governed that can stay true to its core principles only by adapting and reinventing itself time and again in accord with the changing desires and values of its people – that makes us exceptional.

On July 4, let’s raise a glass not just to the founders but to all who have followed them, including ourselves, who enjoy not just the blessings but the responsibility of freedom.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at

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